Veterans Administration refuses to replace headstones on veteran’s graves

Take a moment to read this recent article from Scott Boyd at the Civil War News:

Fed $ Can’t Be Used For CS Replacement Markers

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. (read more here.)

The request for replacement headstones at the Fredericksburg cemetery came from Fred Howe, Jr., former president of the Fredericksburg Civil War Roundtable. The article goes on to describe the two reasons for the VA response. The first justification is that requests for replacement markers had to include a signature of the next-of-kin. Howe’s efforts hit a wall due to a change of VA Form 40-1330, “Claim for Standard Government Headstone or Marker for Placement in a Private Cemetery or a State Veterans’ Cemetery.” The new edition of VA Form 40-1330 took effect this year. In short, the form represents a reinterpretation of the regulations regarding veteran’s headstones – not a new law mind you, but rather an administrative adjustment.

As my friend Todd Berkoff points out in the article, this new policy is somewhat prohibitive. Last year Todd secured headstones for Col. Charles Griswold of the 56th Massachusetts Infantry. Todd correctly pointed out that this change would have prevented the placement of that headstone, leaving Colonel Griswold to lie in an unmarked grave. A UNION veteran, mind you.  (UPDATE: Todd was quoted out of context in the article.  He makes some very valid counterpoints here. See Todd’s comment below.)

The other explanation offered by the VA is the original headstones were not placed by the US Government. Again, the explanation is described as a re-interpretation of the regulations. In short, the VA says it can only replace headstones where it had originally placed headstones. Thus the private Confederate headstones are not covered. Sort of a warranty agreement on headstones is how I’d put it. The article cites VA public affairs specialist Chris Erbe as saying, “That’s the law as it stands.”

Um… no… that is the re-interpretation of the law, as the VA is spinning it today. Wasn’t like this in the past. And there is ample evidence….

If I were to mention Woodlawn National Cemetery, Elmira, New York, does that bring anything to mind? Yes a former slave (Loudoun County, Virginia if I may mention my adopted home) John Jones buried Confederates who had died at the nearby prison. Jones was paid to bury them, but on his own initiative he recorded the dead and marked the graves accordingly. The government used those records later to erect proper headstones. Woodlawn’s official website states, “He kept a meticulous record of each Confederate burial so that when, in 1907, the federal government was authorized to erect a small marble headstone at each grave, it was possible to inscribe them with the soldier’s name, company regiment and grave number.”

One of the remarkable things about the American Civil War is how the country handled the Confederates afterwards. Unlike other nations which have experienced civil wars, there was a genuine respect, arguably outright forgiveness, towards the individuals who rose in rebellion. No, that is not to say there was a deeper reconciliation over larger issues. Nor is it to say reconciliation solved all that was wrong in the nation. Some might go as far to say reconciliation at one level delayed the full achievement of civil rights. But it is to say at an individual level, the attitude, reflected in the actions at Woodlawn in 1907, were respectful to fellow countrymen, even be they fallen foes.

I say we return to that respectful interpretation of the rules. I say “That’s the law.” If the VA wants to change it, instead of just re-interpreting the policy, *they* can appeal to congress.