National Cemeteries: “The Evolution of Government Headstones and Markers”
Jennifer M. Perunko, Historian
National Cemetery Administration
The history of government headstones pre-dates the establishment of the National Cemetery System in 1862, to the Western Expansion-days of the United States when military forces served mainly as a constabulary, policing the ever-expanding frontiers across Indian border lands. In the normal course of events, soldiers died and garrison commanders were compelled to bury their dead, mainly in cemetery plots within post reservations, but sometimes where they fell far from human settlements. In time, a fairly uniform method of marking burials with impermanent, rounded-top wooden boards bearing a registration number or inscription developed.
Although this system may have been adequate for frontier times, it could scarcely meet the needs of a National Army that came into being at the beginning of the Civil War. Two months after the Battle of Bull Run, the War Department issued General Orders No. 75, September 11, 1861, which made commanders of National Forces responsible for burials and marking of graves. In this same authority, the Quartermaster General of the Army was directed to provide headboards, and blank books and forms for the preservation of burial records. On paper at least, the War Department created the first organized system of marking graves.
However, marking graves during wartime proved more difficult than supposed and little in the way of grave marking was actually carried out. By the close of the Civil War, the federal government was faced with approximately 620,000 Union and Confederate dead scattered across more than 20 states. After the work to locate, identify to the extent possible, and move the dead from battlefields to national cemeteries and soldiers’ lots in private cemeteries, the War Department was faced with the problem of how to honorably mark the soldiers’ graves for perpetuity.
Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs championed for some time a squat metal marker with an inscription in raised lettering on the top, which was not looked upon favorably from many quarters. Had this been carried out, the look and feel of the national cemeteries would have been vastly different than what we see today. Some families often took it upon themselves to mark the graves of their loved ones with everything from simple stone slab markers with only the soldier’s name inscribed, to large, ornate monumental works in stone and metal.
Finally in June 1873, the stone marker (either white marble or gray granite) inscribed with the soldier’s name—abbreviated if necessary—, rank (above private), military affiliation (state or USA/USN for regular Army/Navy) and grave number was decided upon. No mention was made of the recessed-shield that would come to define the Civil War headstone and have such a visual impact on the national cemeteries. A low square, 6” x 6” stone marker, inscribed with a grave number on top was selected to mark the graves of unknown soldiers.
Bidding began later that same year by persons interested to supplying the federal government with the more than 250,000 headstones needed to mark the graves of Union soldiers. The process was not easy, with charges of favoritism and backroom dealings on the part of the Secretary of War William Belknap. In 1867, a Congressional inquiry was conducted to determine the extent of the malfeasance. However, by that time Belknap had resigned his position and the current secretary of war had issued an order transferring the entire management of national cemeteries and the headstone contracts to the Quartermaster General. By the early 1880s, the majority of the graves in national cemeteries and soldiers lots had been marked with the “Civil War”—or more-aptly “Recessed-shield”—headstone.
This presentation will further document the development of the iconic “Recessed-shield” headstone, and the headstones and markers that followed for use in the national cemeteries, Confederate cemeteries and soldiers’ lots, and in the marking of all graves for U.S. military veterans up to the present day.