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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Union Soldiers & Burial Practices

The following are a series of readings on the evolution of burial practices for U.S. soldiers. Today's burial policies have their roots in this period.

Excerpt from War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series III, Volume 1 (Washington: GPO, 1880-1901), 498.


Washington, September 11, 1861

The following order has been received from the War Department, and is published for the information of all concerned:

WAR DEPARTMENT, September 9, 1861

For the purpose of preserving accurate and permanent records of deceased soldiers and their place of burial, it is hereby ordered that the Quartermaster-General of the U.S. Army shall cause to be printed and to be placed in every general and post hospital of the Army blank books and forms corresponding with the accompanying duplicate forms of preserving said records. The Quartermaster will also provide proper means for a registered headboard, to be secured at the head of each soldier's grave, as directed in the following special order to commanding officers in reference to the interment of deceased soldiers:

It is hereby ordered that whenever any soldier of officer of the U.S. Army dies it shall be the duty of the commanding officer of the military corps or department in which such person dies to cause the regulation and forms provided in the foregoing directions to the Quartermaster-General to be properly executed.

It is also ordered that any adjutant or acting adjutant (or commander) of a military post or company, immediately upon the reception of a copy of any mortuary record from a military company, shall transmit the same to the Adjutant-General at Washington.

By order:

SIMON CAMERON, Secretary of War.
L. THOMAS, Adjutant-General.

Excerpt from War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series III, Volume 5 (Washington: GPO, 1880-1901), 318-319.

Washington, D.C., October 31, 1865.

…The coffins now issued cost less then one-half the price paid by contract and are far superior. The hearses used for transportation to the graves are covered ambulances, painted black, and are well suited for the purpose. The tablets or head-boards are principally of white pine, with the exception of some 4,000 of black walnut, purchased more than two years ago. They are painted in white and lettered black, with the name, company, regiment, and date of death. I would here remark that unless tablets are painted before lettering the wood will absorb the oil in the paint and the rain soon wash off the lead in the lettering…

Extract from annual report of Capt. J. M. Moore, Assistant Quartermaster, U.S. Army, for the year ending June 30, 1865. Washington, D.C.

Excerpt from War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series III, Volume 5 (Washington: GPO, 1880-1901), 1038-1039.

November 14, 1866

Mr. President
…Forty-one national military cemeteries have been established, and into these had already been gathered, on June 30, the remains of 104,526 Union soldiers. The sites for ten additional cemeteries have been selected, and the work upon them, for some time delayed by the climate and a threatened epidemic, is now in course of vigorous prosecution. Although it may not be desirable to remove the remains of those now reposing in other suitable burial grounds, it is estimated that our national cemeteries will be required to receive and protect the remains of 249,397 patriotic soldiers whose lives were sacrificed in defense of our national existence. The average cost of the removals and reinterments already accomplished is reported at $9.75, amounting in the aggregate to $1,144,791, and it is believed that an additional expenditure of $1,609,294 will be necessary. It is proposed, instead of the wooden headboards heretofore used, to erect at the graves small monuments of cast iron, suitably protected by zinc coating against rust. Six lists of the dead, containing 32,666 names have been published by the Quartermaster-General, and others will be issued as rapidly as they can be prepared…

Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War

Excerpt from a report prepared by D.W. Tolford for Ohio Governor Jacob D. Cox. Report relative to Union Officers and Soldiers buried in the vicinity of the late Principal Camps, Posts and Hospitals in the State of Ohio. Columbus, Ohio: December 12th, 1866.

…There are in the State many widows, orphans, and relatives and friends of deceased soldiers, who only know that members of their families left them to stand by the republic in its hour of need--that they were, from time to time, heard from upon some distant march--in hospital--upon the eve of battle--or in Southern prisons--and that they are dead! But where the remains have been buried-how-how protected; whether in a condition to be identified, or their graves even recognized as those of Union soldiers, are to them unknown things…

D.W. Tolford
Ohio State Soldiers' Home
Columbus, O., Dec. 12, 1866

Excerpt from Congressional legislation 1872. 57th Congress, 2nd Session. Report No. 2589. Marking the graves of the soldiers of the Confederate Army and Navy (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903.)

Be it enacted, etc., That section one of an act entitled "An act to establish and to protect national cemeteries," (P.L. 37) approved February 22nd, 1867, be amended as follows:

The Secretary of War shall cause each grave to be marked with a small headstone, with the name of the soldier and the name of his State inscribed thereon, when the same are known, in addition to the number required to be inscribed by said section; and he shall, within ninety days from the passage of this act, advertise for sealed proposals of bids for the making and erection of such headstones, which advertisements shall be made for sixty days successively in at least twenty newspapers of general circulation in the United States, and shall call for bids for the doing of said work, in whole or in part; and upon the opening of such bids the Secretary of War shall, without delay, award the contracts for said work to the lowest responsible bidder or bidders, in whole or in part; and said bidders shall give bond to his satisfaction for the faithful completion of the work.

Approved June 8, 1872; General Orders, No. 65, AGO, 1872.

…Appropriated to provide for the erection of headstones upon the graves of soldiers in the national cemeteries, $200,000…..

Act approved June 10, 1872; General Orders, No. 52, AGO, 1872.

Questions for Reading 3

1. General Orders No. 75 represents one of the earliest statements on marking graves. The term used is "headboard." What does it mean? What problem does Captain Moore point out with the use of headboards?

2. By 1865, Secretary of War Stanton is proposing what change in soldier's grave markers?

3. The 1872 legislation amending the 1867 Act to establish and to protect national cemeteries once and for all determines the type of mark the graves of Union soldiers. What type(s) do they determine?

4. Why do you think it was important for the U.S. government to relocate soldiers already buried to centralized locations?


Comments or Questions

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