Fed $ Can’t Be Used For CS Replacement Markers
By Scott C. Boyd
(September 2012 Civil War News)
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – A Civil War Round Table project to replace broken or illegible Confederate grave markers with new ones from the government has been halted by a change in how the National Cemetery Division of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) interprets federal law.
After receiving a replacement last year for one broken headstone in the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery, and three more this year, the CWRT of Fredericksburg’s cemetery service project was halted in July by the new ruling.
The VA has given two different reasons for not replacing Confederate headstones, further confusing the matter and bringing into question the longstanding federal commitment, since 1906, to treat Union and Confederate veterans equally.
Fred Howe Jr., former CWRT president who began the cemetery service project with Mike Burns last year, spoke to an official in the VA’s Memorial Program Service Processing Site in Nashville, Tenn. He was told that a soldier’s next of kin (NOK), someone authorized in writing by the NOK, or a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent had to sign the form requesting a new headstone from the VA.
This was contrary to the understanding Howe and Burns had in discussions with the VA in 2011.
Howe said he thought the understanding was that the CWRT would provide a photo of the broken or illegible headstone along with the soldier’s compiled service record and then would receive a replacement grave marker.
This was in keeping with the equality of Union and Confederate veterans under federal law for receiving burial benefits, which defines soldiers from both sides as “Civil War veterans.”
Howe said he was told in late July that the procedure to request grave markers had changed and that the VA’s general counsel had reinterpreted existing law. The new interpretation concluded that future requests for grave markers had to be signed by the NOK or a descendant.
A new edition of VA Form 40-1330, “Claim for Standard Government Headstone or Marker for Placement in a Private Cemetery or a State Veterans’ Cemetery,” became effective in March 2012, and supersedes the old form. The new form adds the NOK language.
Howe said that when he asked the VA official in Nashville how the CWRT was supposed to find the NOK for Civil War soldiers, he was told to try using Ancestry.com, an online genealogy service.
“I think this is indefensible,” Howe said.
“This will make it next to impossible to get headstones for many soldiers, especially ones who fought in wars in the 19th century,” said historian Todd Berkoff, who has discovered the graves of two Union officers in Massachusetts.
“It makes no sense to me. If a concerned citizen, such as myself, recognizes that a soldier lies in an unmarked grave, why can’t that person correct that injustice on their own?” he wonders.
“In many cases where descendents can be located, the family is apathetic and unmotivated to correct the injustice of their kin buried in unmarked graves, and won’t do it themselves,” Berkoff said.
During his research he could not locate the family of Col. Charles Griswold of the 56th Massachusetts Infantry. “If this new rule was in place last year when I submitted the paperwork to the VA, Colonel Griswold would still be lying in an unmarked grave today,” Berkoff said.
Chris Erbe, a National Cemetery Administration public affairs specialist in Washington, D.C., told Civil War News that the reason that the VA could not replace the broken or illegible Confederate headstones had nothing to do with the NOK rule. He said the requests were for graves markers that were originally provided by private sources, not the federal government.
A Confederate soldier’s grave, if it has no grave marker, is considered unmarked and is eligible for a VA headstone, Erbe said, provided the NOK or descendant signs the application.
If the Confederate grave already has a marker, even an illegible or broken one, it is considered marked, and is not eligible for a VA replacement unless it was originally provided by the federal government.
A Union soldier’s grave with a government headstone is marked, but is eligible for replacement if damaged or illegible because it was originally provided by the federal government, he said.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the federal government buried Union soldiers in national cemeteries but left the burial of Confederate soldiers to the states and private groups like the Ladies’ Memorial Associations which sprang up across the South.
Since virtually all grave markers in Confederate cemeteries were provided by non-U.S. government sources, this excludes broken or illegible ones being replaced by the VA.
“That’s the law as it stands,” Erbe said.
He offered two solutions: lobby Congress to change the law or find private funding.
Howe’s reaction to this explanation: “If the Congress intended that these gravesites be maintained, that’s not going to be possible with this ‘interpretation.’ What difference does it make how the things were marked in the past?”