History of the Graves Registration

Each for his own memorial
earned praise that will never die

An act of Congress signed on 17 July 1862 authorized the President of the United States to purchase land and cause it to the securely enclosed to be used as a national cemetery for soldiers who die in the service of their country. The Congress adopted on 13 April 1866 the following joint resolution:

That the Secretary of War be, and he is hereby, authorized and required to take immediate measures to preserve from desecration the graves of the soldiers of the United States who fell in battle or died of disease in the field and in hospital during the war of the rebellion; to secure suitable burial-places in which they may be properly interred, and to have the grounds inclosed, so that the resting-places of the honored dead may be kept sacred forever.

On 22 February 1867, by another act of Congress, the Quartermaster General was made responsible for the burial of the dead, the maintenance of burial records, and the operation, maintenance, and administration of cemeteries. This act directed the Secretary of War “to have the same inclosed with a good and substantial stone or iron fence; and to cause each grave to be marked with a small head-stone, or block, with a number of the grave inscribed thereon.”

Following the consolidation of the Quartermaster Department, the Subsistence Department, and the Pay Department on 24 August 1912 to form the Quartermaster Corps, the burial of the dead, the keeping of burial records, and the supervision of cemeteries were the responsibility of the Cemeterial Branch of the Administrative Division, OQMG. This branch operated aind maintained not only the 83 national cemeteries, which by law were under the control of the Quartermaster Corps, but also all cemeteries at military posts.

The Graves Registration Service came into being on 7 August 1917 by authority of War Department General Orders No. 104. Four graves registration companies, which had been trained at the casualty camp on Governor’s Island, New York, and at Camp Merritt, New Jersey, were dispatched overseas under the command of Major Charles C. Pierce, a retired chaplain who had been in charge of graves registration in the Phillipine Department. Later the Commanding General of the American Expeditionary Forces in France cabled for another 11 graves registration companies. These were organized at Camp Joseph E. Johnston, Florida.

In the years between the end of the Spanish-American war and the beginning of World War I, it had been the fixed policy of the United States Army to return all remains of its military dead to the United States for burial in private family plots or in national military cemeteries. During World War I, however, bodies were buried abroad temporarily , to be shipped to the United States after hostilities.

Meanwhile, as the war progressed, a growing sentiment amoung relatives in the United States to let the dead remain where they fell in battlecaused the War Department to consider modifying its policy. Families would be given the choice of having bodies permanently interred in Europe or returned to the United States. Although available records are not clear as to the exact date this modification in policy took place, Congress approved on 19 July 1919 an appropriation of more than $8,000,000 for the maintenance of cemeteries, and the Adjutant General directed that United States Army dead be removed from al European countries except France. Subsequently, the War Department degreed that the bodies of soldiers who had been killed during World War I would be permantly burried in Europe unless nearest relatives made specifc requests to have them returned to the United States.