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Family Tree of the National Park System
Part III
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part III



The National Cemeteries in the National Park System are closely related to the National Military Parks, but also possess distinction in their own right. Gettysburg National Cemetery is one of the two most revered shrines of its kind in the United States, the other being Arlington. Some understanding of the circumstances that led to its establishment and that of other National Cemeteries during and after the Civil War is necessary to comprehend their place in today's National Park System.

The battle of Gettysburg was scarcely over when Governor Andrew Y. Curtin hastened to the field to assist local residents in caring for the dead or dying. More than 6,000 soldiers had been killed in action, and among 21,000 wounded hundreds more died each day. Many of the dead were hastily interred in improvised graves on the battlefield. Curtin at once approved plans for a Soldier's National Cemetery, and requested Attorney David Wills of Gettysburg to purchase a plot in the name of Pennsylvania. Wills selected seventeen acres on the gentle northwest slope of Cemetery Hill for the burial ground and engaged William Saunders, eminent horticulturist, to lay out the grounds preparatory to re-interments. Fourteen northern states provided the necessary funds.

Saunders planned Gettysburg National Cemetery as we know it today, enclosed by massive stone walls, the ample lawns framed by trees and shrubs, the grave sites laid out in a great semi-circle, state by state, around the site for a sculptured central feature, a proposed Soldier's National Monument. The over-all effect Saunders sought was one of "simple grandeur." The Soldier's National Cemetery, as it was then called, was dedicated by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863. The speaker's platform occupied the site set aside for the Soldier's National Monument, then awaiting future design. The immortal words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address endowed this spot with profound historical and patriotic associations for the American people. Gettysburg National Cemetery became the honored property of the nation on May 1, 1872, now a century ago.

The events that followed the battle of Gettysburg were paralleled on the other great battlefields of the Civil War, including Antietam, Chattanooga, Fort Donelson Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. Congress recognized the importance of honoring and caring for the remains of the war dead by enacting general legislation in 1867 which provided the foundation for the extensive system of National Cemeteries subsequently developed by the War Department. Eleven of the National Cemeteries established under that authority were added to the National Park System in 1933, each of them enclosed with stone walls and carefully landscaped to achieve the kind of "simple grandeur" that characterized Gettysburg. In every case they adjoined National Military Parks which were added to the System at the same time. The National Cemeteries however, were the older reservations in every instance, and in several cases, such as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Fort Donelson, provided the nucleus for the battlefield park. The act of 1867 also provided authority for preserving an important battlefield of the Indian wars when, on January 29, 1879, the Secretary of War designated "The National Cemetery of Custer's Battlefield Reservation."

The National Cemeteries constitute a small but unique part of the National Park System.

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