National Cemetery Administration
History of Government Furnished Headstones and Markers
National Cemetery Administration
The history of government headstones has an identity of its own apart from development of the National Cemetery
Administration. The original standard grave marker precedes the establishment of national cemeteries in 1862 and
actually has its origin in the frontier days of this country prior to the Civil War.
In the normal course of events, soldiers died and garrison commanders were compelled to bury their dead, mainly
in cemetery plots within post reservations. Those not so fortunate were buried where death occurred. In the course
of time, a fairly uniform method of marking burials came into being. A wooden board with a rounded top and bearing
a registration number or inscription became the standard. No centralized system for recording burials existed.
Although the system may have been adequate for frontier forces, it could scarcely meet the needs of the national
army that came into being at the beginning of the Civil War. Two months after the first battle of Manassas, the
War Department issued General Orders number 75, Sept. 11, 1861, which made commanders of national forces responsible
for burials and marking graves. In the same General Orders, the Quartermaster General of the Army was directed
to provide headboards as well as blank books and forms for the preservation of burial records. War Department General
Orders number 75 created the first organized system of marking graves.
According to northern historians, “Following capitulation of the Confederate States Army, a concerted effort was
undertaken to recover the dead from their temporary wartime burial places and to accomplish their permanent reburial
in national cemeteries.” This is only true for Union dead, and is not true where Confederate soldiers are concerned.
Southerners recovered their dead with great difficulty, and buried them in church & family cemeteries at family
expense. The laborious task of marking Confederate soldier’s graves continues today, including fighting with the
Veteran’s Administration, jumping through enormous hoops to satisfy arcane regulations and rules to obtain veteran’s
Many fallen southern soldiers were buried in remote locations, resulting in their graves being lost. Even though
the federal government, controlled by northern politicians, collected heavy taxes from the southern people, the
federal government in some cases outright refused to bury Confederate solders in national cemeteries. Thirty five
(35) years would past after the war ended in 1865 before the Confederate soldier would be recognized as an American
Veteran, and even longer before the Confederates obtained the same rights and privileges as Union veterans.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, only Union soldiers were eligible for military benefits. It wasn’t until
the 1930s that confederate soldiers began receiving pensions from the federal government. Prior to that, confederate
soldiers could apply for benefits through the state they resided in. Alabama’s Confederate Park is on donated land
by a Montgomery lawyer for the care of the aging Confederate Veteran at state’s expense. The Confederate old folk’s
home, located in the park, was abandoned in the 1930's after all or most of the old Confederates died, and was
converted into a state park. Maintenance of the two Confederate cemeteries located in the park is provided by the
State of Alabama with no help from the federal government.
The groundwork for reconciliation, however, was laid decades before Confederate soldiers and family members became
available for federal benefits.
President William McKinley cited reconciliation between the North and South in a speech that followed the conclusion
of the Spanish American War on December 14, 1898. A number of former Confederate officers had volunteered for service
during the war, which had helped secure U.S. victory, McKinley said:
… Every soldier’s grave made during our unfortunate Civil War is a tribute to American valor. And while, when those
graves were made, we differed widely about the future of this government, those differences were long ago settled
by the arbitrament of arms; and the time has now come, in the evolution of sentiment and feeling under the providence
of God, when in the spirit of fraternity we should share with you in the care of the graves of the Confederate
The Cordial feeling now happily existing between the North and South prompts this gracious act, and if it needed
further justification, it is found in the gallant loyalty to the Union and the flag so conspicuously shown in the
year just past by the sons and grandsons of these (Spanish American War veterans).
What a glorious future awaits us if united, wisely, and bravely we face the new problems now pressing upon us,
determined to solve them for right and humanity.
That flag has been planted in two hemispheres, and there it remains the symbol of liberty and law, of peace and
progress. Who will withdraw from the people over whom it floats its protecting folds? Who will haul it down? Answer
me, ye men of the South, who is there in Dixie who will haul it down?
McKinley called for federal recognition of Union and Confederate soldiers because he viewed them all as Americans.
Meanwhile the Yankees gave little thought to the suitability of the round top wooden headboards as a marker for
the graves of Yankee soldiers fallen in battle. In 1865, when burials in national cemeteries approached 100,000,
serious consideration began to be given to the long range economy of maintaining the wooden headboards then in
use. It was estimated that the total recovered dead of the Civil War would be around 300,000 (Yankees) and, considering
the average cost of a headboard at $1.23 each and a life expectancy of not more than five years, it became obvious
that the original and replacement costs would exceed $1 million over a 20-year period.
