Tuesday, November 22, 2016

the life and death of every man

“In the stars is written
the death of every man.”

~ Chaucer

Just a few weekends ago, I organized a Meetup for the River City Cemetarians group to visit Richmond National Cemetery. Historian, retired teacher, and local author JoAnn Meaker has conducted extensive research of those buried in the cemetery and she agreed to share this with the group. This was exciting for me because it was the first event that was exclusive for our Meetup and we were also Ms. Meaker’s first audience/ test run.

JoAnn Meaker
Richmond National Cemetery is located in Henrico County, Va and is about three miles outside of Richmond city limits. During the American Civil War, the land associated with this cemetery was just within the Confederate’s fortification lines when they were attempting to defend Richmond. It isn’t a spoiler alert that the city burned but that’s another story.

The cemetery is 10 acres in size. Some of the land was purchased in 1867 with additional acreage being purchased in 1868 and then in 1906.
The initial burials were re-interments from other locations including one of my favorite places, Hollywood Cemetery.  Bodies also came from Belle Isle, or Belle Island Confederate Prison which was the location to around 30,000 prisoners of war, Cold Harbor battlefield, and Seven Pines. Many war historians recognize the names of these locations but for me they’re all places from home. I used to walk frequently at Cold Harbor (eek! They have the worst horseflies!); I previously posted about Seven Pines, and Belle Isle is a place where I hung-out in undergrad. It took me many, many moons to make peace with the land from where I’m raised but posts like this one have a way of being a bit haunting. It’s hard to process that THIS is WHERE it happened.
A tree consuming a stone

Meaker is originally from New York where she spent the majority of her life. After retirement, she and her husband moved to the area to be closer to her grandchildren. Her connection with the greater Richmond area goes a bit deeper though. While she is currently doing research about Richmond National Cemetery for a forthcoming book, she already has done some research in the area after finding a Civil War ID tag, which she explains is a precursor to the dog tags military personnel wear today, in her late father-in-law’s coin collection. The ID, which looks very much like a coin, reads “Union Against Rebellion 1861” on one side and “A.J. Beardsley” along with his division on the other.  This one token from Beardsley, a relative of her husband, started her entire journey of research for a fictional novel My Dear Emma, which includes a storyline that follows the real life experiences of Addison Beardsley who fought in the 10th New York Cavalry. All of her research eventually led to her forthcoming publication as well.

Meaker explains that before dog tags many of the soldiers would pin their names to their uniforms; seeing the number of “unknown” soldier listed on the gravestones is a reminder that so many of the dead were never identified. Richmond National Cemetery includes 9,322 soldiers of which 5,706 are unknown.

What I most enjoyed about Meaker’s tour of the cemetery was that she told stories of everyday men. The focus was not on their ranks or in which battles they fought. She shared stories of her husband’s family member, of two men who were struck by lightning, and even of writers. There are actually two known poets resting in the cemetery. This grave is that of Adelbert Older. While it is hard to read the inscription, it is alright because it is incorrect anyway. Older was a subscriber to the children's magazine called Robert Merry's Museum. Pat Pflieger argues, “Robert Merry’s Museum was a popular—though now forgotten—American children’s periodical. Founded in 1841, it offered entertainment and information to readers of all ages during the antebellum years, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, finally merging with the Youth’s Companion after the Boston Fire in 1872” (http://www.merrycoz.org/papers/LURE.xhtml).

Here is a description that I found on Pflieger’s website. Pflieger is an academic who writes, “My research is in a pretty obscure corner of 19th-century American culture, so this is where I organize the little bits of information as I gather it.” Considering my other blog is devoted to posting my own academic research, I tip my hat to the other scholars who construct similar havens.

