Dayton National Cemetery, located in Montgomery County, Ohio, was established as the permanent burial site for residents of the Central Branch of the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1867. It is one of 11 federal cemeteries affiliated with the system of National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Management of these facilities was transferred from the U.S. Army/National Home system to the newly created Veterans Administration in 1930.
The design of the cemetery is attributed to Chaplain (and Capt.) William B. Earnshaw, who was considered to have "judgment and taste" in these matters. Earnshaw served in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the Cumberland, from which he was named superintendent at Stones River and Nashville National Cemeteries. In September 1867, Earnshaw arrived at the Dayton Soldiers Home, as it became known, having been encouraged to seek the position by Gen. George Thomas.
The Soldiers Home cemeteries were to be "laid out and cared for, as far as practicable, in the manner prescribed for National Cemeteries." The single-most visual cemetery construction is the lofty Soldiers’ Monument around which faceted, concentric rows of graves are arranged. Two features found here are common to many older national cemeteries. There are two ornamental 19th-century cannons located at the base of Soldiers’ Monument, and seven "Bivouac of the Dead" verse tablets.
When a death occurred here or a deceased veteran was delivered to the facility, the hospital's Council of Administration was notified and steps taken to protect the man's person and belongings prior to his removal to the morgue. A tunnel connecting the hospital and cemetery was built in 1870. Among the permanent improvements to the home in 1887 was the completion of a "new receiving vault" connected with the hospital, which was a "very great convenience to the institution." Furthermore, every resident was to be buried in a "clean suit of the Home uniform."
Standardized products were used in burials. "Class I" items used at the homes included standard-manufacture "coffin-lowering devices." Burial caskets were "to be made of good quality, well seasoned, soft lumber; to be covered with crapine, craponette or other suitable casket cloth of similar, inexpensive grade; to be lined inside with a good quality of bleached muslin, and to be provided with the usual trimmings of white metal; dimensions to be specified." In addition, according to National Home regulations, funerals were "conducted in accordance with military usage, the honors prescribed by the U.S. Army," including an officiating chaplain. It was also mandatory for "a band of the branch [to] attend all funerals, unless the weather is too inclement."
Between 1867 and the late 1880s, annual deaths in the Central Branch crept from six up to 847, a number that, according to Harper’s magazine, was "remarkably low, considering the age and debility of the subjects." Annual deaths at Dayton by the end of the 19th century topped out at nearly 1,400. Between 1900 and 1930 (the year the Veterans Administration took over management), veteran deaths peaked between 1907 and 1918 (ranging from 2,331 to 2,352), with the highest single-year mortality in 1916 with 2,583 deaths. By this time, the small number of War of 1812 and Mexican War veterans had long since passed away. The youngest Civil War veterans were approaching their late sixties, and younger Spanish-American and World War I veterans would have taken up residency.