ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Memorial Day began its life as Decoration Day, a time to place flowers at the graves of fallen soldiers. More than 3,000 American servicemen and women have died in Iraq; 58,000 died in Vietnam; almost 37,000 in Korea. The First World War claimed 116, 000 American lives, the Second World War, 407,000.
But it was in the years just after the Civil War that the practice of decorating gravesites became traditional and gave rise to a national holiday. More than 500,000 Americans died in that war. And in Brooklyn, New York, one cemetery is trying to rescue its Civil War past.
For five years, historians and volunteers at Green-Wood Cemetery have been searching their grounds for the lost dead of the Civil War. And on this Memorial Day, they unveiled more than a thousand new gravestones. NPR's Robert Smith was there.
ROBERT SMITH: The sprawling Green-Wood Cemetery is usually packed on Memorial Day.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: A military honor guard is there, and people wander among the giant monuments to great wars and the generals who fought them. But finding regular soldiers is a bit more difficult.
Mr. RICHARD MOYLAN (President, Green-Wood Cemetery): We know where all the bodies are buried, but we didn't know everyone's story.
SMITH: Richard Moylan, the president of Green-Wood Cemetery, says that there's over more than half million people buried here. He suspected there were a few hundred Civil War vets. But back then, amazingly, the cemetery didn't keep records on military service.
Mr. MOYLAN: Well, not everyone had a government marker. Not everyone was a general. A lot of people just fought in the war, did their duty and went back to a normal life and died. And we thought it important that we know that. And that's how the project started.
SMITH: The result of that project sits in the meadow on the side of the cemetery. Historian Jeff Richmond leads me through a field of perfect rows that looks a lot like Arlington National Cemetery.
Mr. JEFF RICHMOND (Historian): We have 1,199 gravestones and bronzes here, courtesy of the Veterans' Administration. These were the men who were in unmarked graves, or whose gravestones were unreadable.
SMITH: Now, they not only have markers, but stories as well. Richmond and a team of volunteers scoured Civil War records over the Internet and matched them with the names and birthdates in the cemetery records. Here is William Eddy(ph) from Massachusetts, who lost his foot fighting for the Union Army and spent the rest of his life fighting for benefits. This one over here is Edward Jardine(ph), who protected New York from the mobs of the Draft Riots in 1863.
Mr. RICHMOND: Oh, actually, one of my favorites is the Prentice(ph) brothers. And so they're right over here in from of us.
SMITH: Clifton Kennedy Prentice fought for the 7th Regiment of New York. His younger brother, William, fought for the Confederate Army. They met on opposite sides of the battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia.
Mr. RICHMOND: And they are both shot down in the attack. And after giving his brother - the rebel - a dirty look, they embraced on the field and tears are flowing down their cheeks. They are taken to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, and then their nurse happens to be Walt Whitman.
SMITH: So both these brothers end up back here in Brooklyn in the Green-Wood Cemetery with no markings that they fought in the war, or that they fought against each other.
Mr. RICHMOND: Exactly. Exactly. And just lost the history.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: On this Memorial Day, the cemetery invited the living descendants of the Civil War dead. A military band played songs from the era as hundreds of relatives wandered through the gravestones. Robert Cohen from Plainview, Long Island has brought his son to see his great-great-grandfather.
Mr. ROBERT COHEN (Resident, Long Island): Well, it's Beakman Moore(ph), granite Company K, New York 47th Infantry. Died in 1905, natural causes.
SMITH: Cohen had known a little about his relative but wasn't exactly sure where he was buried at Green-Wood. Finally, having a marker means more than just words on stone.
Mr. COHEN: To know where you came from, and to know who were the people who came before you and what they did for you and for your nation and so we can live the way we'd live today.
SMITH: Cohen helped the cemetery with some of the research of his relative, and even discovered a photo.
Mr. COHEN: And I have the same hairline, the receding hairline. Same things, so you could tell he's definitely - I'm his family.
SMITH: This gravestone and the hundreds of others will be moved over the next few years to the spots where they suspect the remains of each man is buried. Their stories will live on in another way. Green-Wood Cemetery is publishing a new book called "The Final Camping Ground".
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.