When someone says “national cemetery” the first thing the comes to mind, for most people, is Arlington National Cemetery. Though Arlington may very well be the most widely recognized, there are actually 150 cemeteries in total, most of which are maintained by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, with a few still under maintenance of the U.S. Army and the Department of the Interior. For anyone who has ever studied the Civil War, it will come as no surprise that one of those National Cemeteries is found not far from the Mid-Ohio Valley in Grafton, WV. As a matter of fact Grafton actually has two sites: The Grafton National Cemetery and the West Virginia National Cemetery. The original Grafton national Cemetery was dedicated in 1867, just five years after the original decree from Congress mandating that space be set aside for burial of those soldiers fighting for country.
The location for the cemetery was chosen due in part to that being the flattest part of town in an otherwise mountainous state, as well as there already being a cemetery nearby where many of those fallen had already been laid to rest. In that early time, and in the lower part of the national cemetery there were interred 1,252 Union soldiers. Of those 1,252, 613 of them are unidentified. While there are a few of the standard size and shape grave markers placed for the unknown burials, most of them have a specific marker that recognizes them as being unidentified at the time of burial. The stones for the unknown were six square inches and 30 inches in length. The administration has since stopped using those markers and now claimed and unknown burials alike have the same type of stone marker. The last use of the separate markers was recorded in 1903.
Though not one of the original burials, perhaps the most well-known is Thornsbury Bailey Brown, a militia soldier from Taylor County, WV (still Virginia at that time) who is believed to be the first Union casualty of the American Civil War, killed by a Confederate soldier in 1861. Brown’s body then took an indirect journey back to the national cemetery, though, first being taken back to the Confederate Camp by the soldiers involved in the killing, then interred in a family plot once the body was brought back to the Union troops. Finally, in June of 1903, Brown’s body was buried in the Grafton National Cemetery and a large memorial obelisk was placed there in 1928. The Grafton National Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, and to date is recorded as holding the longest running, consecutive Memorial Day celebration of any National Cemetery, beginning with its inception in 1867.
Eventually the number of burials filled up the cemetery and a search was made to find a new piece of land to open for additional plots. A piece of land was eventually found and, after negotiation with the Veterans Administration, construction began . The land had been part of the West Virginia Industrial School for Boys, in Pruntytown, just a few miles outside of the main city of Grafton. The cemetery, though still not complete, was dedicated in 1987 and subsequently opened for services and burials in September. The West Virginia National Cemetery sits on 58 acres of land and includes a monument to the Industrial School residents who were buried there between 1890 and 1939. The cemetery allows for both veteran burials as well as spouse and dependent burials given they meet the criteria for burial in a national cemetery set forth by the Veterans Administration of the United States.
National Cemeteries follow a very specific design grid and strict rules of burial an operation. For further history and information, visit the website.