June 26, 2020 / 3:33 PM / 6 days ago

Fact check: 1958 law not related to Confederate graves or monuments but veteran pensions

Posts shared hundreds of times on Facebook claim that a 1958 law “gave Confederate veterans the same legal status as U.S. Veterans,” citing U.S. Public Law 85-425, Section 410. The posts allege that “all Confederate graves were declared those of U.S. war dead.” This claim is false.  

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Examples of such posts can be found here , here  and here .  

Public Law 85-425 

The 1958 legislation cited – Public Law 85-425 – says nothing of Confederate veteran legal status, graves, or monuments. Instead, it covers government pensions. Viewable here , the purpose of the act was  “to increase the monthly rates of pension payable to widows and former widows of deceased veterans of the Spanish-American War, Civil War, Indian War, and Mexican War, and to provide pensions to widows of veterans who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.” 

Section 410 stipulates that the U.S. government “shall pay to each person who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War a monthly pension in the same amounts and subject to the same conditions” as those who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.  

The posts on Facebook go on to say that “those desecrating Confederate graves and Confederate monuments are defiling United States veterans, same as WWI, WWII, Korean, Vietnam, or Middle East vets.” While this statement is subject to interpretation, a key difference between Confederate veterans and U.S. veterans is that the Confederacy consisted of 11 states that seceded from and warred against the U.S. during the Civil War (  here  ).  

David Blight, a Yale University professor who specializes in Civil War & Reconstruction era history, African American history, and American cultural & intellectual history (  here  ), told Reuters via email that “Confederate veterans were never fully recognized as US soldiers.” Blight explained that the “1958 law comes very close. The one about pensions. Of course by then there were no Confederate vets left.  There were widows, however.” 

A U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (V.A.) spokesperson provided Reuters with the following statement via email: “Per federal law, for VA purposes, the term ‘Veteran’ does not apply to those who served in the Confederate armed forces.” The spokesperson explained that “while federal law authorizes some benefits for former Confederates, such as the marking of unmarked graves of Confederate service members outside V.A. national cemeteries, this does not confer U.S. Veteran status for other VA benefits to those affected.” 

Legal recognition of Civil War vets and their monuments 

In 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederate veterans, but he did not grant them U.S. veteran status (  here  ). To this day, no federal law has officially given former Confederate soldiers the status of U.S. veterans. 

According to the National Cemetery Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, U.S. President William McKinley suggested in an 1898 speech that it was the responsibility of the federal government to mark and preserve Confederate graves, in light of national sentiment following the Spanish-American War (here ).  

In 1906, Congress passed Public Act No. 38 (  here  ), “to provide for the appropriate marking of the graves of the soldiers and sailors of the Confederate army and navy who died in Northern prisons and were buried near the prisons where they died, and for other purposes” (  here  ). The law did not define a person who fought for the Confederacy as a U.S. veteran, but rather a “Civil War veteran” (  here  ). 

The National Cemeteries Act of 1973 (  here ) shifted responsibility for headstones from the Department of War to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (V.A.), establishing a National Cemetery System within the V.A. that would provide headstones for many veteran categories, including "Soldiers of the Union and Confederate Armies of the Civil War” (  here  ). 

As reported by Smithsonian Magazine in 2018, the federal government is still following through on this commitment, with U.S. taxpayers directing at least $40 million to Confederate monuments and Confederate heritage organizations over the past ten years (  here  ).  

Laws on cemetery and memorial desecration in the U.S. vary.  The law in Alabama, a former Confederate state, specifies different types of vandalism as Class A misdemeanor and others as a Class C felony (  here  ). The law does not distinguish between Confederate and non-Confederate graves and memorials. In New York State, which remained part of the U.S. during the Civil War, penal law classifies cemetery desecration into the first and second degree, as well as aggravated cemetery desecration in the first and second degree (  here  ).  

 

Current context 

Following the death of George Floyd, ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality and white supremacy have included the toppling of Confederate monuments by citizens as well as demands that local authorities remove them ( here , here  ). From Decatur, Georgia, to Frankfort, Kentucky, anti-racism protesters see the monuments as pro-slavery markers of hate while others see them as public documents of history and heritage.  

Many of these monuments were erected during the era of Jim Crow segregation, between the 1890s and 1950s, and, according to the Smithsonian, “were actively opposed at the time, often by African-Americans, as instruments of white power” (  here , here  ).  

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and extremist groups, reported on June 24 that nearly 1,800 Confederate symbols are still publicly present in the U.S. (  here  ). 

VERDICT 

Partly false.  U.S. Public Law 85-425, Section 410, gave Confederate veterans the same legal status as U.S. Veterans in terms of pension rights. It does not mention their graves or memorials.  

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .  

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