Civil War Tombstones: A Quick Primer

After bragging on my daughter last week for knowing the difference between a Union and a Confederate tombstone, I thought it would be good to look at government-issued Civil War tombstones in a bit more detail.

In a nutshell, the difference between Union and Confederate tombstones is the top of the stone. Union tombstones, such as that of Chas. Fetters, have rounded tops. Confederate tombstones, like that of Sgt. R. Shipp, have pointed tops.

Tombstone of Sgt. R. Shipp, Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery. Photo by Amy Crow, 8 Oct 2004.

Tombstone of Sgt. R. Shipp, Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery. Photo by Amy Crow, 8 Oct 2004.

Tombstone of Chas. Fetters, Stones River National Cemetery. Photo by Amy Crow, 4 June 2005.

Tombstone of Chas. Fetters, Stones River National Cemetery. Photo by Amy Crow, 4 June 2005.

A common question about tombstones such as Chas. Fetters’ is “How do you know what war he was in?” It’s a good question, since U.S. government-issued tombstones (other than Confederate) have this same basic shape. The answer lies in the shield.

The shield surrounding the name and the state (and, in this case, the grave number) was used by the federal government for graves of two wars: the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Graves of Spanish-American War veterans should have “Sp. Am. War” inscribed on the stone, though this was occasionally missed.

33 thoughts on “Civil War Tombstones: A Quick Primer

      1. Ralph Eshelman

        Amy, I am working on a book about Maryland Civil War veterans and I would like to use your image of Sgt. R. Shipp with proper acknowledgement to you. Are you willing to allow me use of this image? Many thanks.

        Reply
  1. Donald R. Hoff

    We live in Elmira, New York, site of the infamous Federal CW Prison “Helmira” where many Confederate soldiers died 1864-1865. Touching part of the story is a former runaway slave John Jones, dug a grave for each, provide a decent burial to those men far from home, as well as write a letter to the families. Among the dead, he even discovered the body of the son of his former Master. The cemetery of Confederate POW’s is situated alongside the National Cemetery where Federal soldiers lay. Both dead are honored and the contrast of unique headstones is art.
    I invite you to explore the sites online: Elmira CW Prison, John Jones, and the CW Cemetery.

    Reply
    1. Ashley

      My second-great-grandfather was held at Elmira, though he made it home to North Carolina. This proud Yankee appreciates you raising awareness.

      Reply
  2. Fullerton

    Another addition to the Elmira story and something for parents interested in history to consider…I live a couple hours from Elmira and yearly do my “cemetery tour” on Memorial Day weekend to place flowers on relatives graves…some close to Elmira…my young daughter would always accompany me and we would take a side trip to the Confederate Cemetery (she had grown up knowing the story of the Civil War and been to reenactments etc)…we would buy flowers on the way (she would pick them out) and she would choose a grave to place the flowers on…a name she thought was interesting etc…we would take a photo and write down the name and I as a genealogist would research the soldier later to paint a better picture of him for her…I explained how they had died so far away from home and it was noticeable how not one grave had flowers on it although this National Cemetery was full of people and flowers, few were in the Confederate area…she loved the story of John Jones also, and we would visit his grave in the beautiful Woodlawn Cemetery next door (where Mark Twain is also buried) and where the City has placed a wonderful memorial telling his story…we did this until she went away to College and often mentions how significant our “Cemetery Tour” weekends were especially Elmira…

    Reply
    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      What a wonderful way to get your daughter involved! My daughter also accompanied me on many cemetery trips (which is what prompted this post to begin with.) It is sad to think of the men on both sides of the war who died and are buried so far from home.

      Reply
    2. Susanne

      What a wonderful idea! As a homeschooling mom, this connects us to our history and humanity in so many ways. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  3. Donald Hoff (Huff)

    As we have loved ones buried in these places, there are no small stories. 149 years ago, My great great grandfather from South Carolina (11 Inf SC) was captured,interned and died in Pt Lookout Federal Prison, Maryland, in an unmarked grave. I have visited the prison camp, and I am certain I am the first in our family to do so. It is a spiritual “thin space”, were we get closer to the life force of others. It puts another dimension to a Family History.

    Reply
    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      I agree. Visiting a cemetery is one of those rare occasions when we can walk where our ancestors walked and be where they are. There’s nothing quite like it.

