In 1863, a young soldier left his family’s Illinois farm at the age of eighteen to fight in the Civil War. Mason Bryant was never seen again. His parents and siblings never knew what happened, how he died, or where he was buried. Today, Bryant’s descendants keep his memory alive with a government marker placed in his honor at the family cemetery.
Private Bryant was one of thousands of Civil War soldiers who never received a formal burial. His story, and that of his family’s, is woven into the fabric of our national cemetery system, created in part to ensure that military families never suffer anguish like this again.
Knowing that a loved one received the respect afforded by a formal burial helps families see death differently. The quartermaster officers who organized and managed the burials of 25,000 soldiers during the American Revolution provided military families with closure. Parents knew where their sons were buried. Although they grieved, they found peace in that knowing.
There was no way, however, anyone could have anticipated the Civil War or the 620,000 who sacrificed their lives. The small lots purchased by the government near battlefield hospitals were not sufficient to handle the soaring casualties. Wives lost husbands. Children lost fathers. And they never learned how their loved ones died or where they were buried.
President Lincoln and Congress stepped in a year after the war began and empowered the military “to purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” This defined the concept of a national cemetery system, and within the year, 14 national cemeteries were established.
Five years later in 1867, the first National Cemetery Act was passed. It provided $750,000 and direction on construction and maintenance for national cemeteries. This important legislation created 47 new cemeteries and offered more families the opportunity to bury their sons and husbands closer to home.
It also marked the beginning of a major shift in the appearance of the cemeteries. Because soldiers weren’t scrambling to build makeshift burial grounds during the chaos of war, there was time to think and plan. One of the first changes was to replace wooden headboards with permanent marble headstones, creating lasting tributes to those who died for their country.
In addition, noted landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted was consulted. He suggested the cemeteries be “studiously simple … a sacred grove … (and) establish permanent dignity.” His recommendations to plant trees and flowerbeds and create walking paths helped grieving families take comfort in the tranquility and beauty of nature.
The challenges of operating a national cemetery system increased when the U.S. became involved in World War I and World War II. Provisions for bringing home soldiers killed on foreign soil, creating new guidelines for burial eligibility, and building new cemeteries were put in place. In the 1930s, responsibility for the cemeteries was transferred from the Army to the National Park Service because of their ability to interpret the historical significance of the battle.
Now called The National Cemetery Administration, this vital organization is part of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and is responsible for 130 national cemeteries, seven of which are in Florida, and 29 million gravesites. Arlington National Cemetery and Soldier’s Home are still operated by the Army, and the Department of the Interior manages an additional fourteen.
The goal of all our national cemeteries is to ensure that those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country are buried with respect and dignity, and to prevent other families the unnecessary suffering that was experienced by the Mason Bryant family.
For more information about the National Cemetery Administration, visit their website at www.cem.va.gov.