Civil War Gave Birth to National Cemeteries

Article excerpt

Finding appropriate burial grounds became essential during the war to inter 300,000 Union dead. As a 150th anniversary remembrance, here is how it all started.

At the Civil War's onset, it became quickly apparent that cemeteries were going to be in great demand as casualties mounted. An act of Congress on July 17, 1862, authorized President Abraham Lincoln to purchase grounds for use as national cemeteries to bury Union soldiers. Confederate dead would not be so fortunate, relying on states to perform that fonction.

Before, soldiers were typically buried at the site of death or in a military post cemetery. But the always-increasing body count in the Civil War was too great to be handled in such an outdated manner.

In her book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust writes about Jeremiah Gage of the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment as he lay dying at Gettysburg. He wrote a letter to his mom telling her not to feel bad that she would not be able to bring his body home. He said instead he wanted "to be buried like my comrades. But deep, boys deep, so the beasts won't get me."

Fourteen cemeteries were established in 1862 in Alexandria, Va.; Annapolis, Md.; Sharpsburg, Md.; Springfield, Ill.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Danville, Ky.; Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.; Fort Scott, Kan.; Keokuk, Iowa; Baltimore; Nancy, Ky.; New Albany, Ind.; Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Arlington National Cemetery opened on May 13, 1864, with the burial of Pvt. William L. Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Interestingly enough, before the Civil War the land where Arlington is located belonged to Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anne Randolph Custis- a granddaughter of George Washington. However, once Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, the Union Army occupied the property and used it as an encampment to defend Washington, D.C.

At the war's end, the Quartermaster Department had to recover and identify the remains of all Union soldiers buried haphazardly on the battlefields. For nearly five grueling years, searchers walked nearly every inch of battlefields, hospital and prison sites and along miles of shoreline in search of bodies.

Those found were buried in national cemeteries Linless claimed by family members for private burial.

The Reburial Program- as it was called- came to an end in 1870. It cost the government some $4 million to locate 299,696 Union soldiers and re-inter their remains in 73 national cemeteries. Only 58% of these remains were identified. (In the South, private groups brought home Confederate bodies left to decompose on the battlefield. Not all Southern soldiers were returned, but remains were found as late as 1996.)

The task was daunting. The Civil War pre-dated dog tags so identification was next to impossible in many cases.

Some soldiers wrote their names on paper and placed it in a sealed bottle and carried it into battle. Others pinned their names, written on pieces of fabric, to their clothes.


The National Cemetery Act was enacted Feb. 22, 1867. The act provided $750,000 in funding for the construction of these cemeteries. But it was not until 1870 that the national cemeteries we know today were carefully planned.

One of the first changes was to replace wooden headstones with marble ones. …