In the opening months of the Civil War, soldiers were buried near the place they died. But as wartime casualties began to mount and it became apparent that the war would last longer than initially expected, Congress saw the need to create a new system for respectfully processing the startling numbers of casualties. In July 1862, Congress authorized President Lincoln to purchase land to be developed into a national cemetery for soldiers who give their lives in the service of their country. This was the first piece of national legislation suggesting a national cemetery.
Fourteen national cemeteries were established in 1862. One of those fourteen, Antietam National Cemetery, saw 4,476 Union soldiers laid to rest. By the end of the decade, nearly 300,000 Union soldiers had been buried in seventy-three national cemeteries created under that initial grant of authority.
Arlington National Cemetery is easily the most famous of these cemeteries. The land encompassing what is now Arlington National Cemetery was once inhabited by General Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anne Randolph Custis, granddaughter of George and Martha Washington. After Virginia joined the Confederacy and ceded from the Union in May 1861, the Union Army occupied the property. Three hard years later, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs recommended the property be used for the burial of war dead. On May 13, 1864, Private William L. Christman became the first person laid to rest at Arlington. A month later, Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton ordered General Lee's home, Arlington Mansion, and up to 200 acres of the property be used as a cemetery.
Arlington National Cemetery and the Soldier's and Airmen's Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. remain the only two cemeteries maintained by the Army. Fourteen national cemeteries are administered by the National Park Service, including Antietam National Cemetery, Fredricksburg National Cemetery, Vicksburg National Cemetery, and Gettysburg National Cemetery.
In 1973, administration of eighty-two national cemeteries was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs opened Tallahassee National Cemetery. Burial in the new cemetery is open to all members of the armed forces and veterans who meet certain requirements, namely discharge under conditions other than dishonorable. The cemetery joins 132 other national cemeteries and thirty-three soldiers' lots and monument sites located in forty states and Puerto Rico. More than four million Americans, including veterans of every conflict in American history, are buried in cemeteries administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.