This lecture is part of the 2009 Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit

The Evolution of Government Headstones and Markers by Jennifer M. Perunko

Any narrower version of the headstones. They were inconsistent. They were very fragile. The names, depending on the length, were either inscribed flat or they were curved. This continued. Again, more reality not what the specifications would suggest. Fredericksburg is a very interesting case. It’s the only national cemetery that we know of that is all granite headstones. Their shape is particularly different than usual and if you could see through the ground level, you could see that it’s not, it’s not a shaped headstone. It’s raw. Six by six for the unknown. In some cases, and this is Port Hudson, Louisiana, the manufacturers through in some little core emblems. Not sure how that happens. Again, although there’s a spec for six by six unknowns, four unknown remains, here we have it upright and you’ll see a lot of that throughout the cemeteries.

Only granite headstones/blocks appear to be at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Granite quarried locally.

Only granite headstones/blocks appear to be at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Granite quarried locally.

Some of the changes, we’re not entirely sure when this recess shield came into play but the earliest that we can document is eighteen ninety-six. This is the description that Carol Moore, in the quartermaster’s office, came up with where he actually describes the sunken shield at the top of the headstone. Additional information is provided where the mental information, the grave marker moves to the top of the headstone or the back of the headstone. The one thing about the simpler headstones is the conflict. It’s never inscribed Civil War on these.

If you stumble into one of these in the field, and it doesn’t say Spanish-American War, it has to be the Civil War. The other thing is that if you were private, there was no name. If you see somebody with a name and an infantry or something, and there’s no name, he was a private. It’s the absence of information that can actually tell you some things about these.

This is a Civil War product that we believe was in Eunice in the nineteen seventies and eighties and basically, this is this very modern, World War One/Two era headstone that we routed or the army routed, a recessed shield in an effort to replace this style. This has been retired. We should be happy about that and we have. More sympathetic replacement headstones.

There is no fancy lettering, just the name and regiment, date of birth and death, the name and regiment being cut on the face of a sunken shield at the top of the headstone” Colonel J.M. Moore, a high-ranking member of the Quartermaster General’s Office, in a 1896 New York Times article

There is no fancy lettering, just the name and regiment, date of birth and death, the name and regiment being cut on the face of a sunken shield at the top of the headstone

The Spanish-American War comes into play eighteen ninety-eight, or ninety-nine. Whoops, sorry. It’s the same headstone. This is the first time the conflict is inscribed on the headstone, although you can see that it’s not necessarily means a conflict. Spanish-American War is also the first war we repatriated our debt. We brought them back from Philippines.

The Confederates are first allowed to be buried in national cemeteries early in the twentieth century. I believe the first ones were in Arlington. This is a drawing for the headstone for Confederates. Again, it’s the same kind of proportion and the Union. This is the headstone that was put in place, Confederate graves from nineteen oh six to nineteen thirty. This is a nineteen thirty to present headstone.

Confederate burials, we have more of them than one might think. In our national cemeteries we have large quantities in these cemeteries listed here. We also have Confederate-specific ones. Basically, former POW prisons. These are fascinating places. This is Camp Chase, Ohio. As you can see, it’s not just soldiers but they were government employees, sympathizers.

Before we move from the recess shield to what we call the general style headstone today, there was this proto-experimental headstone. These are very rare. It’s a source of fascination for our office. It was, they were created between nineteen seventeen, nineteen twenty-two. It’s a tall, slender version of our headstone. This is the Maltese Cross, which the first time I saw this I thought, “Oh, it’s Confederate headstone but it’s not pointed.” It was very confusing.

Confederate Burials

Confederate Burials

In fact, these were too thin and they were two fragile and their taper. If you have measuring tape it’s a half an inch fatter, wider at the base than the top. There were about twenty-two hundred of these manufactured. We have found maybe ten of them in our cemeteries. These are rare, rare headstones.

They were ultimately unsuccessful and so in twenty-two, the army introduced the general headstone. Basically, it’s for all veterans of World War One and to present. This is based on for instance, if someone served in the Civil War, they died in nineteen thirty, they would still get the recessed shield headstone. It’s not the date of the death of the veteran, but the conflict that they fought in.

There were only two emblems of belief. The Latin cross, which were put in place of the Maltese cross, and the star of David. They were taller than this, wider, thirteen. We used this style of headstone to introduce the medal of honor headstone in nineteen seventy-six. You can see as a cultural landscape observation, this is a row of general headstones that were installed in the nineteen thirties and in the past. Then otherwise Civil War landscape. You can see how much taller they are.

