History of San Francisco National Cemetery

What Is a National Cemetery?

Based on the principles articulated by President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address--"that these dead shall not have died in vain," the U.S. Congress passed the National Cemeteries Act in 1863. The law established thirteen cemeteries to inter veterans of the Armed Forces and their families, and made stipulations for veterans of the Civil War as well as subsequent armed conflicts. Originally managed by the War Department, the National Cemetery system now includes 114 cemeteries, managed since 1973 by the Department of Veteran's Affairs.

The Growth of San Francisco National Cemetery

The first cemetery at the Presidio, used by the governments of Spain and Mexico, was located to the east of the National Cemetery, adjacent to today's Parade Ground (see sign just north of the Visitor Center). Although this cemetery was never used to inter American dead, not long after the United States assumed control of the military post, the Army established a post cemetery on the current site of the National Cemetery. The first known American burial at this location occurred in 1854. In 1873, marble and other durable stone materials replaced the wooden headstones previously used by the military. After a petition to the War Department by Presidio commander Lt. Col. George P. Andrews, in 1884 General Orders 133 established "a part of the reservation at the Presidio, including the post cemetery thereon...to be known as the San Francisco National Cemetery." Originally only 9.5 acres, it was placed under the control of the Quartermaster General's office. It was the first National Cemetery placed on the West Coast.

The cemetery experienced a great increase in both interments and acreage over the next fifty years. It also sported a number of architectural changes. In 1915, a concrete rostrum was built to hold official services, and in 1921 the Quartermaster Department built a mortuary chapel on the premises (currently the cemetery office--see map). During a five-year improvement plan, finished in 1929, the Army remodeled the lodge (the building just beyond the office) to conform to the Mission Revival type prevalent throughout the Presidio. The Army also constructed a concrete garage and tool house in the same architectural style.

One of the later additions led, in 1928, to a repositioning of the cemetery walls and the resetting of the old main entrance, which had existed since the establishment of the National Cemetery, to the west entrance. The current main entrance dates back to 1931. The final expansion to the cemetery occurred in 1932, giving it the current size of 28.34 acres. There was a serious effort to again increase the cemetery in 1961, but the outcry over possible environmental damage was so great that the Army decided against the plan, and in 1973 the cemetery officially closed to new interments, except in reserved gravesites.

The Cemetery Landscape

Situated in the northern center of the Presidio, the San Francisco National Cemetery offers a breathtaking final resting place for the nation's military veterans and their families. Framed by monumental trees, particularly Monterey Cypress, the cemetery combines the elements of the natural and the built environment. It rests on a slope overlooking the San Francisco Bay, and the rolling terrain accentuates the splendid views of Angel Island and the Marin Headlands directly across the bay, Alcatraz Island to the right and the Golden Gate Bridge to the left.

The Department of Veteran's Affairs attends to all of the gardening at the cemetery as well as the cleaning of tombstones.

Points of Interest

The G.A.R. Memorial--Erected in 1893, this granite obelisk commemorates the men and women who died during the Civil War. The local chapter of the veterans' group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, George H. Thomas Post No. 2, placed the monument. It is located in George H. Thomas Plot, to the east of the midway point of Officers' Circle.

Pacific Garrison Memorial --Honors the dead of the Regular Army and Navy Union. The Pacific Coast Garrison placed the large statue in the cemetery in 1897, and it depicts a young soldier standing on a granite pedestal, holding a battle flag. It stands to the northeast of Officer's Circle

American War Mothers' Monument--Located on a small grassy island on Main Drive heading south from Officer's Circle, this reminder of the effect of war on families was erected by the San Francisco Chapter in 1934.

Unknown Dead Monument
--Situated on an island on the western driveway of the cemetery, this roughhewn stone depicts a saddened American eagle with the words "TO THE UNKNOWN DEAD" and contains the remains of 517 unknowns regrouped from areas throughout the cemetery. Erected in 1934, this plot also contains the remains of the original, pre-American cemetery which was located to the east of the current cemetery.

Notable Americans Buried at S.F. National Cemetery

Maj. Gen. Irwin McDowell - Commanding general at the First Battle of Bull Run, one of the "best planned and worst fought" Union forays of the Civil War, McDowell's Potomac troops were bested by the Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. He later commanded I Corps, charged with defending Washington, D.C. from Confederate advances. Later absorbed in Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia, he again came under criticism for his performance in the Second Battle of Bull Run. McDowell headed the Department of the Pacific from 1864-1868 and again from 1876-1882, where he earned praise for his efficient administration. Buried in Officer's Section, Section 1, Grave 1.