      Reply
  4. Ron Garrison

    Amy,
    Not meaning to throw cold water on your explanation but I ordered a headstone for my ggf. He fought for the South during the CW, survived and lived to 1934. A couple years ago we placed the headstone in the Henderson Cemetery, adjacent to the Henderson Baptist Church, Webster County, Missouri. You’ll find his headstone in FindAGrave. It has a rounded top and clearly shows he fought with the CSA.

    Ron

    Reply
    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Not to say that all military headstones are done correctly 😉 Indeed, you do find more often that modern stones (either replacements or new stones for unmarked graves) are not done with the standard symbolism that they are supposed to, especially for earlier wars.

      Reply
      1. Donald Hoff (Huff)

        Allowing for local variance, for the Confederate headstones at the cemetery in Elmira, these all have a pointed top, and we’re later US
        Government issued, but I am informed these headstones replaced original wooden markers which had served their time. As a pastor in Elmira, I once accompanied strangers, some GGGgrandaughters from SC to a grave there, and she dug up a small cup on sod and said,”I’ve come to take you home Grandpa”, then she cried, I cried, we all cried, and we all had prayer. Priceless memories.

        Reply
  5. Marcia Iannizzi Melnyk

    After many years of searching for my gr-grandfather’s gravesite I finally found it in Walpole, NH. After 2 attempts I finally got a govt. stone ordered. My Mom and several relatives set a date to go to NH and see the stone set where it belonged. What a moving experience. He died in 1929 and had lain in an unmarked grave all those years. The relatives and I had a picnic in the cemetery and watched the marker be set by a wonderful man who thanked me for honoring my “hero” Hoxxey C. Rogers, Co. I, 2nd VT Volunteers. He served for 4 years and was wounded at Fredricksburg, but lived to tell about it.

    Reply
    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      How wonderful that you got a tombstone for him! I can imagine that seeing it set was indeed a moving experience.

      Reply
      1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

        Hi Paula — This page on the Department of Veterans Affairs website has information about replacing military headstones: http://www.cem.va.gov/cem/hmm/replacements.asp If it wasn’t a government-issued military tombstone, you might want to see this page about eligibility. If neither of those pages have the info you need, a good place to get help would be your local Veterans Affairs office (either the federal agency or a local agency. Local agencies can be good at helping people navigate through the federal bureaucracy.) Good luck!

        Reply
  6. Kent Russell

    I once heard somewhere that the Confederate stones had a pointed top to keep people from sitting on them. Is there any truth to that rumor?

    Reply
    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      I’ve heard that, too. I suspect that it’s an urban legend, but I could be wrong. I’ve never seen a “official” reason for the shape.

      Reply
  7. John G. West

    I heard a little different story on the Confederate pointed tombstones. Bear in mind that all of my Civil War ancestors were Union soldiers. The point is to stick it to a Yankee dumb enough to sit on a Confederate marker… a rebel would not be so disrespectful! Does it have any validity, who knows!

    Reply
  8. Ann

    I live in Fredericksburg (Marcia, if you haven’t visited yet, I recommend it.), and find it interesting that the cemetery at the National Park site only contains the graves of Union soldiers. There is a Confederate cemetery in the downtown area. None of these graves have the standard headstones, perhaps because they were place pretty early.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Cemetery Records | Copper Leaf Genealogy

  10. James Langley

    While I generally agree I recently found a confederate ancestor and his headstone is rounded at top and not flat? I can send you the pic?

    Reply
    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Sure! Keep in mind that mistakes happen, especially if the stone was put up long after the death or was a replacement stone. Of course, if it is a private (non-government) stone, it can be any shape.

      Reply
  11. Tammy

    Andersonville or Fort Sumter,all headstones are the same shape. On Memorial day, Confederate and Union graves are decorated. Each state that had a soldier die there has placed a huge memorial to honor their deceased.
    ,

    Reply
    1. Donald R. Hoff

      As our family bears a name with various spellings…Hough, Huff and Hoff, and have deep roots on both sides of the War Between the States, we find it a notible curiosity that the first death on Ft Sumter was a Union soldier Hough, and there is a monument at the Battery in Charleston. We live in Elmira, NY, site of a large Union Prison Camp, and cemetary that the last Confederate prisoner to die here was a Hough. The many Confederate stone markers are pointed. Donald Hough-Huff-Hoff

      Reply

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