Decoration Day Created By Union Veterans To Honor War Graves With Flowers…Becomes Memorial Day To Remember All War Dead

Today, 28 May, is the legal holiday to recognize the patriotic sacrifice of Americans who gave their lives that we could live in freedom. On 30 May, is the traditional holiday, and the birthday celebration of my beloved Alma. So I get to celebrate all week.

Let’s examine a primary source of genealogical data growing out of war: military cemetery records

Most persons do not write their own tombstones. The genealogical data and the verse or tombstone art are chosen by relatives, friends, employees, government officers, cemetery personnel. Yet they can provide best evidence for tracing women–including those who do not serve in the military:

  1. Birth and death dates on tombstones usually pre-date official vital records. And they can fill gaps in family records when other vital records are missing.
  2. Wives and children can be buried in military cemeteries along with their men–often in family units–at frontier posts, in national cemeteries, near battlefields.
  3. Children who are born and die between census years may be recorded only in cemeteries. And their burial site yields valuable evidence of mother’s maiden name, family naming patterns and birth order, kinship networks.
  4. Cemetery art, position of graves, direction the tombstone faces, size, and color, and stone used can furnish evidence of ethnic background and national origins.
  5. When women change surname, the cemetery records may offer the first or the only clue! Mothers and mothers-in-law may be buried with sons and daughters revealing second, third, and even fourth marriages. Watch carefully for nearby stones.
  6. Gold Star mothers (and widows) were sent at public expense to visit the gravesites of their soldiers in Europe following World War I. Each state participated to ensure remembrance of the sacrifice these valiant women and their sons had made. Rosters are available identifying the cemetery where the soldier rests.
  7. Military cemetery “vital records” recorded on tombstones are especially valuable to fill in the “shadow years:” end of the War of 1812 as migration fever draws settlers into the Old Northwest–OH, MI, IN, IL, MN; early 1870’s when the American population explodes West and South; and the 1890’s with the loss of the census and the need to identify original spellings of immigrant names.

National Cemetery System, Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Ave NW, Washington DC 20420. <> Master Index of Burials, 112 national cemeteries. You can also request a search for the name and address of person who requested the burial marker. Searches are free.

What is little-known about the National Cemetery System is that American soldiers originally buried outside of U.S. boundaries are researched, their graves located, and their bodies re-interred in specially designated cemeteries. These data are recorded in the online Master Index. Family members buried with the soldier are also identified. Soldiers buried in private cemeteries, in state and local facilities, if they have a government military marker, are also included in the databases.

Published Rolls of Honor for the Civil War (published by Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore MD) and other honor rolls are available. One of the quickest ways to check is through the Family History Library Catalog. Since they have tried to acquire all of these published works in book form or on microfilm, their catalog is a good bibilo finder.

National Archives Military Search, Washington DC 20408. Applications for military stones, 1879-1903, are indexed for private cemetery burials. Search cost: $10.00.

Your Genealogy Evidence Guru, Arlene Eakle

P.S. And if you think the political controversy surrounding the Iraqi War is unique, trot over to your local video store and rent or buy The Patriot with Mel Gibson. Controversy has encumbered every American War and every conflict in which Americans have fought–and the more controversy, the more records are generated! Be grateful!

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