The little green sign at 18th and Main Street, in downtown Keokuk, doesn’t really do it justice. One of the oldest National Cemeteries in the United States, older than Arlington National Cemetery, is located in Keokuk, Iowa. It is perhaps one of Iowa’s, or the Tri-State area’s, best kept secrets, serving an estimated 61,000 veterans. Fact: If you’re a veteran with an Honorable Discharge, you and your spouse and underage children can be buried at the National Cemetery, free of charge, with full Honor Guard, 21 Gun Salute, Taps, and Presentation of Flag, if desired. Situated on 23 acres of beautiful, rolling Iowa countryside, approximately 100 burials are conducted each year at the Keokuk National Cemetery.
Keokuk’s location at the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers, made it an ideal hub for the transportation of men and supplies to and from the Civil War. The Mississippi River was the Interstate 80 of the 1860’s. Five hospitals were located in Keokuk to care for the wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate.
The first burial was in 1861, with the cemetery officially recognized in 1862. The City of Keokuk donated the land from its Oakland Cemetery to the U.S. Government. In 1908, the frontier post of Fort Yates, North Dakota was abandoned, and the remains of soldiers buried there were reinterred at Keokuk. Therefore, there are remains of soldiers from the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, Viet Nam, all wars, including the Revolutionary War. There is one Medal of Honor recipient buried there. Chief Keokuk has a son-in-law buried in the area, as well as a soldier who charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, and two “Buffalo Soldiers.” Buffalo Soldiers were Afro-American soldiers in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments from 1866 to 1952. They were so named by the Cheyenne Indians because of their ferocity in battle and their hair and dusty coats that reminded the Indians of a buffalo’s mane. The Buffalo Soldiers considered this name a badge of honor.
Originally, only soldiers who died in a war could be buried at the National Cemetery. It was soon opened up to all veterans, whether they died in a war or not. Another fact: you do not have to be an Iowa resident to be buried at the National Cemetery. In 1997, the Keokuk National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Confederate tombstones are pointed at the top while Union tombstones are rounded. Mixups did occur. An interesting detail, like snow on a roof—the tombstones for Union soldiers are rounded at the top, while tombstones for Confederate soldiers come to a point. The joke is that Confederate soldiers didn’t want a Union soldier sitting on their stone. This may or may not be true. However, it was discovered that three Confederates were buried under Union stones. It was changed around this year so that all could rest in peace.
There are 15 mass graves with 76 unknown soldiers. About 5,000 veterans are buried at the Keokuk National Cemetery—that’s 5,000 individuals, including spouses. There is a whole section for Black Soldiers, a lot of whom were slaves. The first woman veteran to be buried in the Keokuk National Cemetery was Sarah Thompson, an Army nurse during the Civil War.
Specific gravesites can be found using an automated gravesite locator near the administration building, or go to www.cem.va.gov for internet location nationally.
This Veterans Day, think of the price of freedom, and the sacrifice veterans and their families made. Go ahead, hug a vet.
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