Teaching Tools
"The National Cemetery System"
By Department of Veterans Affairs
Aug 14, 2011, 9:38am

The National Cemetery System
From The ‘Celebrating America’s Freedoms’ Series

National cemeteries in the United States for military veterans and service members began during the Civil War, near the battlefields, military hospitals and campgrounds of the war. On July 17, 1862, President Lincoln signed legislation that authorized the federal government to purchase ground to be used as national cemeteries “for soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country.” Up to that time, the dead were hastily buried in fields and churchyards, or close to hospitals and prison camps where they died.

After the war, Army crews searched the countryside to find and rebury the Union dead in the original 14 national cemeteries. The remains of Confederate prisoners of war were included, although it was not until 1906 that legislation approved marking their graves with headstones. The reinterment process took five years and resulted in establishing 50 more cemeteries to hold a quarter-million remains. They were reburied with honor. The new cemeteries were enclosed by brick walls and entered through ornate gates. However, the identities of nearly half of the Union dead are buried in national cemeteries are unknown. A few of the national cemeteries developed around large numbers of Confederate dead who had been POWs of the Union.

Arlington Cemetery courtesy of LongitudeLatitude/Flickr
Eight years after the war ended, Congress opened the national cemeteries to all honorably discharged veterans of the Union forces. Legislation after World War I opened them to American veterans of all wartime service. Finally, after World War II, Congress expanded eligibility for burial to all veterans of U.S. armed forces, American war veterans of allied armed forces and veterans’ spouses and dependent children.

From the system’s founding until 1973, national cemeteries were operated by the Department of the Army. Today, the National Cemetery System is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA operates 114 national cemeteries in the United States and Puerto Rico. The Department of the Interior administers 14 others and the Army administers two (including Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.).

More than two million Americans, including veterans of every conflict in which the U.S. participated — from the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf — are buried in VA’s national cemeteries.

The cemeteries comprise more than 10,000 acres of land. Fifty-five of the 114 national cemeteries have exhausted available gravesites.

In addition to providing a gravesite, VA provides a headstone or marker, and perpetually cares for the grave at no cost to the veteran’s family or heirs.


President Zachary Taylor, at the cemetery named for him near Louisville, Ky.

More than 300 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Union’s “Andrews’ Raiders” who seized a Confederate train and were later caught by Confederates and executed, at Chattanooga, Tenn., National Cemetery.

Florena Budwin, wife of a Pennsylvania soldier of the Civil War, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union Army. She was captured and imprisoned at Florence, S.C., where her identity was revealed. She remained at the prison to care for Union soldiers, finally dying of illness in 1865. Buried at Florence National Cemetery.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet in World War II, at Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, Calif.

Ernie Pyle, veteran of World War I, famed World War II correspondent, at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, along with all 848 unknowns from the Korean War (except one at Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery).

Nathan Cook, last veteran of the Spanish-American War, buried Sept. 10, 1992, at National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona, Phoenix.

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