As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s worth considering the National Cemetery Administration’s unique role as caretakers of that history. This year’s theme, “African Americans and the Civil War,” has special meaning for those of us dedicated to honoring and memorializing the service of veterans.
In his proclamation heralding the month, President Obama invites us “to reflect on 150 years since the Civil War and on the patriots of a young country who fought for the promises of justice and equality laid out by our forebears.” He notes that “Tens of thousands of African Americans enlisted in the United States Army and Navy, making extraordinary sacrifices to help unite a fractured country and free millions from slavery. These gallant soldiers…served with distinction, braving both intolerance and the perils of war to inspire a Nation and expand the domain of freedom.”
An estimated 200,000 African Americans served during the Civil War and 25 earned the Medal of Honor. An Army report from 1870-71 indicates perhaps as many as 31,000 of these patriots are buried in more than 15 cemeteries NCA now manages. Sadly, it appears more of them are unknown to history (approx. 19,000) than known (approx. 12,000). The largest numbers are laid to rest in our national cemeteries in Natchez, Mississippi, Memphis and Nashville.
Nashville National Cemetery is one of two in our system featuring monuments to U.S. Colored Troops (as black soldiers were then referred to.) The other is Fort Scott, Kan. The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was assigned to the fort in 1863 and took part in five engagements. The 1st Kansas suffered more casualties than any other unit in the state. A granite monument erected at the cemetery in 1984 honors the regiment’s members.
Nashville and Fort Scott National Cemeteries are both also listed in the National Register of Historic Places, two of many NCA cemeteries and soldiers lots designated as historic. Places earning such recognition are generally associated with events or people that have made significant contributions to U.S. history—and caring for them is part of our sacred trust.
Yet it is important to recognize that our work is as much about the future as the past. We often say cemeteries are for the living, meaning they give comfort to survivors’ friends and families. But by preserving stories of selflessness and sacrifice, national cemeteries do something more; they inspire us to do great things, too.
Today, Americans from all backgrounds have opportunities to serve the Nation in ways previous generations couldn’t have imagined: as members of the Armed Forces, in industry, academia, the clergy, and at every level of government. We are free to pursue our dreams because someone before us served and sacrificed. Our national cemeteries, and the heroes they memorialize, ensure we don’t lose sight of that essential fact.
A career VA employee, Steve Muro is VA’s Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. He is also a Vietnam Veteran.