Observing Memorial Day – Veteran’s Cemetery Resources

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Call me a traditionalist, but for me Memorial Day is May 30th, not the last Monday in May (the dates will not coincide until 2011). While long weekends are certainly nice respites from the stress of the workplace, I think the purpose of Memorial Day has gotten lost in the calendar shuffle. To mark the traditional date, I thought I’d share some background about the holiday and describe selected online resources with which to research veterans’ cemetery records.

The legal basis for the creation of national cemeteries was established by an Act of Congress dated July 17, 1862. It authorized President Abraham Lincoln to “purchase cemetery grounds to be used as a national cemetery for soldiers who shall have died in the service of their country.” These cemeteries were usually located at a point of troop actions where general hospitals were located, or were established as memorials to those who gave their lives in battle, often at such locations as soldiers’ homes. By the end of 1864, twenty-seven burial sites were designated as national cemeteries, and by 1870 the number had risen to seventy-three as efforts were made to locate battlefield burials of Union soldiers and reinter them in more sacred ground.

The first Memorial Day (initially known as Decoration Day) followed the Congressional action establishing national cemeteries by six years. In May 1868 General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued his General Order No. 11, establishing May 30th as a day for “the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” The first observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery. While the holiday grew out of Union sentiment, women in the former Confederate states may, in fact, have been decorating soldiers’ graves as early as 1866. (Confederate Memorial Day is still observed in southern states, although the actual date of observance differs from state to state.) Memorial Day continued to be a commemoration of soldiers of the Civil War until World War I, when Moina Michael, inspired by In Flanders Field, began the practice of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day to honor those who had died serving their nation regardless of the war during which they had died. In 1922 the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) became the first veterans’ organization to sell poppies nationwide. The National Holiday Act of 1971, in ensuring three-day weekends for federal holidays, established the official observance of Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. In 1999 Senator Inouye introduced a bill (S189) to restore Memorial Day to its original date (companion bill H.R. 1474), but after referral to committee, no action has been taken. A petition in support of these bills can be found at http://www.usmemorialday.org/. In December 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed asking that all Americans pause at 3:00 p.m. local time to “observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect.”

Many of us have parents, grandparents, or other ancestors who died while in service or, as veterans, were eligible for burial in national cemeteries. I was reminded of this recently while working with a friend who knew her father had died in Africa during World War II, but who knew little else about his military service. We were able to locate his gravesite by visiting the website of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). This Commission was established by Congress in 1923 “to commemorate the service, achievements, and sacrifice of U.S. armed forces where they have served overseas since 1917.” Their work is reflected in twenty-four overseas cemeteries with almost 125,000 American war dead, on tablets of the missing memorializing more than 94,000 U.S. servicemen and women, and through twenty-five memorials, monuments, and markers. The ABMC site includes listings of soldiers who died during the Mexican, Civil, and Spanish-American Wars and were buried in Mexico or in the Corozal American Cemetery in Panama; those who died in World Wars I and II and the Korean War; and those missing in the Vietnam War. A search for my friend’s father, Harry B. Stokes, revealed that he was a Major in the Medical Department, had entered the service from Nebraska, had died 2 January 1943, and was buried in the North Africa American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia. His service number, as well as the specific plot, row, and grave number, were included. The information provided will allow my friend to FOIA a copy of his death burial file from the U.S. Army Total Personnel Command in Alexandria, Virginia. Finally, if an ancestor’s cemetery is identified during a ABMC search, check the cemetery section of the site to find a description of the site with illustrations, information about hours and services, directions to get there, and the link to download booklets (with or without pictures) about the cemetery.

Another useful site is provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Under the category of Burial and Memorial Benefits, a Nationwide Gravesite Locator provides a search engine for burial locations of “┼ôveterans and their family members in VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, various other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and for veterans buried in private cemeteries when the grave is marked with a government grave marker.” A caveat is that there is no information available for burials in private cemeteries prior to 1997. I searched for my father who died in 2006 and was buried in the state veterans’ cemetery in Agawam, Massachusetts. Because I was unsure of the full name of the cemetery, I tried searching “all” cemeteries. The first few searches yielded no matches even though I provided the full name and dates of birth and death. After some additional searches to determine the real name of the cemetery, I was successful in locating his record. If your first search does not work, keep trying! This site also lists all national cemeteries with the location (city/town and state), the year established, and the date of the first burial. In addition, several PDF articles about national cemeteries are provided, as is a 30-minute video entitled Landscapes of Honor & Sacrifice: The History of the National Cemeteries, 2003.

Also rich in research opportunities is interment.net: cemetery records online, “a free online library of burial records from thousands of cemeteries across the world, for historical and genealogy research.” The site’s full coverage includes the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and more. For the purpose of this article, I targeted American national cemeteries. A list of cemeteries by state is provided with links to each cemetery’s website. Out of curiosity, I looked at the Custer National Cemetery on the Crow Indian Reservation inside the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The page(s) included an article about the cemetery and a transcribed list of the 4,571 individuals buried there. Always searching for Barclay/Barkleys, I found two: James G. Barkley, a 1st Lt. in the Army during WWII who was buried there in 1967, and a William Barkley, a Private in the 52nd Ohio B Infantry, who was buried there in 1914. It is, however, not necessary to know the cemetery name to use this site as surname searches can be entered. A search for “Barkley” yielded 143 hits. It appeared, however, that the number indicated was the number of times “Barkley” appeared, not 143 individual cemetery entries. There were actually only ten documents, some with multiple Barkley names in them, some referring to geographical entries such as “Barkley Road.”

Other sites that may assist in your veteran’s cemetery research include Access Genealogy’s national cemetery search (although I encountered more than a few broken links), and ancestry.com’s military records collection (fee based). Remember to include a Google search for the cemetery name to gain background information for your research. As a case study, I chose an entry located during my Barclay surname search on the ABMC site: George W. Barclay, a Corporal from Georgia, who died February 21, 1919, and was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France. I searched for him on ancestry.com and found his WWI draft registration card, identifying him as black, born in Virginia on 22 November 1889, and at the time of registration, a hotel waiter in Savannah, Georgia. As the interment.net site had suggested searching ancestry.com’s World War I Burial Case Files, I searched for that collection. While I could not find that particular title, with some degree of serendipity I selected American Soldiers of World War I. This choice linked me to page 212 of Soldiers of the Great War, where a list of Georgia soldiers who died of disease included Cpl. George W. Barclay of Savannah. A search of the 1910 census was inconclusive, yielding only a George D. Barclay, aged 19, born in Virginia, and a hotel waiter in Jersey City, New Jersey. A search in the 1900 census did not immediately provide a match. Further time and research will be necessary.

I hope you will check out these sites. They provide a wealth of information about individual soldiers and cemeteries, and illustrate the magnitude of sacrifice made for our country by many men and women. In addition you may want to check genealogical.com for the following titles:

Roll of Honor. Names of Soldiers Who Died in Defense of the American Union, Interred in the National Cemeteries. The U.S. Quartermaster’s Department published 27 volumes in this series between 1865 and 1871, listing over 200,000 Union soldiers buried in national cemeteries, garrison cemeteries, soldiers’ lots, and private graveyards. The original volumes have been reprinted in 10 volumes.

Index to the Roll of Honor by Martha and William Reamy. This volume lists the names, in alphabetical order, of the 228,639 Union soldiers included in the 27-volume Roll of Honor and includes a comprehensive index to burial sites.

The Unpublished Roll of Honor by Mark Hughes. This title includes records of national cemeteries omitted from the original series, records of headstone requests, and records of post cemeteries also omitted from the original series. Approximately 8,500 additional individuals are included.

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