|by Michael John Neill|
It was Memorial Day and I was fifteen years old. On the way back from taking my grandmother to visit her parents' grave, we stopped at another out-of-the-way cemetery where several earlier family members were buried. It was one of the first cemeteries I had ever visited for genealogy purposes and I was confused.
There was absolutely no doubt that one ancestor in particular was there. In fact all three of his gravestones were easy to locate as they were within several feet of each other. However, it seemed a little odd that just one man had three stones, especially in the same cemetery. The first stone had just his name, the second stone included his wife's name, and the third stone had his name and military unit. I've never been so lucky to have found three stones for one ancestor again. But there's more to the story than mortuary overkill.
Why So Many Gravestones for One Person?
A Congressional act of 1879 allowed for a tombstone to be placed on the graves of soldiers buried in private cemeteries. An index of the headstones was created on what were originally 3-inch by 4-inch cards. The cards name an approximate 166,000 soldiers and have been microfilmed and are available in National Archives and Records Administration Microfilm Publication M1845, which you can find at the National Archives and the thirteen regional branches. Information about the microfilm is available in the National Archives Information Locator system. The names contained on the cards are generally those of Civil War veterans. There are a very few non-Civil War names contained in the index.
Claire Prechtel-Kluskens' article on "Headstones of Union Civil War Veterans" in the Spring 1999 issue of the FGS FORUM discusses these records in detail and indicates the range of names contained in each roll. If you are looking for "lost" soldiers this index may be quite helpful, as it is national in scope and you don't need to know the place of burial or death to search the index.
Finding Relatives in Military Cemeteries
Beginning in 1861, military veterans could be buried in one of the many national or federally-administrated cemeteries. The largest of these cemeteries is the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., but there are many others as well. Records of almost all these soldier and veteran burials are in the custody of the Cemetery Service, National Cemetery System, Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Ave., Washington, DC, 20420. The National Cemetery Administration has a home page which contains information about national cemeteries and how to access what information they do have. Also try the Army Mortuary Affairs History page, which provides information about military cemeteries.
Another resource is Roll of Honor: Names of Soldiers who Died in Defense of the American Union, Interred in the National Cemeteries, Numbers I-XIX. This includes the names of over 200,000 Union soldiers who were buried in three hundred national cemeteries during the Civil War. These entries are arranged by the name of the cemetery. Originally published in 1868, this book was reprinted in 1994 by the Genealogical Publishing Company, and now is available on CD-ROM. An alphabetical index of all soldiers, Index to the Roll of Honor, was created by Martha and William Remy in 1995.
More information about military stones and cemeteries can be obtained at the following Web sites:
Searching Non-Military Cemeteries
Of course soldiers did not have to be buried in any type of military or national cemetery and it is these burials that constitute the resting place of the vast majority of individuals who served in the military. Many of these graves were provided a stone either though family efforts or a local veterans' organization.
In addition to these stones and the records that were created along with the stones, there are other inventories and listings of deceased military men and women.
Check library catalogs and research guides for your specific areas of interest in order to determine if similar compilations exist for those locales. State archives, historical societies, and similar organizations might have compiled similar lists, although most are before World War I. Many of these state-wide agencies and organizations have a summary of their finding aids listed on their web pages, frequently under a genealogical research section. If all else fails, and you think you know the county of burial for your military relative, determine if the county's cemeteries have been canvassed. Sometimes these cemetery listings have been published, in which case searching the Library of Congress Catalog or the Family History Library Card Catalog may help. Cemetery inventories or tombstone transcriptions may also exist in manuscript format at a local historical or genealogical society. It does not hurt to ask.
Keep in mind that even stones provided by family members may indicate military service. Such a reference may be obvious, where the unit and war is stated, or the clue could be more subtle. Perhaps the abbreviation G. A. R. appears on the stone. This would indicate membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran's organization. Stones for members of the Confederate Army may contain clues as well. Be sure to read the stone carefully, and make sure you understand what all abbreviations mean.
More Than the Gravestone
The tombstone is not the only record created after a veteran's death that might provide genealogical information. Your ancestor's obituary may provide information about his military service, or at least the name of his unit. A biography in a county history may also include such a reference. Do not neglect these sources.
Also, having learned the name of my ancestor's military unit, I obtained his pension papers from the National Archives. There were similar stones for his two brothers so in short order I also had the pension files for Riley and John Rampley, who served in Co. D. of the 78th Illinois Infantry and for James Rampley who served in Co. G of the 58th Illinois Infantry. The pension files of these three brothers contained a wealth of information:
It is important to remember that in some circumstances, the military tombstone may be the only one marking a grave. Archibald Kile, who died in Mercer County, Illinois, in 1893 only has his military stone. His wife who died approximately twenty years before him has one, but they have no joint stone. Archibald's stone was even more helpful than in the Rampley case. He lived in Illinois, but served from an Iowa unit. In his obituary, the unit is only listed as the "greybeard" regiment. His stone provided his unit and made accessing information about his military service somewhat easier especially since his nephew with the same name also served in the same war.
Don't neglect the stone record your ancestor left behind. It might be the clue that opens a door to a mountain of paper records.
About the Author
Michael John Neill is the Course I coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and coordinates and presents the "Genealogy Computing Week" of workshops at Carl Sandburg College. He speaks on a wide variety of genealogy and computer related topics and is an instructor at Carl Sandburg College. He maintains a Web site at http://www.rootdig.com.