History of National Cemeteries

Celebration of the first official Decoration Day at Arlington Cemetery, May 30, 1868. Though hard to see, both Generals John Logan and Ulysses Grant are sitting at the reviewing stand. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Celebration of the first official Decoration Day at Arlington Cemetery, May 30, 1868. Though hard to identify, both Generals John Logan and Ulysses Grant are sitting at the reviewing stand. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Many today are familiar with Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. in Virginia. Less familiar are the other 115 national cemeteries across the nation, including the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery in Washington D.C., the first such National Cemetery. These cemeteries were created as a solution to the painful question of where to bury the unprecedented dead of the Civil War. As historian David Blight writes in Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory, “All this death on the battlefield, as well as the deaths of thousands of soldiers in prisons, and hundred of nameless freed people in contraband camps, presented an overwhelming psychological, spiritual, and logistical challenge of memorialization.”

These new cemeteries were constant reminders of the recent conflict. Russell H. Conwell, a Union veteran who toured the South in 1869 at the age of 26, remarked that the fighting had “transformed the ‘Garden of the South’ into the ‘Graveyard of America.'” That epithet also referred to the thousands of unofficial cemeteries and burial plots throughout the war-torn south. Everywhere Conwell went, it was impossible to travel without “disturb[ing] in their secret resting-places the bones of Union soldiers.” But it was the official national cemeteries that left the deepest impression. Describing them for the Boston Daily Evening Traveler, Conwell wrote that they were the “surest and saddest prompter of memory.”

Yet, as the years passed, these memories stirred up reconciliatory feelings; cemeteries became locations of national recovery. Throughout the North and South, national cemeteries became sites of reflection on newly established Memorial and Decoration Days. During Reconstruction, some of these ceremonies were even biracial. However, starting around 1875 and continuing through the rest of the 19th century they often were segregated events. In fact, as Blight argues, in the 1880s and 1890s, these post-Reconstruction efforts almost exclusively reconciled the “Blue-Gray” divide, as opposed to the “Black-White” one. Nevertheless, by the 40th anniversary of the Civil War, the nation had mostly reconciled its differences over the Civil War. As one of the last efforts of this reconciliatory period, in 1906 Theodore Roosevelt signed a law requiring Northern National Cemeteries to take care of Confederate graves.

This print, titled "Orphans decorating their fathers' graves in Glenwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, on Decoration Day," dates to 1876. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

This print, titled “Orphans decorating their fathers’ graves in Glenwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, on Decoration Day,” dates to 1876 (Courtesy Library of Congress).

In order to better understand the popular consciousness of national cemeteries, we’ve analyzed the use of the phrase “National Cemetery” via an Ngram. Ngrams chart words and phrases within a searchable database of Google Book’s published oeuvre. Our “National Cemetery” Ngram was restricted to books published in American English so as to prevent non-American results from influencing the chart.

Rise of "National Cemetery" in American literature, 1800-2000.

Rise of “National Cemetery” in American literature, 1800-2000.

The Ngram tool is a good starting point for text analysis, although it’s often hard to prove causation rather than just correlation. Still, the “National Cemetery” Ngram tells us a lot. Immediately, it’s clear that the phrase was barely used prior to 1860. This makes perfect sense, since the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery wasn’t created until 1861. After this sharp and immediate incline, the phrase peaked in 1867 in the aftermath of the Civil War as the nation undertook the process of establishing National Cemeteries. Since the Civil War era, the phrase peaked in the 1880s and 1900s, during important anniversaries of the Civil War. In the 20th century, there were a few mini-peaks immediately following World War II and the during the height of the Vietnam War, as the government buried thousand of soldiers in national cemeteries. Lastly, the usage steadily increased from 1970 through 2000. Though hard to prove definitively, this rise correlates to both the significant amount of World War II veterans dying, as well as the rise of scholarship on Civil War Reconstruction efforts including the creation of National Cemeteries.

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