NEW ALBANY — “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
— Text on an iron plaque at the New Albany National Cemetery inscribed with President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Well-ordered rows of white headstones stretch across the consecrated land of the New Albany National Cemetery. Just off Ekin Avenue, more than 5,000 people have been laid to rest in these five-and-a-half acres. Some gave the ultimate sacrifice for America in battle. Others survived war but wanted to be interred in this sacred ground after their long lives ended. Even today, groups honor their service by placing wreaths on their tombs, a testament to the enduring thankfulness of their country.
During the Civil War, the U.S. government first began to establish national cemeteries for the burial of Union soldiers. According to author Kelly Merrifield’s essay “From Necessity to Honor: The Evolution of National Cemeteries in the United States,” prior to this time, those who died in the American Revolution or the War of 1812 were interred in church yards and family cemeteries. The huge number of Civil War deaths — more than 600,000 in all — made it impossible to continue this tradition.
“The nation needed new burial practices to deal with the changing realities of war,” Merrifield said. “Weapon accuracy and fighting techniques led to more casualties than in previous wars; railroads and steamships carried soldiers to battles farther and farther from their homes; disease caused a high percentage of the deaths on battlefields, in prisoner-of-war camps and in hospitals.”