History of VA in 100 Objects
Telling VA's story - two objects at a time
If you wanted to create an album of your family’s history but were limited to 100 items, what would you put in and what would you leave out? These were the questions that the VA History staff asked in compiling the History of VA in 100 Objects virtual exhibit. The exhibit explores the history of the nation’s efforts to honor and reward Veterans for their service by spotlighting objects that tell key parts of the VA story. The objects span the centuries, from the earliest laws governing disability claims for Revolutionary War soldiers to the latest medical gear to protect VA workers and Veterans from the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibit is being published serially throughout 2022, with new entries appearing every Thursday at the rate of two per week. Entries from previous weeks are available for viewing on the GALLERY PAGE. We hope you will join us as we embark on this year-long journey through VA’s past, object by object.
Object 29: National Cemetery “General” Headstone
By Sara Amy Leach, Senior Historian, National Cemetery Administration
More than 4.7 million Americans served in the U.S. armed forces in World War I and almost all became eligible after the war for burial in a national cemetery or to receive a government headstone in a private cemetery. In the final months of the Great War, the federal government developed a new upright marble headstone to distinguish twentieth-century service from service in the Civil War and Spanish-American War. The design eliminated the older, smaller recessed-shield headstones and introduced expanded inscriptions. The impact of the “General,“ as the headstone came to be called, was profound, for it established a standard that has been in use for the past 100 years. Individual memorialization, however, continued to change over the same period, as the inscriptions on the headstones illustrate.
The decision to adopt the General headstone came as the War Department was conducting two challenging tasks: the repatriation of the more than 46,000 American war dead for burial in the United States and the establishment of permanent overseas cemeteries for another 31,000 remains. The transition to the new design was neither seamless nor fast. Veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American War vehemently objected to this deviation from the tradition of the headstone with the sunken shield. The first headstones produced also suffered from material flaws—too thin and narrow, and thus more likely to break. As a result of this false start, only 2,200 were installed between mid-1918 and late 1920.
On April 26, 1922, a board of officers that included U.S. Army Chief of Staff John J. Pershing approved a sturdier version of the final design for the General headstone. Pershing had led the American Expeditionary Forces in France during the war and in 1923 he would be appointed chair of the newly created American Battle Monuments Commission set up to manage the overseas cemeteries. Made of American white marble, the 1922 design weighs 230 pounds and measures 42 inches tall, 13 inches wide, and 4 inches thick, with 24 inches above ground. The inscription initially included the veteran’s name, state of service, rank, regiment, division, and death date. The most novel addition was a rosette at top center for an optional emblem of “religious faith,” now known as an “emblem of belief” (EOB). Initially only two emblems were authorized: a Latin/Roman cross for Christian faith and a Star of David for Hebrew faith.
Today, the General headstone marks the graves of approximately 300,000 Americans who served in World War I and are buried in VA cemeteries. Interestingly, for some veterans of the Great War, the conflict did not appear on their headstones because it was not until October 1946, more than a year after the conclusion of World War II, that “World War I” was authorized for inscription.
While the dimensions of the General headstone have not changed since 1922, in other respects its appearance has. Here are some notable examples:
- The number of approved EOBs has grown from two to seventy-nine.
- General headstones in granite were produced from 1941-1947 for private cemeteries that prohibited marble; since 1994, granite has been used at specific sections in ten VA cemeteries.
- In the early 1970s, inscriptions were in-painted to make them darker and more readable; in 2009, the National Cemetery Administration discontinued the practice in new national cemeteries and new burial sections because it found that legibility actually decreased as the paint faded.
- In 1976, the government introduced a General Bicentennial headstone honoring Medal of Honor recipients that features a gold-leaf inscription and medal insignia.
- Headstone inscriptions have grown longer and include more service details on multiple lines, and personal messages are permitted.
- As aging recessed-shield headstones for pre-World War I Veterans deteriorated, they were replaced with a General headstone routed with a shield from the 1950s to 2007. Since then, NCA has provided a General headstone with a true recessed-shield design that better resembles the original marker and preserves the historical appearance of the landscape.
Object 30: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
By Barbara Matos, Executive Assistant, Office of Procurement Policy, Systems and Oversight, and Jeffrey Seiken, PhD, Historian, Veterans Benefits Administration
|Photo of President Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address from the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol on March 4, 1865. An estimated 30-40,000 people turned out for the event. (Library of Congress)|
On March 4, 1865, as the Civil War entered its final weeks, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address from the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. Four years earlier, he had stood in the same spot when he spoke to the crowd that had assembled for his swearing in as the sixteenth President of the United States. On that occasion, he talked at length about Constitutional principles and concluded with a plea for national unity in a desperate attempt to stave off a conflict that would claim the lives of over 600,000 Americans.
Now, in 1865, with the defeat of the Confederacy drawing near, Lincoln kept his remarks brief. At 700 words, his second address was only one-fifth as long as the first. But what the speech lacked in length, it more than made up for in power and eloquence. He denounced slavery as a stain upon the land and characterized the war as a form of divine retribution to wash away the nation’s sins. He ended his address with a stirring call for healing and reconciliation, to which he added a solemn promise to those who had fought to restore the Union:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Lincoln did not live to see whether his hopes for a harmonious future for the nation would be realized. An assassin’s bullet ended his life just days after the Confederate Army surrendered at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. However, at the time of his death, the government had already taken steps to fulfil his pledge to Union Veterans and their families. In 1862, Congress passed a generous pension law that compensated soldiers not only for their injuries, but also for illnesses sustained in military service. The same year, Congress authorized the establishment of national cemeteries for the burial of Union war dead. And the day before Lincoln took the oath of office for the second time, he signed into law a bill creating a national soldiers and sailors asylum. The first of these homes opened in 1866. Over the next fifty years, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers would grow into a network of residential communities at eleven different locations around the country.
Lincoln’s second inaugural address was destined to become his second most famous speech, surpassed in popularity only by the 1863 Gettysburg Address. Almost a century later, his appeal “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” inspired Sumner Whittier, the head of the Veterans’ Administration (the forerunner of the Department of Veterans Affairs), to adopt those words as VA’s motto. In 1959, they were inscribed in all capital letters on two plaques mounted to either side of the entrance to VA’s central office in Washington, D.C. Prominently displayed in this fashion, they reminded all who entered the building or passed within eyeshot of the nation’s enduring obligation to those who served. In 1999, Lincoln’s words also were incorporated into VA’s mission statement, encapsulating in succinct but poetic terms the agency’s commitment to caring for Veterans and their dependents.
Have an idea for an object? Let us know!
We have worked hard to capture VA’s complex and varied history in the exhibit, but our list of 100 objects is not set in stone. We invite readers to submit their own suggestions of objects to include in the exhibit. Send your ideas to VAHistoryOffice@va.gov. If we like your suggestion, we will write it up and give you full credit when the entry on your object appears on the website.