A Military Cemetery
United States National Cemetery is a designation for 146 nationally important cemeteries in the United States. A National Cemetery is generally a military cemetery containing the graves of U.S. military personnel, veterans and their spouses but not exclusively so. There are also state veteran cemeteries. The best known National Cemetery is Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C..
Some National Cemeteries, especially Arlington, contain the graves of important civilian leaders and other important national figures. Some National Cemeteries also contain sections for Confederate soldiers.
Experts estimate that approximately 40 percent of Civil War dead were not able to be identified. This was due to the unprecedented number of men being killed during the battles, which meant many of the dead were simply abandoned as troops had to march to the next battle before they could bury their fallen comrades.
Arlington National Cemetery sits on land that used to be owned by Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army. The Union confiscated the 1,100-acre Virginia estate from Lee, and President Lincoln then gave permission for it to be turned into a cemetery. According to some accounts, the idea was that if Lee ever decided to return, he would have to look out at the graves of those killed by the war he helped to create. Lee's oldest son sued the federal government after the war and won back the estate, but because it was now a cemetery, he sold it back to the government for $150,000.
The National Cemetery Administration of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs maintains 130 of the 146 national cemeteries. The Department of the Army maintains two national cemeteries, Arlington National Cemetery and United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery. The National Park Service maintains 14 cemeteries associated with historic sites and battlefields. Additionally the American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 American military cemeteries overseas.
In the summer of 1862, George F. Root was putting the finishing touches on the words and music of the Battle Cry of Freedom that would be adopted as a national anthem (in different versions) by both the Union and the Confederacy. (The Union version was used as the campaign song for the Lincoln-Johnson ticket in the 1864 presidential election. The song was so popular that the music publisher at one time had 14 printing presses going at one time and still could not keep up with demand. It is estimated that over 700,000 copies of this song were put in circulation.)
It was the second summer of a terrible war that few had believed would last more than several months. Thousands had already died at places like Wilson's Creek, Bull Run, Shiloh, and Fort Donelson. On July 17 of that year, Congress enacted legislation that authorized the President to purchase "cemetery grounds" to be used as national cemeteries "for soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country."
Fourteen cemeteries were established that first year, including one in the sleepy Maryland town of Sharpsburg where 4,476 Union soldiers were laid to rest after the one day of terrible slaughter that was the Battle of Antietam. (By way of comparison, approximately 3,000 Americans, British and Canadians died on June 6, 1944, in the invasion of Normandy).
By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been buried in 73 national cemeteries. Most of the cemeteries were located in the southeast, near the battlefields and campgrounds of the Civil War. After the war, Army crews scoured the countryside to locate the remains of soldiers who had died in battle.
They were buried with honor in the new national cemeteries, which were enclosed by brick walls and entered by means of ornate gates. Tragically, however, the identities of nearly half of those who died in service to the Union and are buried in national cemeteries are unknown.
The National Cemetery Administration has evolved slowly since the initial period of great challenge associated with the Civil War. All honorably discharged veterans became eligible for burial in 1873. Cemeteries associated with military posts on the western frontier, such as Fort McPherson, Nebraska, were added to the system in the late 19th century.
In the 1930s, new national cemeteries were established to serve veterans living in major metropolitan areas such as New York, Baltimore, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Antonio. Several, closely associated with battlefields such as Gettysburg, were transferred to the National Park Service because of their value in interpreting the historical significance of the battles.
In 1973, Public Law 93-43 authorized the transfer of 82 national cemeteries from the Department of the Army to the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Joining with 21 VA veterans cemeteries located at hospitals and nursing homes, the National Cemetery System comprised 103 cemeteries after the transfer.
Recognizing the need for a federal agency to take the lead in honoring U.S. servicemembers who died on foreign soil, Congress enacted legislation in 1923 to create the American Battle Monuments Commission. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains and oversees American cemeteries and monuments around the world. They are commemorative sites honoring our nation's war heroes.
The commission directs the administration and operation of 24 American military cemeteries and 25 monuments and memorials located in 15 countries, including three memorials in the United States. The commission is an agency of the executive branch of the federal government. The commission maintains the sites with appropriated funds, and employs about 300 foreign nationals.
Its mission also includes designing and constructing new cemeteries and monuments. For instance, the commission designed, planned and raised money for the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., which was turned over to the National Park Service shortly after it opened on April 29, 2004.
