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
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.
- The Honor Roll of Veterans of the Armed Forces of the United States
Buried in the State of Illinois Prior to July 1, 1955 is organized
by county and may be helpful in locating individuals who were buried
in that state.
- An estimated 85,000 graves were recorded as a part of the Veterans'
Graves Registration Project in Kentucky. This WPA project was begun
in 1938 and the records are housed at the Kentucky Department of Military
Affairs in Frankfort, Kentucky.
- The Ohio Historical Society has on microfilm alphabetically-arranged
cards in a similarly-titled series: Grave Registration Records.
- Mississippi Confederate Grave Registrations by Betty C. Wiltshire,
was published in 1991 and contains information on Confederate burials
in that state.
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:
- Riley Rampley, my great-great-grandfather, collapsed on July 28th,
1864 while on an expedition to Sister's Ferry, Georgia. His comrade
Wilford Manlove signed a statement to that effect.
- A pension file for one of the brothers mentions the Rampley family
Bible, which I later used for proof of a birth date.
- My great-grandmother, Nancy J. Rampley signed an affidavit in her
sister-in-law's application for a widow's pension. Another affidavit
in that same brother's file indicates that James and Riley Rampley both
married women named Nancy and the one who married second went by her
middle name to avoid confusion (the affidavit was filed to indicate
why the lady's name was different on her marriage license and on her
widow's pension application).
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.
- Greenwood, Val D., The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy,
3rd edition, Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000, Baltimore.
- Neagles, James C., U.S. Military Records, Ancestry Inc., 1994,
Salt Lake City.
- Prechtel-Kluskens, Claire, "Headstones of Union Civil War Veterans,"
FGS FORUM, Spring 1999, Volume 11, Number 1, pp. 1 and 27.
- Szucs, Loretto and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking editors, The Source,
Ancestry Inc., 1997, Salt Lake City.