“Sacred Forever”

During the ravages of the Civil War,  so many soldiers died on both sides that neither army was prepared for the tremendous volume of bodies piling up on battlefields, sometimes lying there for months.  Many were hastily buried in shallow, unmarked graves.  Interment of the bodies of the Union soldiers became the responsibility of the Quartermaster General of the U. S. Army, Montgomery C. Meigs.

Any available land in local cemeteries and military forts was quickly filled.  In 1862,  the 37th Congress laid the foundation to buy land near the battlefields for the establishment of national cemeteries “for those who volunteered to keep the Union intact.”

It was specified that these grounds be securely enclosed.  Meigs himself–a civil and construction engineer–designed the stone lodges at each site and consulted with noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted on the grounds.   Olmsted’s recommendation was that the cemeteries be “studiously simple… a sacred grove.”

And so they are….

Here in this coastal city, where Confederate monuments and commemorative plaques are common sights on downtown streets, nearly six acres of land near the Cape Fear River was set aside in 1867 as a place to bury the Union soldiers who had died at nearby Fort Fisher when 3300 soldiers, including the 27th U. S. Colored Troops, overtook the fort late in the war, thus closing the last supply route to General Robert E. Lee’s army in northern Virginia.

Of the 2100 soldiers who were buried here initially, 1300 were unidentified.  Their bodies were laid out in trenches and marked with small white squares.  These remains were brought from scattered burial sites at the nearby forts, local cemeteries, and scattered graves.

Identification was difficult. There were no government-issued IDs and the slips of papers soldiers often carried in sealed bottles in their pockets or sewn into their clothing did not hold up well.  Throughout the country, 100,000 unknown soldiers are buried in national cemeteries, in straight, neat formations.

In death, even the Unknowns received a number.

In 1918, an influenza epidemic broke out among 1,900 Puerto Ricans being carried on a government ship docked in the Cape Fear River here, on the way to help build Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.  Those who did not survive the epidemic were buried in a mass grave here.  Union soldiers released near the end of the war from Confederate prisons like Andersonville and Salisbury, who were brought here to be sent home but died of illness or starvation before that could happen, are also buried in the early graves.

Initially, Quartermaster General Miegs, a Georgia native who grew up in Pennsylvania and abhorred  the Confederacy and its “war of rebellion,” insisted that only Union soldiers who died in battle be buried on the cemetery grounds.  This rule was relaxed during the war.  Now, national cemeteries may contain graves of veterans of both sides the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the recent wars.  Some wives and dependent children are buried there, as well as graves of soldiers who’d been buried on frontier outposts and later moved when the forts closed.

Most of the 128 national cemeteries are now under the authority of the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Their strict directives cover height variance and distance between headstones, even the percentage of weeds allowable within the lawns of the 16,000 acres.

The shifting sandy soil and the tree roots of the acreage here on the coast had made compliance difficult and necessitated a complete overhaul of the cemetery in 2009.  Each headstone was carefully dug out, cleaned, and reset according to plumb lines.  Where tree roots make the straight lines impossible, the headstones are laid on the ground .

The members of that 27th U. S. Colored Troops and some other similarly segregated regiments are buried in one corner of the cemetery.  Their headstones identify them as members of U.S.C.T.   That area, like most of the original sites, has been filled in with newer graves, area veterans of later wars.  Two victims of Pearl Harbor are buried here.

This cemetery, as is the case with many of the older ones, is closed to new interments, except in rare cases where a family decides to move a grave to another area and leaves a space.   It happened in 2009, so a local veteran of Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and the Iraq War is now buried in that spot.

Flowers are placed there by his family.

These graves are interspersed among the Civil War headstones.  They are buried by regiment.

New York

Connecticut… Illinois… Maine… Iowa… Pennsylvania… Indiana… New York… and the  U. S. Colored Troops….

U. S. Colored Troop

And so many sad Unknown markers.

In the early 1900’s, a religious symbol was added to the headstones, if desired.  There are 30 emblems of belief available.

The first decade of this century has marked the largest period of expansion for National Cemeteries since the Civil War:  12 new cemeteries.

The smallest National Cemetery is about 2/3 acre, the largest is 1,040 acres.  The sites are tended under the directive that “the resting places of the honored dead… be kept sacred forever.”

(If I have erred in my facts, it is certainly not the fault of Mr. Bill Jayne, Cemetery Development Coordinator of the Office of Field Programs, who kindly walked with me on a sunny fall afternoon and filled my head with information about this dignified place. Mr. Jayne, a former Marine and a historian, works with national cemeteries throughout the country.  For more information on the history of National Cemeteries, read here.)


11 thoughts on ““Sacred Forever”

  1. Birdie

    Thanks for a really great post.
    The recent expansion of national cemeteries was caused in part by the large number of WWII veterans, men and women, who are now “aging out.”
    We sent so many young people to war in both Europe and the Pacific. Thankfully, many of them returned home and raised families, and now they wish to be buried in a national cemetery.
    I like the Canadian designation of this holiday as Remembrance Day. “Never forget, and never again.”

  2. Thank you for such an informative post. I had no idea how many unknown burials there are in this country. It is a shame that the young men were never recognized and that their families never knew where they rested.

  3. This was so beautifully written and very informative, Marylee. My dad is buried in a National Cemetery in Long Island. His Army days (WW2 and Korea) were ones he revered, and he felt so honored to know he’d be laid to rest with his military comrades in a National Cemetery.

    I’m proud to be working as a volunteer in a Civil War Project in Brooklyn NY’s Green-Wood cemetery where we have been identifying the graves of Civil War vets from both the Union and Confederate armies. Over 3,000 have been properly identified. If their graves did not have a marker the Dept.US Veteran’s Affairs is providing one. We plan a large memorial celebration in their honor this upcoming Memorial Day.

  4. My 14 year old and I love visiting cemeteries– Numerous Union soldiers are buried in Rosehill, Chicago’s old cemetery– As the original marble stones have deteriorated, most have been replaced with modern markers. But a few of the old stones do still remain. We look forward to visiting some of the National cemeteries in Il and when we do–thanks to your post we will know a little more…

    Your veterans day post does a wonderful job of honoring those that fought for freedom in a thoughtful, well researched manner. Many compliments to the writer!

  5. This is an interesting, well-informed post and I’m so glad I didn’t miss it, a bit late, but that’s my life these days.

    I always find these types of stories so fascinating. Being a Southerner, my ancestors fought for the Confederacy. Well, except for one of my 2nd great-grandfathers on my mother’s side of the family, who was a Union soldier. He didn’t return to the North, but stayed and married a local Georgia girl.

    My father was born in Fitzgerald, GA, a town with a equally fascinating history and a remarkable connection to the Civil War. Founded in 1895, it was designed to be a community where veterans from both sides would live side-by-side. Streets are named for leaders from the Union and the Confederacy. The Blue and Gray Museum is located there. Not a National Cemetery, the Evergreen Cemetery contains the graves of veterans from both sides. My great-grandparents are buried there. Just an incredible place that symbolizes the best in us — the ability to come together as one and live in harmony.

    Thank you for posting this wonderful, thought-provoking piece.

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