The United States Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has its roots in America’s Civil War Conflict. A historical overview of NCA’s statutory charge from Congress to present day operations impacting the Iowa Veterans Cemetery is very interesting.

Learn more about the “Friends of the Cemetery” donation program.

The Legislation

In the summer of 1862, a divided America was experiencing its second summer of a terrible war that few believed would last more than several months. On July 17th of that year, Congress enacted legislation that authorized President Abraham Lincoln to purchase “cemetery grounds” to be used as national cemeteries “for those soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country.” Within the first year, 14 national cemeteries were established including one in the sleepy town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. There, 4,476 Union soldiers were laid to rest after one day of terrible slaughter that became known as the Battle of Antietam. Thousands had already died at places like Bull Run, Shiloh, Wilson’s Creek, and Fort Donelson. By way of comparison, approximately 3,000 American, British, and Canadian military personnel died on June 6, 1944 during the invasion of Normandy.

By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been buried in 73 national cemeteries. Most of the cemeteries were located in the southeast near the battlefields and campgrounds of the Civil War. After the war, the countryside was scoured to locate the remains of soldiers that died in battle. They were buried with honor in the new national cemeteries. Tragically, however, the identities of nearly one-half of those who died in service to the Union are buried in national cemeteries and identified as unknown.

Military Hospitals and National Cemetery Established in Iowa

The presence during the Civil War of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa caused the federal government to locate five military hospitals there. The sick and wounded were transported to the hospitals in Keokuk by riverboats on the Mississippi River. Soldiers from the North and South died at the hospitals in Keokuk and were subsequently buried in what became Iowa’s only National Cemetery (administered by the Rock Island National Cemetery located in Rock Island, IL).

By the end of the war, the Keokuk National Cemetery had the interments of over 600 Union soldiers and 8 Confederate prisoners of war. In 1997, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Keokuk National Cemetery is one of American’s earliest national cemeteries.

More National Cemeteries Established

In the 1930s, new national cemeteries were established to serve veterans living in major metropolitan areas like New York, Baltimore, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Antonio. Several national cemeteries closely associated with battlefields like Gettysburg, were transferred to the United States Department of Interior National Park Service because of their value in interpreting historical significance of battles. The National Park Service maintains 14 national cemeteries. Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetary are the two national cemeteries administered by the Department of the Army.

The NCA has evolved slowly since its initial period of great challenge associated with the Civil War. All honorably discharged veterans became eligible for burial in national cemeteries in 1873; previously, the criteria for admission centered on the soldier being a battlefield casualty.

Cemetery Administration Transferred form the U.S. Army to the Veterans Administration and Renamed

In 1973, Public Law 93-43 authorized the transfer of 82 national cemeteries from the Department of the Army to the Veterans Administration, now the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Joining with 21 veteran cemeteries located at hospitals and nursing homes, the National Cemetery System was then comprised of 103 cemeteries. On November 11, 1998 President Bill Clinton signed the Veterans Programs Enhancement Act of 1998 changing the name of the National Cemetery System to its current name: the National Cemetery Administration. Today there are 141 national cemeteries. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (USDVA) administers 125 of them. In April 2007, USDVA opened its 125th national cemetery—the South Florida National Cemetery.

Honoring the Fallen

Nearly 3 million Americans, including veterans of every war and conflict—from the Revolutionary War to current military operations—are honored in USDVA national cemeteries. Approximately 17,000 acres of land from Hawaii to Maine, and from Alaska to Puerto Rico are devoted to the memorialization of those who served our nation. More than 300 Medal of Honor recipients are buried in USDVA national cemeteries. The Keokuk National Cemetery honors one such soldier. Private First Class John F. Thorson (World War II) U.S. Army, Company G, 17th Infantry, 7th Infantry Division, Dagami, Leyte, Philippine Islands, Oct. 28, 1944 (Section D, Grave 71).

USDVA State Cemetery Grants Program Established

To compliment the NCA’s national cemetery program, the USDVA State Cemetery Grants Program was established in 1978. This program assists states in providing gravesites for veterans in those areas where national cemeteries cannot fully satisfy their burial needs. It also provides up to 100% of the development cost for an approved project in the form of a grant. States wishing to pursue this program must acquire the land and agree to maintain in perpetuity the cemetery to national operational standards and measures established by the NCA. Operational and maintenance costs are funded by the state after construction is completed. Memorials and beautification projects must be funded by private donation.

Cemeteries created under this program must be operated solely for the burial of service members who die on active duty, veterans, their eligible spouses and dependent children. A national or state-owned cemetery developed under the State Cemetery Grants Program should not be confused with a private for profit cemetery that may market to veterans.

It is under this program that Iowa’s leaders pursued their vision to “establish and operate” a state-owned and operated veteran cemetery. In 2001, a USDVA study identified Iowa as needing a dedicated, state-owned and operated veterans cemetery. The study revealed over 280,000 veterans living in Iowa, with about 92,000 living within a 75-mile radius of Des Moines.

Creating the Iowa Veterans Cemetery

The Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) began fundraising for the cemetery on Veterans Day 2004 with the sale of Bronze and Silver Iowa Veteran Commemorative Medals. In 2005, Iowa’s legislature gave IDVA the authority to “establish and operate” a state veterans cemetery. Early the following year, two generous donors contributed land parcels totaling 100 acres for that purpose. On this land, the Iowa Veterans Cemetery is constructed. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Veterans Day 2006. Construction began in late July 2007. The cemetery was dedicated on July 3, 2008.

Fallen Heroes Monument

Since President George W. Bush declared the War on Terrorism following the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center, current and former Iowans have been killed in conflict while on active duty. They, along with veterans of other conflicts and peace time service, now have the option to be laid to rest in a state operated military cemetery with military honors. Visitors can visit the Fallen Heroes Monument located on the property.

Eulogy Presented by President Lincoln at Gettysburg

On November 19, 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln offered his eulogy on the slain. President Lincoln concluded, "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” To the contrary, the world noted at once what he said and Americans continue to honor his words. The President eulogized, in part,

“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”