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Setting the Stage

More than 3.2 million soldiers are estimated to have served in the Civil War: 2.2 million Union soldiers and approximately 1 million Confederates. Of these, the death toll reached approximately 364,000 Union soldiers and 133,821 Confederate soldiers.¹ When the war ended, the graves of the nearly a half million Union and Confederate soldiers who died in action, or of wounds and disease lacked official recognition. Meanwhile, approximately 2.7 million veterans began to return home.

The U.S. Government had never before faced such a situation. What level of care and attention should be provided to the returning Union veterans or their survivors? The federal government responded quickly through the creation of a network of regionally dispersed "Soldiers' Homes" and national cemeteries or soldiers' lots.

Between the war's end and 1870, U.S. Army troops scoured battlefields and other areas of fighting in search of the graves of only Union dead, which were typically shallow and unmarked. The graves were located and used to determine appropriate locations for national cemeteries. The earliest national cemeteries were small, at less than 10 acres, and were located near significant battlegrounds, hospitals, Prisoner of War (POW) camps, or convenient railroad connections. In 1862, 14 national cemeteries were created; 10 years later, another 62 were established. The soldiers' homes also had affiliated cemeteries to serve veterans who died in residence or were delivered to the facility. These would eventually become national cemeteries, and graves were initially marked with temporary wooden headboards painted white.

The task of providing Union graves with a permanent headstone took longer than was expected, stretching into the mid-1870s when the Secretary of War selected an upright slab with a gently rounded top for known dead, and a small, low block for unknowns. The policy of accommodating only Union soldiers was shaped by wartime practice. Since the Union won the war, the Union would only take responsibility for burying its own soldiers in national cemeteries. Confederate burials fell to local communities. After the turn of the century, peacetime policies led to the inclusion of Confederate dead in military cemeteries. Memorials honoring groups of soldiers or military achievements were erected in national cemeteries, as well as in other community settings. Veteran organizations and the federal government erected these memorials to preserve the legacy of military accomplishment and the sacrifices made by America's soldiers throughout our history. Today, the 131 national cemeteries are managed by different agencies of the federal government, depending in part upon their history and activity: the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) within the Department of Veteran Affairs manages 120 and builds new ones; the National Park Service manages 14 affiliated with historic battlefields; and the U.S. Army operates two, including Arlington National Cemetery.

¹ America's Wars (Washington, D.C.: Veteran's Administration Office of Public and Consumer Affairs, 1985).

 

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