Our National Cemeteries: Memorial Day and National Cemeteries

As we pause to reflect on the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, many of us will visit a National Cemetery. The National Cemeteries were born during the Civil War, the first ones being established while the war still raged. While they all share a similar design, each National Cemetery has a unique history and distinctive features.

Cold Harbor National Cemetery. Author Photo.

The National Cemeteries were designated without guidance as to design or layout. They are all surrounded by a wall, sometimes of brick, sometimes of stone. They all have a keeper’s lodge, designed in the Second Empire architectural style, featuring a mansard roof (that always reminded me of the old McDonald’s…). There is usually a plaque listing the number of internments, often mounted on a cannon or other prominent feature. They all have (or had) a rostrum (stage) for ceremonies. The poem “Bivouac of the Dead” is often found on plaques on the grounds.

Plaque with the poem, “Bivouac of the Dead.” Author Photo.

Some cemeteries are laid out in rows, others in a circular pattern. Many of the large battlefield parks have National Cemeteries associated with them (Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Shiloh, Chattanooga, Vicksburg, Cold Harbor, etc.)  Most of the early Civil War-era cemeteries have later burials from other conflicts.

Richmond National Cemetery, Richmond, VA. This cemetery has many burials from the Civil War prisons in Richmond. Author Photo.

Many of the Emerging Civil War authors have written about the cemeteries associated with their battles. Each site is unique, with its own stories. In the forthcoming series on National Cemeteries, the ECW authors will share some of their favorite stories and insights on these cemeteries. We hope these posts will give you a deeper appreciation for these sites, and encourage you to visit and explore them in depth.


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