Emblems of belief have been evolving for awhile. Eighteen, nineteen eighteen to nineteen twenty-two, the first emblems were used and basically the Latin cross and the star of David were what the army thought would cover the most, anything the population would want. Be generalist. In nineteen fifty-one, soldiers came back from World War Two and they served in the Pacific. They lobbied for a Buddhist emblem. It started just in the national cemetery. The national memorial cemetery in the Pacific on Hawaii, that it quickly just picked up system-wide.

Then in nineteen seventy-nine, atheism was introduced. After that, the door basically opened and more than thirty emblems have been approved. The most recent is the Wiccan pentacle. Sometimes it takes awhile for things to get approved. The window of time, from fifty-one, I shouldn’t say that. From seventy-nine to very recently, we have sometimes very little history on how these emblems got to be.

In nineteen thirties, flat and flush or flush markers were introduced to accommodate the new style of cemeteries along the memorial types. They came in all three materials, marble, granite and bronze. In national cemeteries, they are limited to certain burial sections. We never have uprights and flat markers in the same sections. We have some all flat cemeteries in the system.

Introduced 1936 to serve Lawn/Memorial type cemeteries and to reduce maintenance

Introduced 1936 to serve Lawn/Memorial type cemeteries and to reduce maintenance

There are group interments by necessity, by for the Civil War we’ll find headstones and say, “There are hundred and fourteen remains,” or, “a name and one unknown.” This is a reinternment. Some US CT soldiers who were moving out of some construction project unrelated to the cemetery. This is Point Lookout, Maryland. Confederate POW camp. This is the monument for the thousands of remains that are buried in Goodness Cemetery, possibly in trenches.

From group internments from World War Two, there was primarily airplane crashes where the remains could not be separated. There were a few cemeteries geographically significantly because they would cover remains coming from different parts of the world or to serve veterans in the United States. Jefferson barracks, Fort Scott, Kansas and Long Island are places where you see these group burials and you have the name of the soldiers, the ranks and sometimes you’ll have information about the incident that led to their death.

We have foreign nationals in the cemetery. National cemeteries. This is an example of foriegn headstone for World War One. We have some French nationals. They were on a vessel that sank alongside the East Coast. They’re placed inside the fills. We have other army veterans. We have POWs, and a lot of Italians, Germans. A number of POWs buried in the cemeteries.

Group Interments - World War II Era

Group Interments – World War II Era

We also found a large number of private markers. Sometimes the cemeteries, historic, private markers predated the establishment of the national cemeteries. Sometimes they’re families that were associated with the donation of the cemetery to the army. It’s a variety of things. We have hundreds of these. They range from the typical, Victorian sculpture. I think this is a story that’s chalk-full of history where the guy who committed suicide, he carved his headstone before he did that.

Then early, early nineteen century headstones. We’re in the process of inventory of these as we can. It’s time lapse. The headstones that we’re most concerned with are the ones from pre-World War One, and that’s basically Civil War and Spanish-American War. In two thousand four, we introduced these retro headstones. We’re increasingly foisting them on, definitely our cemeteries but also to private cemeteries who want government headstones. These government headstones.

In addition to our cemeteries, all that, we provide headstones for any veteran around the world. We have internal policies and then there are external policies. To make this an accurate headstone, there’s no emblem of belief allowed. No additional inscription. If you were to pull off information from our website, these are the choices you are given. For instance, granite is not historically accurate but because some cemeteries have their private cemeteries just do granite, we have this product available for them.

We are working on a retro-Confederate headstone to be more physically appropriate for the historical cemeteries. Both eras probably, pre-nineteen thirty and post. Probably the biggest change in our world came with this policy that was effective July one of this year. Basically it allows, it limits, who can request a government headstone. Basically to families. We do get requests for headstones from private cemeteries. Sometimes we’re very particular about the evidence that we’ve request to accompany these so we know that these individuals served. The names are correct and all of that.

This will change, basically we went from anybody could order a headstone to not so much everybody. So we’re gonna see how that worked out. That’s all.

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.

Author Biography:

Jennifer M. Perunko, Historian at the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), joined the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006. She worked at the National Park Service for five years previously, as a Maritime Historian and Preservation Specialist with the Maritime Heritage Program, part of the Park History Program under the Cultural Resources directorate, in Washington D.C. While there she worked extensively on developing a program to transfer ownership of the nation’s historic lighthouses to new stewards for preservation and use. She has an M.A. in Historic Preservation from Goucher College, and B.A. in Anthropology from James Madison University.