Veterans Day, which was this past Thursday, is a time of remembrance and reflection not only for surviving veterans who served our nation, but those who were lost. Some spend part of the day in national cemeteries, a solemn reminder of the legacy of the American military.
There are six national cemeteries in Wisconsin, where thousands of former military men and women rest in well-maintained grounds. Such cemeteries are found across the state, from out-of-the-way corners of existing graveyards to sprawling burial sites where thousands of deceased veterans now lay.
National cemeteries were developed during the Civil War in response to increasing war casualties. On July 17, 1862, Congress authorized President Lincoln “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.”
The largest of Wisconsin’s national cemeteries is Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee, where some 38,000 veterans rest. By comparison, a mere 21 soldiers lie in the Forest Home Cemetery Soldiers Lot, elsewhere in the city. That facility was created in 1872 when the federal government bought the parcel in Forest Home Cemetery, the oldest rural cemetery in the Upper Midwest.
In Madison, the southeast section of Forest Hill Cemetery contains a Soldiers’ Lot, which houses the graves of Civil War soldiers, Spanish-American War and World War I veterans, and eight children from the nearby Soldiers’ Orphan Home.
The tiny Mound Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot in Racine is just 0.03 acre in size, holding the graves of 14 soldiers, including one unknown. At Fort Crawford Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot in Prairie du Chien, some 64 soldiers rest in a plot measuring nearly six-tenths of an acre.
Seventy-five graves are found in the two-acre Fort Winnebago Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot north of Portage, including veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
By 1870, some 300,000 Union dead from the Civil War had been interred in 73 national cemeteries.
In 1872, Congress amended the rules of national cemeteries to include “all sailors and soldiers honorably discharged from the service of the United States who may die in a destitute condition.” The next year, Marines were added to the list, and others have been included in subsequent actions since.
Today, there are 150 national cemeteries across the nation, which house 3.8 million burials in a total of 20,000 acres. Around 100,000 of those graves have unknown identities.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois.