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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Saint Louis, Missouri
Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, consisting of more than 310 acres, is located south of St. Louis on the site of a former military post. Established in 1826, Jefferson Barracks was the first permanent military installation west of the Mississippi, and was a critical training and medical facility during the Civil War. The national cemetery was officially established in 1866, although the site had been used as a post cemetery since the founding of Jefferson Barracks. The U.S. Government deactivated the military post in 1946, but the national cemetery has continued operation and is today one of the largest in the United States. Jefferson Barracks contains burials from all major United States conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to the present. The cemetery’s grounds feature a number of historic and modern monuments dedicated to veterans.
Strategically located along the Mississippi River at the eastern edge of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase territory, the U.S. Army initially established Jefferson Barracks in 1826 as both a supply center and a troop training and staging facility. Thomas Jefferson died shortly after the military selected the site on the Mississippi River bluffs and the post was named in his honor. The barracks has housed a number of famous military men, including Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee.
In March 1863, the U.S. Army officially established the Jefferson Barracks Post Cemetery, a ten-acre burial ground incorporating an older cemetery constructed by soldiers in 1826. The first recorded burial was that of Elizabeth Ann Lash, an infant daughter of an officer stationed at the barracks.
In the early 1890s, the national cemetery expanded, more than doubling in size. In 1922, an Executive Order transferred land and a newly constructed medical center for World War I veterans at Jefferson Barracks from the Army to the Veterans Bureau, the precursor to the Department of Veterans Affairs. This transfer also included the 170-acre national cemetery.
After World War II, the national cemetery expanded with a transfer of more than 150 acres from the military post. Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery became a central location for group interments, and today has more than 560 group burials. Notable group burials include 123 victims of a 1944 massacre, all killed while held as prisoners of war by the Japanese in the Philippines, and 41 unidentified Marines killed when their helicopter crashed in South Vietnam in 1968.
One of the older monuments at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery is dedicated to 175 soldiers of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry. A stone obelisk, dating from the late 1860s, honors the men who died during a cholera outbreak in 1866. Originally the monument and the soldiers’ remains were located at the Koch Quarantine Hospital in St. Louis. They were relocated to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in 1939.
Among the burials at Jefferson Barracks are those from Fort Bellefontaine, which was active between 1806 to 1826, when Jefferson Barracks was established at the site of the fort. The St. Louis chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution donated a red granite boulder to commemorate the officers and soldiers who died at Fort Bellefontaine and were buried in its cemetery.
A 19th century monument that stands nearly four feet tall honors the unknown soldiers of the Civil War. The Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War erected this granite monument in 1940.
Since the 1950s, other monuments honoring Civil War dead have been dedicated at the cemetery, including a memorial to the Confederate dead in 1988. The cemetery also features monuments dedicated to those who served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War.
Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery is the final resting place for eight 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." The remains of three Revolutionary War veterans are also interred in the cemetery's Old Post Section. These interments, which include Major Russell Bissell, the commanding officer of Fort Bellefontaine at the time of his death in 1807, were transferred to Jefferson Barracks in the 1900s.
Another notable burial at the cemetery is U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Michael Blassie. Blassie died in 1972 when his plane was shot down over South Vietnam. His remains were initially placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, D.C. Blassie’s family had DNA tests conducted to confirm his identity, and requested his remains be transferred to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
Although officially established in 1866, the cemetery contains no structures that date to its early period. A 19th century superintendent’s lodge and tool shed stood in the cemetery’s Old Post Section until 2004. Today, a permanent committal shelter now stands at the site of the former lodge and shed.