The primary focus of the commission is World War I and World War II, but it also maintains a cemetery in Mexico City from the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and a cemetery in Panama that includes many U.S. troops and civilians who died of yellow fever while building the Panama Canal.
There are 124,917 American war dead interred in foreign cemeteries: 30,921 from World War I, 93,246 from World War II, and 750 from the Mexican-American War. The families of those killed during World War I and World War II had the option of bringing the bodies of their loved ones back to the United States for burial. But 39 percent allowed the remains to be buried overseas at American cemeteries.
In 1949, the next of kin again had the option of repatriating the remains or leaving them overseas. Sixty-five percent opted to move the remains back to the U.S.
The American cemetery in Normandy, France, is the commission's most famous and most visited site. The Normandy cemetery, along with all the other sites, are a reminder to all people of what the U.S. has done for the cause of freedom. The United States has willingly sent its young men and women to these foreign countries when asked to restore their freedom.
In Tunisia, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld became a "legend" with the folks who work at the commission. As he was being escorted through he saw a cigarette butt on the ground and, without saying anything, he bent down, picked up the cigarette butt and put it in his pocket. He may not have made much of it, but it was watched by a lot of people who were exceptionally moved by the thoughtfulness of that act.
On November 11, 1998, the President signed the Veterans Programs Enhancement Act of 1998 changing the name of the National Cemetery System (NCS) to the National Cemetery Administration (NCA). Today, there are 141 national cemeteries in all. VA, through its National Cemetery Administration, administers 125 of them. Two national Cemeteries-Arlington and Soldiers Home-are still administered by the Army. Fourteen national cemeteries are maintained by the Department of the Interior.
The idea of a memorial to honor the unknown dead was suggested to General Peyton C. March, the Army Chief of Staff, by several people after the French plans were made public in 1919. March rejected the ideas of both Brigadier General William D. Commor, the commander of the American Forces in France, and Mrs. M.M. Melony, the editor of Delineator because he believed that the relatively few unknown American dead (compared to those of Britain and France) would eventually be identified. He also suggested that the US had no unifying national monument comparable to Westminster Abbey or the Arc de Triomphe.
In December 1920, during the twilight of President Woodrow Wilson's term, Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr. of New York introduced Public Resolution 67 to return an unknown soldier from France for burial at Arlington Cemetery. It was quickly approved and 11 November 1921, was chosen as the ceremony's date and declared a national holiday.
On 23 October 1921, unknowns from the four American cemeteries - Aisne-Maine, Meuse- Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel - arrived at the city hall of Chalonssur-Marne. The next day Sgt. Edward F. Younger indicated his choice of the unknown by placing a spray of white roses (that were later buried with the unknown) on one of the caskets.
The remaining soldiers were reburied at Romange Cemetery, the unknown was moved to Paris by train and then to the USS Olympia, Admiral Dewey's old flagship, for the trip home. While lying in state at the Capitol on President Lincoln's catafalque for two days, the unknown received approximately 90,000 visitors.
Hundreds of people, ranging from Supreme Court justices and state governors, to members of the American Library Association and Red Cross, accompanied the unknown, on a horse-drawn cassion, to Arlington on the morning of November 11.
All the mourners walked from the Capitol to the White House with the exception of former President Wilson, by now in failing health, who rode in an open carriage. More than 100,000 people attended the burial service, conducted by Bishop Brent.
President Harding offered a eulogy, Congressman Fish laid a wreath at the grave and Chief Plenty Coos, Chief of the Crow Nation, after offering a prayer, unexpectedly lay his war bonnet and coup sticks at the gravesite. Covered with a layer of French soil, the unknown was buried as a bugler played "Taps" and a 21 gun salute was offered.
Several changes were made to the tomb in the following years. Concerned that some visitors were not showing respect to the gravesite, the military added a daylight hour guard in 1926. A decade later the 24-hour honor guard began.
Although originally a simple base, a 50-ton piece of Colorado marble sculpted by Thomas Hudson Jones was added in December 1931. The box-shaped memorial has three figures: Peace, Victory and Valor carved on one side and the words "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God". The phrase became the traditional phrasing for the stones of all unknown American soldiers in cemeteries throughout the world.
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