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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
San Francisco, California
Located on a hillside with views of both the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco National Cemetery is the oldest national cemetery on the West Coast. Initially established as a post cemetery for the U.S. Army’s Presidio of San Francisco, its designation in 1884 as a national cemetery marked an expansion of the national cemetery system beyond Civil War battlefields. Interments in the cemetery include veterans from the late 19th century Indian Campaigns, border wars with Mexico, uprisings in Asia, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Numerous monuments stand on the grounds, as do several large cypress trees that date from the late 19th century.
The history of the San Francisco National Cemetery is tied to the Presidio of San Francisco, a military fort first established by Spain in 1776. The Presidio symbolized Spain’s claim to the region, and the Presidio’s garrison supported the nearby Mission Dolores. The fort, although sparsely manned, remained under Spanish control until Mexico’s independence from the European nation in 1821. The Presidio came under U.S. control in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, and was expanded as a U.S. military facility during the Civil War period.
After the Civil War, the Presidio continued to expand as the United States stretched its political and military influence in the Pacific. The facility became a staging ground for troops headed to the Philippines during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). The Army’s hospital, established on the Presidio grounds, treated wounded and sick soldiers returning from this conflict. In the 1880s, the U.S. Army created a post cemetery for the Presidio to consolidate burials from several locations. Located on a hillside west of the Presidio’s main parade ground, the post cemetery and nine additional areas were designated as a national cemetery in 1884.
In the 20th century the cemetery was gradually expanded to roughly 30 acres. Though expanded, the cemetery still maintained its rectangular shape; the original acreage is located in the southeast quadrant of the cemetery.
The buildings on the cemetery grounds reflect the Spanish Colonial Revival style utilized in many of the Presidio’s other buildings. The superintendent’s lodge, built around 1885 as a two-story structure, was extensively remodeled in 1929. Although it incorporates some original structural elements from its earlier form, the lodge is now a one-story building with stucco-clad walls and decorative elements typical of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Additional buildings constructed in 1929 include a restroom facility and a maintenance/storage structure. A garage, built in 1934, also features Spanish Colonial details.
The cemetery’s largest structure is an open-air rostrum (raised speaking platform). Built in 1915, the rostrum consists of a semicircular platform covered in red tile surrounded by a low white masonry wall with pyramidal capped piers at either end. In the center of the rostrum is a stepped dais with a podium. Behind the dais, the wall rises 25 feet and is decorated with bas-relief carvings and a bronze plaque featuring the text of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Benches line the interior wall, while the back is flanked by topiary.
The cemetery’s perimeter is marked by a combination of walls and fences, some dating to the 19th century. The cemetery’s expansion over the last century necessitated wall and fence extensions and relocation. The ornate cast- and wrought-iron gate at the western entrance dates to the mid-1880s. Although originally sited where the cemetery’s main entrance is today, the gate was relocated in 1929. The cemetery’s main entrance was constructed in 1931 and features cast-iron gates supported by dressed stone piers topped with carved urns.
West of the Officer’s Circle stands the Unknown Dead Monument. In 1934, remains of over 500 unknown soldiers were reinterred in a single mass grave. The monument consists of a granite block with a relief sculpture of a bald eagle. The eagle holds a shield inscribed “To the Unknown Dead.”
More than 30,000 burials lie within the cemetery’s grounds. San Francisco National Cemetery is also the final resting place of 36 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Within the Officer’s Circle are the remains of "Major" Pauline Cushman Fryer, an actress who served as a Union spy during the Civil War. After giving a toast to Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the stage in Louisville, Kentucky, she was fired from the theater. Then viewed as a southern sympathizer, Pauline was able to ingratiate herself with Confederate troops and pass on information to the Army of the Cumberland. She was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to hang, but was set free because of the advance of the Union Army into Tennessee where she was held. She eventually made her way out west and died in San Francisco in 1893. The Grand Army of the Republic and the Women’s Relief Corps organized an elaborate funeral for the former Union spy, and she was interred in a GAR plot at a private cemetery. Her remains were reinterred at San Francisco National Cemetery in 1910.
Another unusual burial is “The Great Western” Sarah Bowman, a formidable woman over six-feet tall with red hair and a fondness for wearing pistols. She was a soldier’s wife who traveled with Zachary Taylor’s troops in the Mexican War and cared for the wounded. After her death in 1866, she was given a full military funeral and interred at Fort Yuma Cemetery. When the fort was decommissioned in 1890, Bowman was exhumed and reinterred in the San Francisco National Cemetery.
The Presidio remained an active Army facility until the early 1990s when it was decommissioned and transferred to the National Park Service. Today the 1,491-acre site is managed by the Presidio Trust in partnership with the National Park Service. San Francisco National Cemetery is managed separately by the Department of Veterans Affairs.