Honoring those who died for their country and those who died after their service is one of the most sacred duties of a nation. Let’s take a look at the history of U.S. military cemeteries and some resources for family historians.
Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 64
You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 10 minutes.
A Short History of National Cemeteries in the U.S.
Although the United States was essentially founded through a military conflict, the first national cemeteries weren’t formed until 1861, when the federal government realized that the Civil War wasn’t going to be over in just a few weeks.
Originally, these cemeteries were only for those who had died “in service to their country,” meaning Union soldiers and sailors who were killed in action or died in hospital. In 1873, eligibility opened up for all honorably discharged U.S. veterans.
The earliest national cemeteries were located in or near existing cemeteries. For example, Nashville National Cemetery is right across the street from Spring Hill Cemetery. In some cases, you might not even realize that there are two different cemeteries. I noticed this several years ago when I visited Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky. As I was strolling the grounds, I came across what I at first thought was just a veterans section. Upon closer examination, however, I found that what I was looking at was Lexington National Cemetery. The main cemetery grew up around it, and now it looks like all one cemetery.
Civil War Burials in National Cemeteries
Burial in a national cemetery wasn’t always straightforward for those who died in the Civil War. Men were often buried first near the battlefield or makeshift hospital. It wasn’t until the closing of the war and afterward that they would be disinterred from the battlefield cemetery and reburied in a national cemetery. This backbreaking and sometimes gruesome work often fell to regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops. If you ever visit Stones River National Cemetery in Tennessee, you’ll see the graves of soldiers who died not only at the battle of Stones River, but Murfreesboro, Franklin, and many other battles in the region. Those men were first buried near those battlefields. In 1865 and 1866, members of the 111th US Colored Troops were assigned to move their bodies to Stones River National Cemetery.
You might be wondering how the army kept track of who was who. The sad answer is that they didn’t always. The original battlefield graves were often unmarked or unidentified, which makes sense when you think about the logistics of having to bury so many men in a very short period of time. Those that were marked often had a simple wooden marker. These wooden markers often eroded or rotted away or the paint that was used faded into nothing. The National Park Service estimates that more than half of Union soldiers buried in National cemeteries are classified as “unknown.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a webpage for each of the national cemeteries. The National Park Service also has webpages for many of the Civil War era national cemeteries. I highly encourage you to explore those for background on the cemeteries where your ancestors are buried.
American Military Cemeteries Outside the United States
Not all American military cemeteries are in the United States. The American Battle Monuments Commission manages 26 permanent cemeteries in 17 countries. These cemeteries are the final resting place for almost 31,000 Americans who died in World War I and almost 93,000 who died in World War II.
I had the privilege to visit the American Cemetery at Normandy. I’ve been to countless cemeteries, including all kinds of military cemeteries, and I have to say that I was not prepared for Normandy. It hit me even more than Arlington, even though Arlington is much larger. Standing at Normandy and seeing row after row after row after row of graves… and then realizing that almost all of them died within a few weeks of each other…
I also had the privilege of visiting the American Cemetery in Luxembourg. It was somber and peaceful in a different way than Normandy. The graves are in gentle arcs and at the front is the grave of General George Patton, who is buried alone, facing the troops. It’s almost poetic.
The American Battle Monuments Commission has an online database of those who are buried in the cemeteries that it maintains, along with the names of the missing who are inscribed on ABMC monuments.
State Veterans Cemeteries
The federal government is not the only one who manages military cemeteries. Most states have veterans cemeteries, many of them operated in conjunction with state veterans homes. Eligibility to be buried in these cemeteries varies from state to state, but there is usually some sort of residency requirement.
Clues for Finding Veteran Burials
Obviously, not all veterans are buried in a military cemetery. The majority are buried in private or family cemeteries. I compiled a list of 10 sources to use for finding where your Civil War ancestor is buried. Some of the sources are Civil War-specific, but others are good no matter the time period you’re working with.
I encourage you to seek out the graves of your veteran ancestors. The experience can be quite humbling and can serve as a strong connection to those who came before.
Amy – another source for military cemeteries is the Nationwide Gravesite Locator (gravelocator.cem.va.gov).
My late neighbor served in the U.S. Army at the end of WWII. One of his jobs was building a National Cemetery on Okinawa. It was never used to the best of my knowledge because the war ended suddenly in August 1945.
Hi, Amy. — I really enjoy your podcasts! This episode on Military Cemeteries landed in my Podcast listening app at just the right moment. Here’s why…
I am currently volunteering with the Stories Behind the Stars (http://www.storiesbehindthestars.org ) project. This is a national, non-profit effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII troops who died and post their stories on Fold3.com. You may already have heard about this program.
For my part in this effort, I’m researching and writing stories for as many of the troops who died that were from the Flagstaff, Arizona area, as I can. I have written and posted four stories so far (see example, 2nd Lt. Bobby Joe Williams – https://www.fold3.com/page/638212490/bobby-j-williams ). Three of the four young men are buried or memorialized in National Cemeteries. Of those, 2nd Lt. Williams’ remains were interred first in a German military cemetery then moved to a National Cemetery in the Netherlands, and finally, to Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, TX.
So, thank you for highlighting the importance of National Cemeteries and for reminding all of us to honor and remember those who gave their lives for our nation.
Thank you so much for mentioning how beautiful Lexington cemetery is! It is a national arboretum as well. We used to go there on Sunday’s with my grandmothers in the 1950’s and the women would tend the graves ( an old Southern tradition), and I would play under the large trees. We would stop at the large ponds afterward to see the swans and ducks. It is a very old cemetery too, with tombs imbedded in the hillside of one part.
Next to the Luxembourg Military Cemetery is a German Military Cemetery. The contrast between the two is very striking! I visited the area several times while stationed in Germany in the late 1970’s. Many in the German cemetery were as young as age 13!
For those with British ancestors, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (https://www.cwgc.org) has lots of information, including grave registration certificates. Fortunately none of my American cousins died while in service during WWII, Korea, or Vietnam.