Veterans Cemeteries and Their Origins

Congress enacted legislation authorizing the purchase of land to be used as national cemeteries on 17 July 1862, during the Civil War. Fourteen cemeteries were established shortly after this legislation. Fourteen national cemeteries were established that first year, including one in Sharpsburg, Md., where 4,476 Union soldiers were laid to rest after the one-day Battle of Antietam. By comparison, approximately 3,000 American, British and Canadian fighters died on June 6, 1944, during the invasion of Normandy.

After the Civil War, army crews were sent to seek Union soldiers’ remains to reinter them in these national cemeteries. By 1870, almost 300,000 Union soldiers’ remains 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, but almost half of the Union soldiers buried there are unknown. Confederate soldiers who were buried in federal cemeteries were primarily those who had died in Union prison camps. By 1873, all honorably discharged veterans became eligible for burial in national cemeteries, however.

In 1923, Congress established the American Battle Monuments Commission, an independent agency responsible for maintaining burial grounds in foreign countries for U.S. armed forces members who die overseas.  The commission maintains 24 American military cemeteries as well as monuments and memorials.

In the 1930s, new national cemeteries were established to serve veterans living in metropolitan areas such as New York, Baltimore, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco and San Antonio.  Others associated with battlefields such as Gettysburg and Antietam were transferred from Army control to the National Park Service because of their historical significance.

In 1973, Congress 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 cemeteries located at hospitals and nursing homes, the National Cemetery System comprised 103 cemeteries after the transfer.

On Nov. 11, 1998, congressional legislation changed the name of the National Cemetery System (NCS) to the National Cemetery Administration (NCA). Today, there are 141 national cemeteries and the NCA operates 125 of them. Two national cemeteries – Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. – are still administered by the Army.  Fourteen national cemeteries continue to be maintained by the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.

More than three million people, including veterans of every war and conflict – from the Revolutionary War to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – are buried in VA’s national cemeteries, which have a total of more than 17,000 acres of land from Hawaii to Maine and from Alaska to Puerto Rico.

The Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act of 1999 required the VA to establish six additional national cemeteries in areas of the United States in which the need for burial space is greatest. Those areas are: Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; Miami, Florida; Sacramento, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Fort Sill National Cemetery near Oklahoma City opened for interments in 2001, the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies near Pittsburgh, Pa. and the Great Lakes National Cemetery near Detroit opened in 2005, the Georgia National Cemetery, and the Sacramento Valley VA National Cemetery opened in 2006, the South Florida VA National Cemetery near Miami, opened in 2007.

The National Cemetery Act of 2003 authorizes VA to establish new national cemeteries to serve veterans in the areas of Bakersfield, Calif.; Birmingham, Ala.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Sarasota County, Fla.; southeastern Pennsylvania; and Columbia-Greenville, S.C. All six areas have veteran populations exceeding 170,000, which is the threshold VA has established for new national cemeteries.

If you visit the National Cemetery Administration site, you can find a cemetery through a map or search for a relative through their Nationwide Gravesite Locator.

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