In honor of Memorial Day, the 1869 Whitman Report on Cemeteries is on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building from May 22 through June 5.
Memorial Day traditions began in the aftermath of the Civil War. The American people were just beginning what historian Drew Gilpin Faust called “the work of death.”
An estimated 750,000 soldiers died between 1861 and 1865—about 2.5 percent of the population. Never before or since has war resulted in so many American casualties. The task of locating, identifying, burying, and mourning the dead was overwhelming.
Walt Whitman wrote of the nation’s shared suffering in his epic 1865 poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
In his Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant described an open field after the 1862 Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. He said it was “so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies.” The proper burial of these and other Union soldiers took years and an expansion of the Federal Government to complete.
Edmund B. Whitman of the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps led one of the crews charged with converting temporary graveyards into permanent national cemeteries. Over four years beginning in March 1865, Whitman’s men located, disinterred, and reburied almost 115,000 bodies. In his Final Report, now on display, he included drawings of Shiloh and several other new national cemeteries.