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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served

Fort Gibson National Cemetery

Fort Gibson, Oklahoma

Fort Gibson National Cemetery

Fort Gibson National Cemetery
Courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, History Program

Fort Gibson National Cemetery has its origins in the early 19th century.  Although active for only 60 years, Fort Gibson was a critical military outpost, and was intimately tied to the westward expansion of the United States, the forced relocation of American Indians, the establishment of the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and later the Civil War.  In 1868, the U.S. government established the national cemetery on a seven-acre parcel of the military reservation outside the fort. 

In 1824, U.S. Army Colonel Matthew Arbuckle selected the site of Fort Gibson, strategically located on the Grand River just north of the confluence of the Grand and the Arkansas River. The fort, the first established in what would later become Oklahoma, was named in honor of the Colonel George Gibson, the first Commissary General of the U.S. Army.  The five companies stationed at the fort served two purposes, to maintain peace between feuding American Indian tribes and to protect the southwest border of the United States since Texas was a part of Mexico at the time.  In addition to peacekeeping, the first troops assigned to the fort constructed a stockade and barracks. 

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act became law, initiating the forced removal of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole from their lands in the southeastern United States.  Fort Gibson was the final point of the Trail of Tears, the 1838-39 forced migration of the Cherokee from northern Alabama to the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.  Army troops at Fort Gibson built roads, provisioned the American Indian groups, and maintained peace between the tribes.  The need for a U.S. fort in eastern Oklahoma diminished as the American Indians settled into their new homelands in Oklahoma and the U.S. border shifted with the annexation of Texas in 1845.  In 1857, the Cherokee petitioned the U.S. Congress to disband the post.  The military withdrew, and the Cherokee created a town at the site.

Site Plan

Site Plan, Fort Gibson National Cemetery
Courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, History Program
(click on image to enlarge)

The Cherokee’s possession of the territory was short lived, as the Civil War brought conflict to the area.  Briefly held by Confederate forces, the Union regained possession of Fort Gibson in 1863.  With its critical location near the Arkansas River and a major north-south road, the Union heavily reinforced Fort Gibson’s defenses with earthworks and other fortifications to repel Confederate forces.  Although Confederate forces never attacked the fort, Union troops from the fort engaged in the Battle of Honey Springs, the largest and most important Civil War battle fought in the Indian Territory.

After the war, the fort’s duties returned to peacekeeping, though this time between the tribes and encroaching white settlers.  Yet again, the need for the fort waned, and the Army abandoned the post for good in 1890.

Prior to the establishment of the Fort Gibson National Cemetery in 1868, three military cemeteries existed in and around the fort.  The cemeteries, created between 1824 and 1857, held the remains of troops who died while stationed at the fort.  Most of the fatalities were due to disease, specifically yellow fever epidemics.  These cemeteries were neglected after the post was abandoned in 1857.  A series of successful efforts were made to transfer more than 2,000 bodies into the newly established national cemetery.

When the army abandoned the fort for the second and final time in 1890, the U.S. government disposed of the property, with the exception of the seven-acre national cemetery that remained with the War Department.  In 1952, the cemetery acquired 24 acres for expansion, and more recently, an additional 16 acres were acquired in 1994.

The original seven-acre cemetery grounds are rectangular in form.  At the center is an Officers Circle with the cemetery’s flagpole.  Just inside the main gates stands the cemetery’s brick administration building, built in 1990. Several lodges once stood at this location, including an 1870 wooden cottage, an 1878 sandstone lodge built using a design by Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, and a 1934 brick lodge built in the Dutch Colonial style.

The cemetery’s octagonal, concrete rostrum, located west of the administration building, was built in 1939.  One commemorative monument is located near the flagpole and Officers Circle at the center of the original grounds of the cemetery.  The cast-iron seacoast artillery gun features a bronze plaque inscribed with the cemetery’s date of establishment and number of interments.

In addition to the administration building, three other structures on the cemetery’s grounds are of more recent construction.  A brick utility building was constructed in 1957 and enlarged in 1989.  In 1985 the American Veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam (AMVETS) erected the cemetery’s carillon tower, and a brick committal service shelter was built in 1998.

Directional Marker
Directional Marker, Fort Gibson National Cemetery
Courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, History Program

Fort Gibson National Cemetery is the final resting place for two 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 graves of two remarkable women are found in the Officers Circle at the center of the old cemetery grounds.  Talahina Rogers Houston was the second wife of General Sam Houston. Talahina, a Cherokee, died of pneumonia in 1833 and was originally buried in Muldrow, Oklahoma, roughly 60 miles southwest of the fort.  In the late 1890s, the Fort Gibson newspaper launched a campaign to have Talahina reinterred at the national cemetery, arguing that the wife of the president of the Republic of Texas deserved a more dignified resting place. The Department of War approved the request, and a formal burial, complete with funeral parade, accompanied the transfer of her remains to the national cemetery.

Vivia Thomas’ story is a local legend, perhaps mired in more than a bit of exaggeration.  Vivia was a young Bostonian socialite who fell in love with a young lieutenant at a Boston ball. The two were engaged after a brief courtship.  Just before the wedding, the lieutenant disappeared, leaving a note saying that the Boston social life was not for him, and that he was traveling west in search of adventure.  Vivia learned from the military that her lieutenant was stationed at Fort Gibson, and she left Boston in search of him. She cut her hair, dressed in men’s clothing, and joined the army.  At Fort Gibson, she learned that her fiancée was romantically involved with another.  Vivia jealously exacted her revenge by ambushing and killing the lieutenant.  The murder went unsolved, but Vivia became remorseful. She visited his grave each night, eventually contracting pneumonia and dying at his grave.  Impressed with her courage in traveling to the frontier alone and her skill at disguise, her comrades awarded her an honorable grave in the Officers Circle. She is buried in grave 2119.
Plan your visit

Fort Gibson National Cemetery is located at 1423 Cemetery Rd. in Fort Gibson, OK.   The cemetery is open for visitation daily from 7:00am to sunset; the administrative offices are open Monday to Friday from 8:00am to 4:30pm, and are closed on all Federal holidays except for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  For more information, please contact the cemetery office’s at 918-478-2334, or see the Department of Veterans Affairs website.  While visiting, please be mindful that our national cemeteries are hallowed ground.  Be respectful to all of our nation’s fallen soldiers and their families.  Additional cemetery policies may be posted on site.

The Battle of Honey Springs is the subject of an online lesson plan, The Battle of Honey Springs: The Civil War Comes to the Indian Territory.  The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page.

Fort Gibson National Cemetery was photographed to the standards established by the National Park Service’s Historic American Landscapes Survey.

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