Maj. Gen . Frederick Funston - A Medal of Honor recipient, Funston fought as a captain in the Cuban Revolutionary Junta in 1896. When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, he again went to Cuba, where he advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the US Army. Sent to the Philippines to suppress an insurrection against US military presence, he first earned the Medal of Honor and later captured the guerrilla leader Emilio Aguinaldo in 1901, a controversial feat which became the focus on Mark Twain's sarcasm. Funston is locally renowned for leading the army's relief effort immediately after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. In 1915, he led US forces along the Mexican border and supervised Gen. Pershing's raids against Pancho Villa. Evidence shows that President Woodrow Wilson picked him to lead American forces should the nation enter World War I, but Funston died just months before the United States declared war, paving the way for Gen. Pershing's ascension to high command. Buried in Officer's Section, Section 68, Grave 3.

Mrs. Pauline Cushman-Fryer - The army awarded Cushman-Fryer the brevet rank of major for her heroic actions as a highly successful Union spy during the Civil War. Trained as an actress, she willingly proposed a toast to Jefferson Davis during a performance in Louisville, Kentucky at the behest of Union officers (in the script, the toast was supposed to go to President Lincoln). Impressed by her "loyalty," Confederate officers took her into their confidence. Months later, a curious Confederate sentry arrested her with information on the whereabouts of the Army of Tennessee, and she was sent to Gen. Bragg's headquarters and sentenced to be hanged. Shortly thereafter, Union forces overwhelmed the town of Shelbyville, and the Confederates quickly retreated, leaving Cushman-Fryer behind. She died in San Francisco in 1893 and is interred in Officer's Section.

Pvt. William H. Thompkins - A soldier from the famed African- American 10th Cavalry, known as "Buffalo Soldiers," Thompkins earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic actions during the Spanish-American War. He and three others from his outfit made a daring rescue of wounded Americans at Tayabacoe, Cuba. After three failed attempts by members of other units, Thompkins and his comrades rowed a boat ashore, where they faced heavy Spanish fire. They returned to their transport ship, and none of the rescuers nor the wounded lost their lives. Native Americans named members of the 9th and 10th Cavalries (as well as the 24th and 25th Infantry)--comprised exclusively of African-Americans--"Buffalo Soldiers" during the Indian Wars. Formed after the Civil War, these regiments saw battle from Kansas to Texas and New Mexico, and were known for their fighting tenacity. The most famous of the 10th Cavalry commanders, Gen. John Pershing, called them "among the finest soldiers I have ever commanded." Thompkins is buried in West Side, Grave 1036A.

Maj. Gen. William J. Shafter - As a first lieutenant in the 7th Michigan Infantry, he participated in the battle at Ball's Bluff, Virginia, and earned a Medal of Honor for his conduct at the battle at Fair Oaks in 1862. Commander of the 24th Infantry ( of the "Buffalo Soldiers") in 1869-1879, Shafter was appointed major general of volunteers after the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and led the US troops in Cuba. After the war, he was named commander of the Department of California and the Columbia, a post he held until his retirement in 1901. Shafter died in 1906, and his large grave marker is located in Officer's Section, Section 30, Grave 2.

Col. Charles A. Varnum - An officer in Lt. Col. Custer's 7th Cavalry detachment during the Battle of Little Big Horn (although not fighting under his direct unit), Varnum survived to become a Medal of Honor recipient during the famous Ghost Dance scare of 1890, during the Sioux tribes' last stand against the US Army. Despite being ordered to retreat near White Clay Creek, South Dakota, Varnum, seeing the perilous position of other troops, he disobeyed orders and descended the ridge under a barrage of gunfire. He assembled the troops of both detachments and led them out of the ravine. Varnum was one of the few soldiers decorated in the aftermath of the Battle of Wounded Knee, a tragic engagement that marked the end of the Indian Wars. Later, he served as post commander at Camp Malabang in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, during the Philippine Insurrection. He is buried in Officer's Section, Section 3, Grave 3A.

For more information about the San Francisco National Cemetery, or to get help locating gravesites, visit the office within the cemetery grounds, or call the director at (650) 589-7737 or write;

US Department Of Veterans Affairs
1300 Sneath Lane
San Bruno, Ca. 94066.

or visit this link to a grave finding data base for San Francisco National Cemetery

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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