100 Objects: Number 29 - VA History Office
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100 Objects: Number 29

Object 29: National Cemetery “General” Headstone

By Sara Amy Leach, Senior Historian, National Cemetery Administration

General headstones (left to right): WWI service with Latin cross and WWII service with Star of David, both Cypress Hills National Cemetery, New York; replacement for Civil War service with engraved shield, Baxter Springs Soldiers Lot, Kansas; Medal of Honor Bicentennial design, Fort Bliss National Cemetery, Texas; granite with darkened inscription, Quantico National Cemetery, Virginia. (NCA)General headstones (left to right): WWI service with Latin cross and WWII service with Star of David, both Cypress Hills National Cemetery, New York; replacement for Civil War service with engraved shield, Baxter Springs Soldiers Lot, Kansas; Medal of Honor Bicentennial design, Fort Bliss National Cemetery, Texas; granite with darkened inscription, Quantico National Cemetery, Virginia. (NCA)

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.

 

View of Winchester National Cemetery in Virginia, established in 1866. Headstones with the recessed-shield design denoting service in the Civil War or Spanish-American War are visible among the General headstones that became the standard after World War I. (NCA)
View of Winchester National Cemetery in Virginia, established in 1866. Headstones with the recessed-shield design denoting service in the Civil War or Spanish-American War are visible among the General headstones that became the standard after World War I. (NCA)

 

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.

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