Posted by Ancestry Team on May 30, 2014 in Research

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.



  1. Shirley Leach

    I resent not being able to access some of the persons I am studying because ancestry wants me to upgrade to International Membership…..I could do that any time I wanted to. Please don’t do that to a LOYAL subscriber………..

  2. Shirley Leach

    OK NOW STOP. All our ancestors have an OVERSEES origin……..My genealogy experience today is becoming more unpleasant because I cannot access the records I want to – No I do not want an International Membership!!!!!! Please do not recruit that way. Seems this only happens once in a while but it is extremely irritating not to be able to record the information I want to when my time is limited……..

  3. Larry

    My great, great grandfather, John E Blankenship, and his wife’s 1st cousin, Joel Bullard, joined the Illinois Volunteer Infantry in February of 1865 and died of measles just outside of Nashville in March of 1865. Their graves were moved the the Nashville National Cemetery in 1868. The dates on their headstones say 1864. Researchers should think twice about the accuracy of the dates on these stones!

  4. Deb R

    Does Amy have any knowledge to share about finding the very hidden parents of a Civil War cav. soldier from PA who died in Andersonville in 1864? I’ve been searching records, historical society books, libraries, etc for anyone with that last name, middle or first name and every variation who lived in PA (or northern MD) in the early 1800’s for years with no luck. Born in PA in 1824, my great great grandfather.

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