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.
These graves are interspersed among the Civil War headstones. They are buried by regiment.
Connecticut… Illinois… Maine… Iowa… Pennsylvania… Indiana… New York… and the U. S. Colored Troops….
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.)