Sunday, May 25, 2008

The National Cemeteries

Tomorrow being Memorial Day in the United States, there will be ceremonies and events at national cemeteries across the country to remember those who have fallen having served their country in the Armed Forces. Memorial Day, as we call it now, came about in the aftermath of America's worst conflict, the Civil War. The first commemoration is unknown. One story has it that freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, began the tradition by re-burying a number of Federal soldiers who had been interred in a mass grave. Supposedly on May 30 of a subsequent year, the freedmen returned and decorated the graves with flowers.

In any event, the first mass attention given to "Decoration Day" came as the result of an "Order" given by Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was a powerful organization of Civil War veterans. [Logan had been an Illinois congressman who resigned his seat to become a colonel of Illinois volunteers in the Civil War. He rose quickly and ended the war as a major general commanding XV Corps in the Carolinas. Logan later returned to Congress, serving in the House and then in the Senate]. His stirring words gave wide exposure to the idea and the traditions of "Decoration Day."

In 1864, Congress had passed a bill that authorized the President to acquire lands for national cemeteries. The Government established fourteen national cemeteries in the first year of authorization. In 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs opened the 141st national cemetery, the South Florida National Cemetery at Lake Worth, Florida.

The 141 national cemeteries have more than 3 million graves, with the potential to grow to 5 million. This is important because today there are more than 24 million veterans eligible for burial in national cemeteries. VA says that historically about 12% of veterans choose a national cemetery.
Left: The nation's busiest National Cemetery at Calverton, New York

The term "national cemetery" refers to lands under the jurisdiction of three different departments. Most (125) of the national cemeteries are run by the Department of Veterans Affairs' National Cemetery Administration. Fourteen are operated by the Department of the Interior's National Park Service. These are cemeteries that are associated with national historic battlefield sites like Gettysburg, with one exception being the national cemetery at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Tennessee. Except for the Andrew Johnson cemetery and the national cemetery at Andersonville, Georgia, all of the National Park Service-run cemeteries are closed to new burials.

Two of the national cemeteries are controlled by the Department of Defense through the Army. These are Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps the most well-known and most visited of the national cemeteries, and the cemetery at the Armed Forces Retirement Home (formerly the Soldiers and Sailors Home) in Washington, D.C.

A view of the National Cemetery maintained by the National Park Service at Andersonville, Georgia

In honoring our fallen troops, we should not forget that some are interred overseas. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 cemeteries in foreign countries which contain the graves of 125,000 Americans.

Genealogy Research Tip: The VA National Cemetery Administration has a nationwide grave locator to find graves of veterans. This contains the names of almost all the veterans buried in VA and National Park Service national cemeteries. In addition, it also has the names of veterans buried in non-government cemeteries for graves marked with a VA-provided marker. One thing not to overlook is that spouses, minor children, and unmarried disabled adult children of eligible veterans can also be interred in national cemeteries, even before the death of the veteran. (I reference, for example, the heart-breaking case of my cousin-by-marriage who has had the misfortune of having outlived two wives, both of whom lie waiting for him in repose at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St Louis). The Park Service is planning to put Civil War veterans grave locations in its excellent Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database. The American Battle Monuments Commission also has a searchable database.

If there is a national cemetery in your area, please pay a visit tomorrow, or any other day, to give your respects to those who have given service to the nation.

Right: The American Battle Monuments Commission's American Cemetery and Memorial at Ardennes, Belgium, contains graves of 5,329 U.S. military dead.

Photo Credits: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration; U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service; American Battle Monuments Commission (an agency of the U.S. Government).

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