How to Use
Reading 2: Dayton National Cemetery
On July 17, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that created the National Cemetery system. By 1870, nearly 300,000 Union soldiers were interred in 73 national cemeteries, many of which were located on or near battlefields. At that time, approximately 58% of these soldiers' graves were of known soldiers and the remaining 42% more were marked as unknowns.
Of the nearly 253,000 estimated Union dead in need of grave markers after the Civil War, about 105,000 were for unknowns-individuals whose identities were lost during the relocation process. More than seven years of debate over the design for a permanent headstone included the study of a cast-iron model that was eventually rejected as both unattractive and impermanent. The graves of unknown soldiers are marked with a 6 in. x 6 in. marble block that extends 30" deep, identified with a number only. The grave markers of the known dead-marble uprights measuring 12 in. high (above ground) x 10 in. wide x 4 in. thick with a slightly rounded top-are inscribed with a recessed federal shield in which the name, rank or affiliation appear in relief. Headstones of the regular Army and the U.S. Colored Troops have "USA" or "USCT" inscribed on them rather than state information. Men were assumed to be the rank of private if no record was available; therefore "PVT" was omitted from the inscriptions. Abbreviations such as this were necessary due to limited space.
Dayton National Cemetery is one of 11 federal cemeteries historically affiliated with National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Enrollment at the Central Branch climbed in the first 20 years to nearly 5,000 veterans by 1888. During the same period, 3,000 Union veterans were interred in the cemetery. Included among these veterans are over 650 African Americans who served in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), making this cemetery one of the nation's largest burial sites for black Civil War soldiers. Nearly 10 percent of all Union soldiers were black. The first interment was of Corporal Cornelius Solly, 104th Pennsylvania Infantry, on September 11, 1867 (Section A, Row 12). Erected in 1873, the massive Soldiers Monument, a 30 foot-tall marble column with four figures at the base and a standing soldier on top, dominates the cemetery landscape.
The design of the Central Branch cemetery is attributed to Chaplain (and Captain) William B. Earnshaw, who had "judgment and taste" in the matter of cemetery layout and design. The rectilinear, grid-based symmetry of the cemetery may be based on familiar bivouac and camp arrangements. Earnshaw served in the Armies of the Potomac and the Cumberland, for which he was named superintendent at Stones River and Nashville national cemeteries. He also helped select sites for the Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth and Memphis national cemeteries. With labor provided by the USCT, he was responsible for locating, disinterring, and reinterring the remains of 22,000 dead soldiers. "Disagreeable, offensive, and dangerous as was this work of love," Earnshaw led "his detail of colored troops, with spade in one hand and musket in the other.…"¹
Soldiers' home cemeteries were to be "laid out and cared for, as far as practicable, in the manner prescribed for National Cemeteries" and "graves shall be arranged in sections and rows and numbered in regular series to correspond with the burial record kept in the Headquarters' office." Administrators initially marked graves with the standard "temporary wooden board or tablet, giving name, company, regiment and date of death." Eventually, the monetary cost of marking graves became a factor within the U.S. government's budget. On a semi-annual basis the governors of each branch requisitioned permanent headstones from the Office of the Quartermaster General, which supplied all government-issued veteran headstones starting in the mid 1870s.²
Among the permanent improvements to the home in 1887 was the completion of a "new receiving vault connected with the hospital," which was a "very great convenience to the institution, as it enables us to hold in safety subjects for interment…" Every resident was to be buried in a "clean suit of the Home uniform."³ National Home regulations specified that "funerals will be conducted in accordance with military usage," with a chaplain officiating. "The band of the Branch will attend all funerals, unless the weather is too inclement. . . and the drum corps or field music substituted."4
Soldiers' Home cemeteries still provide their valuable service today, providing a final resting place for veterans. Since its beginning, Dayton's cemetery has grown to 110 acres and it contains the remains of veterans from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, and all 20th century military conflicts. Approximately 800 burials are made annually, and the cemetery is slated to remain open to burials until 2018.5 The Veterans Administration (VA) assumed oversight of the cemetery in 1930. In 1973, it was granted National Cemetery status. Today it is operated by the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) of the VA.
Questions for Reading 2
1. How many cemeteries were established in the first nine years after President Lincoln signed legislation creating the system?
2. Why were cast iron headstones rejected? What material was selected instead? Do you think it was a good choice? Why or why not?
3. When the Union dead were interred permanently in national cemeteries during the late 1860s, it was the second time they were buried. The first was immediately after they were killed in battle and buried where they fell, or they died of disease in a hospital and were buried locally. Immediately after the war, these remains were located, disinterred, and moved to the new national cemeteries. What system was used to undertake this work and who was responsible for this unpleasant task? What does that imply?
4. Who manages the cemetery in Dayton today? When was it granted "National Cemetery" status?
Reading 2 was adapted from Jeffrey M. Hull and Matthew J. Jeffery, "Central Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers," (Montgomery County, Ohio) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2003; and other sources.
¹ George Washington Williams, "The Soldiers' Home: Its Officers and Men," The Cincinnati Commercial, 24 November 1878.