Aside from the problems of economics surrounding the use of wooden headboards, public sentiment was turning to
a more permanent mode of marking graves. Several years of controversy ensued within the War Department as to the
type of headstone that ought to be used in lieu of the wooden headboard. There were those who favored the use of
marble and those who favored galvanized iron coated with zinc. The controversy between marble and galvanized iron
continued with intermittent periods of vigor and apathy for seven years.
Detail of a photograph of Alexandria National Cemetery, Virginia, 1862-69, showing graves marked by wooden headboards.
Photographer, probably Andrew Russell. Library of Congress.
In 1873, Secretary of War William W. Belknap adopted the first design for stones to be erected in national cemeteries.
For the known dead, the department adopted a slab design of marble or durable stone four inches thick, 10 inches
wide and 12 inches in height extending above the ground. The part above the ground was polished and the top slightly
curved. The number of the grave, rank, name of the soldier and the name of the state were cut on the front face.
This original design for the permanent headstone was referred to as the "Civil War" type, and was furnished
for members of the Union Army only. (Ah!, finally some truth.) The stone featured a sunken shield in which the
inscription appeared in bas relief. For the unknown dead, the stone was a block of marble or durable stone six
inches square, and 30 inches long. The top and four inches of the sides of the upper part were finished and the
number of the grave cut on the top. On Feb. 3, 1879, Congress authorized the furnishing of stones for the unmarked
graves of veterans in private cemeteries. Insofar as known, the only type used was the same as used for the known
dead in national cemeteries.
The Civil War-type of headstone was furnished not only for the unmarked graves of that war but for the unmarked
graves of eligible deceased of the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War and Indian Campaigns. At the conclusion
of the Spanish-American War, it was decided that the same design of headstone should be used to mark the graves
of eligible deceased of that war as well.
In 1902, a study was done as to determine the durability of the type of headstone then in use. The study resulted
in a change implemented in 1903. The height of the stone was increased to 39 inches, the width to 12 inches, and
the thickness to four inches.
The use of stone blocks for marking unknown graves in national cemeteries was discontinued on Oct. 21, 1903, and
the graves were marked with the same design as those furnished for the known dead.
In order to ensure that all graves in military controlled cemeteries were marked appropriately, Congress on April
28, 1904 (58th Cong., Chap. 1762), also authorized the furnishing of headstones for the unmarked graves of civilians
buried in post cemeteries.
The question of permanently marking graves of Confederate deceased in national cemeteries and Confederate burial
plots resulted in the Act of March 9, 1906 (P. L. 38, 59th Cong., Chap. 631), authorizing the furnishing of headstones
for the graves of Confederates who died, primarily in Union prison camps and were buried in federal cemeteries.
Congress adopted the same size and material for Confederate headstones as headstones for Civil-Spanish War deceased.
The design varied in that the top was pointed instead of rounded and the shield was omitted. Apocryphally, it has
been said that the pointed top was adopted to prevent "Yankees" from sitting on Confederate headstones.
An act on Feb. 26, 1929 (70th Cong., Chap. 324), authorized the furnishing of this type of stone for graves in
private cemeteries, as well.
On May 26, 1930, the War Department implemented regulations for Confederate headstones that also authorized the
inscription of the Confederate Cross of Honor in a small circle on the front face of the stone above the standard
inscription of the soldier's name, rank, company and regiment.
Following World War I, a board of officers composed of Assistant Secretary of War J. M. Wainwright, Army Chief
of Staff General John J. Pershing and Quartermaster General Harry L. Rogers adopted a new design to be used for
all graves except those of veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American Wars.
This stone was of the slab design referred to as "General" type, slightly rounded at the top, of American
white marble, 42 inches long, 13 inches wide and four inches thick. The inscription on the front face would include
the name of the soldier, his rank, regiment, division, date of death and state from which he came.
For the first time, a religious emblem was adopted for use on government headstones. The religious emblem was authorized
for use at this time only on the General type stone. The choice of emblem was limited to the Latin Cross for the
Christian faith and the Star of David for the Jewish faith.
In April 1941, the Under Secretary of War approved the use of granite material for stones similar to the existing
designs of the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, and the Confederate and General types. These granite headstones
were discontinued in 1947, however, because of the inability to procure them within the price limitations authorized
by the War Department.
To assure the marking of all graves of all eligible members of the armed forces and veterans interred in private
cemeteries, who due to cemetery regulations were permitted only a flat marker type, the following designs were
approved by the Assistant Secretary of War: flat marble marker adopted Aug. 11, 1936; flat granite marker adopted
Sept. 13, 1939. An act of April 18, 1940, authorized the use of other materials and the standard. Flat bronze markers
were adopted on July 12, 1940. (A new design was approved beginning with fiscal year 1973).
