Veterans' Graves Registration

In the early 1930s, the American Legion veteran's organization launched an effort to identify the gravesite of every deceased veteran buried in the United States and create a permanent record.  In 1933, the National Grave Registration Plan was adopted by the American Legion.  The project got its start by depending almost entirely on volunteers, including students, residents, veteran's organization members and others, to gather information.

The project soon became a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program established under the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal during the Great Depression.  It was called the Graves Registration Project.  Many projects were conducted  under the WPA, which employed millions of Americans to work on public projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads.

Information for the Graves Registration Project was gathered from a variety of sources, including city and county public records, newspaper files, assessors' books, church records, military records, veterans' organizations, town histories, cemetery files, morticians' records, gravestones, neighbors, friends and relatives, all over the country (some counties in some states did not participate) and typed onto cards like the one depicted here.



The front and back of Helen Learned's card


When the Watertown American Legion Post 99 building closed in the 1990s, they donated many items to the Historical Society, including the Veterans' Grave Registration cards for Watertown.  In 2010, Historical Society volunteer Lynne O‘Connell took on the project of entering all of the data on the cards into an Excel spreadsheet so that the information could eventually be made available to all.  The cards reveal a lot of information, though some of the cards are more complete than others.  Many of the cards record "unknown" for Place of Birth, Cause of Death, Next of Kin, and Enlistment and Discharge Dates.


Volunteer Lynne A. O'Connell working on the database


The scope of time covered by these cards runs from the Colonial Wars (King Phillip‘s War 1675 – 1676) to World War I, (1914 – 1918), but we know we do not have a complete inventory of all veterans buried in Watertown.  We have 1,042 cards.  Only 5 of them are from World War I.  There are no cards for anyone buried in Catholic Mount Auburn Cemetery.

The cards have revealed some very interesting and important information.  Gravestones deteriorate, become damaged from the weather, are vandalized and sometimes simply sink into the earth.  The cards, created almost 80 years ago, captured the words written on the gravestones that, in some cases, are no longer legible.  For instance, Helen Learned's stone in Common Street Cemetery is made of marble, a porous material that does not hold up well in the weather.  The stone becomes "sugar-like," wearing away until the letters upon it are no longer readable.

Helen Learned (1835 – 1866) was a Civil War nurse that we knew nothing about until reading her Grave Registration card.  The words on her stone are worn away.  In fact, her stone is broken and the top of it is missing.  Her card tells us that the epitaph read, "Erected by the gratitude of the Colored people of Baltimore in whose service she laid down her life."  Further research by Historical Society President Marilynne Roach revealed that, after the war, Helen taught in a sewing school in Baltimore established by the Maryland Freedman‘s Aid Society.  Here she taught useful skills to now free African American children.

Such Freedman's Schools taught adults, as well as children, to read and thus attracted the resentment of many local whites.  Another teacher, identified as M. S. Osborn, wrote in 1865:  "Last week there was considerable agitation here about my work, and a meeting was held in which it was decided that I should leave the town.  …I have no fear of rebels here, though they give me most unmistakable evidences that I am not wanted.  One lady said if she were in my place, she would leave anyway, for not more than one person in ten wanted me here.  I thought, 'I have not come to please the people, and I shall not leave to please them.'"

We don't know yet what Helen experienced, but some of the schools were burned and the teachers run out of town.  Helen came home and died of consumption at the age of only thirty-one.


Helen Learned's gravestone in Common St. Cemetery


As Lynne was working on this project, we were unaware that William A. McEvoy, Jr., a volunteer at Mount Auburn Cemetery, was working on a project to identify every Civil War soldier buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, in preparation for the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War in April, 1861.  Mount Auburn Cemetery does not have a comprehensive listing of their interred veterans.  Bill contacted the Massachusetts Adjutant General‘s office in Worcester.  He was informed that they had twenty rolls of microfilm from a Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) project that recorded veterans from the Colonial Wars to World War I who were buried in Massachusetts.  A trip to Worcester revealed that the microfilm contained the names arranged alphabetically, A to Z.  He would have to go through every name to find only the people that were buried at Mount Auburn.

He discovered that the top of every card showing a burial at Mount Auburn said, "Town of Watertown."  He contacted us to see if we knew where he could find the original Watertown Grave Registration cards.  We were thrilled to hear about his project and knew that we could help him complete it.

Knowing that our collection of Veterans' Grave Registration cards was not all-inclusive, Bill continued to make inquiries, trying to identify more veterans.  He has added names to the listing of veterans buried in Watertown through inquires at the Watertown Free Public Library,, and the Harvard University, Sons of Union Veterans and other websites.  He has added many of his findings to the Find A Grave website.

The hope of the Historical Society was to make this information more easily accessible to researchers.  The completed database, including Bill's additions, can now be downloaded as an Excel spreadsheet.