Sara Amy Leach, Senior Historian
National Cemetery Administration
Department of Veterans Affairs
National Cemeteries: Post-Civil War Landscapes in Transition
The system of designed national cemeteries that President Lincoln authorized in 1862 evolved in form and formality throughout the second half of the nineteenth century in the wake of the Civil War. Visitors no longer see the small cemeteries of less than 10 acres with their generous open space, natural and managed plantings, clusters of domestic buildings occupied by resident superintendents, and ornamental and symbolic artifacts sprinkled throughout the sites. These scenes are captured only in early drawings, photographs and written accounts.
The first impermanent generation of wooden structures—buildings, fencing, and head boards to mark graves—lasted less than a decade. Osage orange hedges, floral beds or mounds, and grassy walks somewhat longer. Memorial monuments—large and small, erected by friends, regiments and states—were installed to honor the fallen. By the 1870s permanent cemetery features were underway. The most significant construction was the masonry Second Empire-style lodge credited to Montgomery Meigs; others include a brick tool house and “comfort station,” brick or stone walls, and iron gates. Cemetery layouts were influenced by militaristic orderliness as well as, in some locations, the design ideals of contemporary cemeteries and advice from designer Frederick L. Olmsted.
However, starting in the twentieth century, these secular, honorific landscapes were increasingly reduced to dense burial sections highlighted by underutilized historic lodges and rostrums. Even the most historic cemeteries run by the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) today reflect the priority of burial needs over the preservation of historic landscape aesthetics; this is particularly apparent at “expanded” sites where newer sections do not complement original designs. It is NCA’s mission to provide burials to veterans and eligible family members, and to achieve this we continue to develop new cemeteries or enlarge older properties. Among NCA’s 128 national cemeteries are 72 sites that date to the early 1870s.
This presentation will document the changing physical and memorial nature of NCA’s national cemeteries during the decades immediately after the Civil War, starting with the collection of the human remains and their relocation to permanent burial grounds. The developmental era of the cemeteries—associated with modest, impermanent facilities—closes once permanent masonry constructions are complete. By the dawn of the twentieth century these designed landscapes reinforced early recognition of the national cemeteries as “national shrines” in locations where the war played out.