Thursday, November 7, 2013

The U.S. Military Marker: a history.

Countless rows of gleaming white stones, that is the image that comes to mind when one thinks of military cemeteries. But did you know United States Government headstones have a history all their own?

The original standard gravestone has its origin in the frontier days when it was the duty of the garrison commanders to bury their dead, mainly in cemetery plots within garrisons and those not so fortunate were buried where death occurred.

The departed were marked with a wooden board with a rounded top bearing a registration number or inscription.

This system might have been ok for the forces in the frontier, but it could scarcely meet the needs of the national army that came into being at the beginning of the Civil War. Soon after the first battle of Manassas, the War Department issued General Orders #75 on September 11, 1861, which made commanders of the 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. General Orders #75 created the first organized system of marking graves.

In 1865, when burials approached 100,000 in national cemeteries, there were serious considerations given to the thought of how much it was going to cost to maintain the wooden headboards being used. It was estimated that the total recovered dead of the Civil War would be around 300,000 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.

Besides the costs of wooden headboards, public sentiment was turning to a more permanent way of marking graves. Several years of controversy ensued within the War Department as to the type of headstone should be used instead 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 for several years.

 The monument shown to the right is an example of a Zinc marker. It has a characteristic blue-grey hue.

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. 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. 

 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.

  Point of interest:
According to a graves registrar for the Sons of Union Veterans, if an original stone is replaced with a modern version - the older stone is to be destroyed and used as base material for the newer stone.

 The question of permanently marking graves of Confederates in national cemeteries and Confederate burial plots resulted in the Act of March 9, 1906, 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 and Spanish War dead. The design varied in that the top was pointed instead of rounded and the shield was omitted.


As the story goes the reason for the point at the top was to prevent "Yankees" from sitting on Confederate headstones.

An act on Feb. 26, 1929, 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.

Following World War I, a board of officers adopted a new design to be used for all graves except those of veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American Wars. The stone was of the slab design referred to as "General" type, slightly rounded at the top, of 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.

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 buried 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, April 18, 1940

*and in 1940 the use flat bronze markers was adopted.

 Starting in 1951 the Secretary of the Army started approving religious emblems besides the Christian cross and adding the recent conflicts.

Dec. 12, 1988 "MIA" and "POW" was approved.

 Jan. 19, 1994 The Secretary of Veterans Affairs authorized the reintroduction of upright granite headstones.

With so many variations over so many years, one thing is for sure... the official United States Military Marker will forever be adapting and changing with the times. Just like the soldiers they commemorate.

Happy Veteran's Day to all those who have or are currently serving.