Memorial Day is now observed in the United States on the last Monday in May. However, today (May 30) is the “traditional” holiday. In 1868, Maj. General John Logan declared that May 30 should be set aside as a day to decorate the graves of those who had died in the Civil War. Various observances were held across the United States and many towns have laid claim to being the “first” to observe Decoration Day, as it was called then. (In 1966, Congress declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day.)
Regardless of whether you call it Memorial Day or Decoration Day, the day revolves around remembering those service-men and -women who are now gone. Cemeteries across the country become the site of memorials and tributes. The tombstones bear silent witness to the commemoration.
Though military headstones are relatively simple in their design, they can yield a surprising amount of information. In this set of slides, I share a bit of the history behind military headstones in the U.S., what they can tell us, and clues to look for in other types of tombstones.
If you have ancestors who served in the military, you should check Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, 1879-1903 and Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963. They will identify the person’s regiment, place of burial, and often the date of death. The 1925-1963 collection also shows the name and address of who ordered the headstone (often a family member). It’s also important to remember that the dates correspond to when the headstone was ordered, which could be years after the death. For example, this card from 1929 was for John Smith, a Revolutionary War veteran.