The marble and granite flat markers are 24 inches in length, 12 inches in width, and four inches deep with incised
inscriptions. The bronze flat marker is 24 inches in length, 12 inches in width and three-sixteenths of an inch
thick with raised lettering. The markers are placed flush with the ground and the inscription is placed parallel
to the greatest dimension of the marker. The inscription includes the name of the deceased, state, rank, organization,
dates of death and religious emblem above the inscription.
The Under Secretary of War authorized the addition of the date of birth as part of authorized inscription in 1944.
After the war ended, he authorized World War I or II as part of the inscription.
On Dec. 1, 1948, the Secretary of War authorized a flat granite marker for use in the new national cemeteries in
Hawaii (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) and Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico National Cemetery). This marker
is of the same design that had been previously authorized for private cemeteries with the exception of the thickness,
which was reduced to three inches. In 1951 the same type of marker was approved for use in the new Willamette National
Cemetery in Portland, Oregon.
The Assistant Secretary of the Army approved designs to be used for the marking of group burial interments in national
cemeteries in 1950.
The Secretary of the Army approved the placement of the Buddhist emblem as part of the authorized inscription in
February 1951. Seven months later, the Secretary of Defense directed The Secretary of the Army to include the word
"Korea" as part of the authorized inscription in those instances where members of the United States Armed
Forces died in Korea or whose death was attributable to service in Korea.
The above directive was superseded and reissued on Dec. 1, 1954, to provide for inclusion of the word "Korea"
on government headstones and markers for the graves of those members and former members of the United States armed
forces who served within the areas of military operations in the Korean Theater between June 27, 1950 and July
Then on Dec. 11, 1964, the Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army for Civil Functions approved the word
"Vietnam" as part of the authorized inscription in those instances where members of the United States
armed forces died in Vietnam, or whose death was attributable to service in Vietnam for the duration of current
military activities in Vietnam or until such time as the military activities were given an official designation.
The inclusion of the word "Vietnam" as part of the authorized inscription was retroactive to 1954.
The Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army for Civil Functions approved the word "Korea" as part
of the authorized inscription on the headstones of all military personnel and veterans who were on active duty
during the period of June 27, 1950 through July 27, 1954 and on headstones and markers for active duty decedents
who lost their lives in Korea or adjacent waters as a result of hostile action subsequent to the 1953 Armistice.
The word "Vietnam" was authorized to be inscribed on the headstones and markers of all decedents who
were on active duty on or after August 5, 1964 through May 7, 1975. The beginning date has been extended to February
28, 1961, for veterans who served "in country" before August 5, 1964.
On Sept. 1, 1973, 82 of the 84 national cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Army were transferred
to the Administrator of Veterans Affairs. Arlington and the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemeteries remained
under the Department of the Army.
On Oct. 31, 1983, the Chief Memorial Affairs Director of the then-Veterans Administration authorized "Lebanon"
or "Grenada" to be shown as the war service for those killed as a result of those military actions. Then
on Dec. 22, 1989, the Director of the National Cemetery System (now called the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs,
National Cemetery Administration), Department of Veterans Affairs, authorized "Panama" to be shown as
the war service for those killed in military action in Panama, and "Persian Gulf" to be shown as the
war service for all military personnel who served in that action August 2, 1990 or later.
The Director of Monument Services authorized "MIA" and "POW" to be inscribed at Government
expense on Dec. 12, 1988
On Dec. 4, 1992, the Director of Memorial Programs Service authorized "Somalia" to be shown as the war
service for those killed as a result of military actions.
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs authorized the reintroduction of upright granite headstones on Jan. 19, 1994.
In February 1997, the Inclusive Inscription Policy was adopted. This policy allows for additional text inscription
to be provided at government expense.
Public Law 107-103, signed on Dec. 27, 2001, allows the VA to furnish an appropriate government marker for the
grave of a veteran buried in a private cemetery regardless of whether the grave is already marked with a private
marker. On Dec. 6, 2002, this law was amended to extend this benefit to veterans who died on or after Sept. 11,
2001. This act would eliminate any possibility of a Confederate soldier's grave being marked if a private marker
was already in place. Literally thousands of Confederate graves are lost, or have private markers supplied by family,
and many Confederate graves have been lost when the private markers faded beyond recognition, never to be marked
to show their Confederate service.
The American Veteran status of Confederate soldiers has even been used to deny placing Confederate flags on Confederate
soldier's graves. The decision in the case of Patrick G. Griffin, III vs. Department of Veterans Affairs issued
by the US Court of Appeals 4th District ultimately affirmed the VA’s contention that the Confederate prisoners
buried at Point Lookout were buried and honored as American soldiers and, therefore (the issue before the court)
there was no obligation to allow Confederate flags to fly over their graves.
Fortunately the 4th District’s discriminatory decision does not apply in the remote family cemeteries of Alabama.
Last updated: 18 August 2020