Confederate headstones and the question of “willful” service

Posted on July 30, 2008 by

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Note: Feeling a need to clarify my thoughts on some matters, as of 29 August 2008, I added something to the points that I have made in this post. See another post for additional details.

I’d be curious to see the V.A. headstone application stats. Specifically, I’d like to see how many Civil War headstones have been ordered within the last two decades. I’d also like to see how many of those were for Confederate soldiers. After all, the headstones almost seem to be popping up all over the place. I also wonder how many people are ordering headstones based on nothing more than the raw data in the service records. As I’ve pointed out before, Confederate service records are notoriously incomplete and, taken at face value, may be misleading. My specific concern is whether or not service was “willful.”

So, what’s the big deal? Let’s back-off from the topic of the Civil War for a minute and take a look at something else in order to allow room for comparison.
Whether or not someone enlisted or was drafted (let’s pick draftees from any of the war since WW2), as long as the service was honorable and it can be shown on record as such, the V.A. can grant a headstone. Willful service (most specifically regarding draftees) or not, they served the United States government, apparently with honor. There is nothing to show otherwise. That’s fine… unless that soldier, sailor, airman or Marine didn’t want that headstone because he/she specified that he did not and that he/she did not have a belief in what he/she was doing. The advantage, in the years since WW2 is that these stones have usually been requested within “real time.” Stones have been ordered by or at the request of people who knew the soldier best and probably understood better the motivation of the soldier, sailor, et al.

However, the rules made in the best interest of the veterans from the 20th century seem to inappropriately blanket-over and include soldiers in earlier American conflicts – the Civil War among them.

When considering the Civil War… the difference is… how many people today apply for headstones for soldiers they never knew… or better yet for soldiers who lived generations apart from the applicant? How can applicants today be so certain of motivations and the best interest of the dead so far removed? Ultimately, what is the motivation for ordering a stone – is it done to make themselves feel better or to really, I mean really, honor the dead?

The legislation works well for the V.A. as they really don’t have the resources or time to make sure that an application is legit. It is the responsibility of the person applying to handle the basic guidelines and it can only be hoped that the person applies for the headstone “intelligently” and “responsibly.” As I have posted before on my blog (one excellent example being the story of Washington John P. Cave and his headstone), this system of granting headstones to Civil War veterans has many flaws. Raw data from the military records reveal only part of the story (and sometimes misrepresent the facts – again, take the example of W.J.P. Cave). More importantly, historically, it opens the gate for leaving a legacy of misunderstanding for future generations as to the truth about people from the Civil War who rest under the stones. I’m not saying that all Confederate headstones ordered are out of whack, but I have identified some rather questionable ones out there. I think it parallels an earlier post that I wrote regarding “responsible Confederate flagging.

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