The Richmond History Podcast

Friday, March 23, 2012

Renovations at Richmond National Cemetery

Richmond National Cemetery from the flag pole in the center looking south, photo by Jeff Majer
The large granite wall at the Richmond National Cemetery is hiding activity not normally seen in a grave yard.  It is located at the intersection of Williamsburg Rd and Government Rd, near the boarder between Richmond & Henrico County, VA.  A representative from the National Cemetery told me that the heavy machinery was there for "routine maintenance" that all national cemeteries go through. The Richmond National Cemetery was established  September 1, 1866.1  The perfectly straight geometric lines that are common in military cemeteries do not stay straight on their own forever.  The almost 150 years of weather and tree roots (think of brick sidewalks with a tree growing next to it) have disrupted the cemeteries perfection and some damaged stones are being replaced.  The History Pug and I went to take a look.
The History Pug at Richmond National Cemetery in front of a group of stones that say 2 unknown soldiers, photo by Jeff Majer
The cemetery, just inside what was the Confederate Defense for its capital, is the resting place of thousands of US vets and one Confederate vet but they are not all from the Civil War.  While walking through I was able to find some from WWI, but there are a lot of stones  to go through and the History Pug was more interested in playing then reading. The cemetery is now full.
One of the 4 cast iron artillery tubes and what was a Gazebo type structure, from the center looking east, photo by Jeff Majer
There are four 7 1/2' tall original cast iron artillery tubes positioned around the flag pole in the middle of the cemetery. In 1890 a gazebo was built that acted as a "rostrum" or speakers stand but most of  it was removed in 1952.  Now only the base remains.1

A plaque reads:
KNOWN 838 

The History Pug loving the lush grass in front of a fallen stone to be fixed and set up,photo by Jeff Majer
An excerpt form

In 1866, 3,200 bodies moved to Richmond National Cemetery, were re- moved from Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia; 210 (115 known) from the cemetery of the Belle Isle Confederate Prison in Richmond; 12 deceased prisoners of war from a trench at the Rocketts Landing; 388 (all known but 18) from Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond; and re- mains from the Cold Harbor and Seven Pines battlefields, as well as from locations in Chester- field and Hanover Counties. Some seventy different locations within a maximum distance of 25 miles of the cemetery site were searched in order that Union dead might be accorded honored burial in a national cemetery.
Richmond National Cemetery, from center looking north east, photo by Jeff Majer
The Union soldiers were not left in places like Hollywood and Oakwood because the Federal Government took care of the US Vets and not the Confederates who were not considered US war dead.  This caused some controversy.  It also made it easier to take care of the soldiers in a consolidated area.  Fallen Confederates were considered nothing more then traitors by the US Government, until many surviving Confederates proved themselves in the Spanish-American War.  On Dec 14, 1889, President McKinley took the opportunity to "mend fences" saying “…every soldier’s grave made during our unfortunate civil war [sic] is a tribute to American valor … And the time has now come… when in the spirit of fraternity we should share in the care of the graves of the Confederate soldiers…The cordial feeling now happily existing between the North and South prompts this gracious act and if it needed further justification it is found in the gallant loyalty to the Union and the flag so conspicuously shown in the year just passed by the sons and grandsons of those heroic dead.”2  Congress responded by starting a process in 1901 that wouldn't be finished until 1958 when Confederates were given the same honors as Union Soldiers. 1958 is the same year the last Confederate Veteran died.2
an example of the line getting out of line, notice the last stones near the tree not in line...yet. photo by Jeff Majer
Much of the work in the cemetery today, is to make sure all of the lines are as perfect as they should be.  There is very little movement needed, but just a few inches make a huge difference when looking down such an exact line.  The line is meant to symbolize soldiers in formation.  I would expect the Civil War's 150 year anniversary will bring many more visitors in the next few years.
The stones lined up against the wall waiting to be returned to their plots, photo by Jeff Majer
Talking to the site manager, I was impressed with the low-tech yet and extensive steps to ensure every stone went back where it belonged.  They are using maps that dated back to the 50s and a note book filled with detailed hand written lists, graphs, and notes that looked like some kind of computer code.  The stones are also lined up on the wall in the order that they came out of the ground.  The ones that are broken or damaged are replaced.

Back of a stone that list the spouse of a Veteran, both Husband and wife are in the same plot, photo by Jeff Majer

Front of a stone,back shows the spouse of a Veteran, both Husband and wife are in the same plot, photo by Jeff Majer
It is not only American Vets in the National Cemetery.  The above photos show two sides of the same stone with the spouse buried in the same plot.  The first to go into the plot would be buried deep enough to make room for the second, but, sometimes they are buried next to each other.  The rep from the National Cemeteries told me that children can also be buried in the plots as long as they are under 21 or 23 if they are still in school.
The concrete slots that the stones sit-in to prevent them from slipping in to the earth, photo by Jeff Majer
Once the stones are removed, the area is leveled and concrete slots are buried in the ground.  The stones slide into these slots to prevent the stones from sinking or moving... as much.

Richmond National Cemetery in a section with many plots with 7 unknown soldiers each, photo by Jeff Majer

This picture above is from a section that contains plots that hold seven unknown soldiers each. There are probably not full bodies, but parts of seven unknown soldiers. The dirt line shows how deep some of the stones had slipped into the ground.
The History Pug resting in front of a plot containing two unknown American Soldiers
Another excerpt from

One unknown Confederate soldier was reinterred in the cemetery on April 7, 1978. An employee of a local radio station was relic hunting near the banks of Beaverdam Creek in Hanover County and discovered the remains. There were several Minie balls, and the hunter had pre­sumed that four had struck the soldier. There were buttons and a belt buckle among the items that had triggered the alarm on his metal detector. The remains were found under a foot of dirt roughly 80 feet from the creek. A knife, pewter bayonet scabbard, and canteen were also among items that led to verification by Mr. Les Jensen of the Museum of the Confederacy that the soldier was indeed a Confederate.

The lines of stones at The Richmond National Cemetery, photo by Jeff Majer

If you want to see the work in progress you have another couple weeks.  They have been working for a few months and seemed ready to be done.


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