"Adelbert, a tall Wisconsin farm boy with gray eyes and brown hair, was one of the poets among the subscribers to the Museum: 16 of his poems appeared in the magazine between 1857 and 1865. He enlisted immediately in the Union army when the Civil War broke out, but was discharged within the year due to illness; Adelbert re-elisted with his younger brother, Wallace (born c1842), in February 1864. Both were wounded in a skirmish at Turner’s Farm, in Virginia, on May 31 or June 1, 1864. Wallace died almost immediately; but Adelbert lay all night on the battlefield, and was taken to Richmond as a prisoner of war on June 2. Though on June 5 he wrote a cheerful note to his parents, making light of his injuries (they received the note July 27), Adelbert died three days later. The memorial page featured Belle’s poem in the left column and Adelbert’s poem in the right, with a stanza from “Mustered Out” at the bottom of the page. The patriotic image contains a “liberty cap” against a sword and a scroll, crowned with 13 stars probably emblematic of the 13 original states. The verse beginning “I’m mustered out!” is the last stanza of “Mustered Out,” a poem by the Rev. William E. Miller." http://www.merrycoz.org/museum/OLDER.xhtml

Meaker’s book is set to be published in 2017 on the sesquicentennial of the establishment of the Richmond National Cemetery. From her tour and some of the details which she shared about her book, it’s going to be very interesting. What is striking is how you can walk into a national cemetery and you pretty much see the same marker repeated again and again. Meaker has found a way both to unite the soldiers and to share their individual stories.
Chris in front of my camera!

This picture is taken by the talented Chris Beasley, my cemetarian-brother-from-another-mother ;) If I look awkward, it’s because mid-conversation, Chris says, “Move a bit to your left.” He sees a picture in everything, while my fella says that I see a blog post in everything.
The familiar-looking lodge was constructed in 1870 from a design by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs. Similar lodges are located at Poplar Grove, Seven Pines, and Fredericksburg National Cemeteries.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A behind the scenes/ hard hat tour of Poplar Grove Cemetery... and the Tombstone House

“You cannot go to the cemetery
and ask to be enlightened on matters of this kind,
though it would ease my mind considerably
if you could.”
~ William Maxwell

Last week I went on a *hard hat tour* of Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

I love seeing rehabilitation efforts in cemeteries that are in progress and I love (legally) entering cemeteries that are closed to the public like that time last year when I got to go into Odd Fellows Rest in New Orleans.

The top number is the listing; the bottom represents the number of unknown soldiers buried here.
I found this tour on the National Parks Service website when I was browsing for adventures for my cemeterians Meet-Up group to attend. The tour was a “behind the scenes” look at the rehabilitation project at Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Poplar Grove is one of 14 National Cemeteries administered by the National Park Service. It is closed for burials and due to a rehabilitation project the cemetery will be closed into 2017.

A bit of history about this cemetery is that in 1862 Congress passed legislation giving the President of the United States the authority to purchase land for the establishment of cemeteries for soldiers who gave their lives for the country aka who fought for the Union during the Civil War. This legislation began the National Cemetery system.

During the Siege of Petersburg, Union soldiers who were killed in battle were hastily buried near where the battles took place in the form of mass graves or even shallow graves. There was a civil war going on so it wasn’t like there were many men who could take their time in these matters.  

This land had been the campsite for the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers. During the war they constructed a Gothic Revival pine-log church called Poplar Grove. When looking for a location for a national cemetery, this seemed like a good place.
When the bodies were disinterred from their hastily buried plots, many were difficult to identify. After all, the headstones, if there were any, had been made of wood. This was a similar fate to the 30,000 Confederate dead buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, of whom only about 2,000 names are known.

Here comes a somewhat eerie tale that leads to the renovation project of today. During the 1930s (read that as the Great Depression), the superintendent of the cemetery decided to cut (pun intended) costs by removing the upright grave markers in Poplar Grove National Cemetery, cutting off the bottoms which had been in the ground, and replacing the top portions by lying them down flat. This helped grounds crew with maintenance which has been an ongoing battle in many cemeteries. The 2,220 bottom portions of the markers were sold to a gentleman who proceeded to build his dream house out of the materials.  Today you can see this house in Petersburg, Virginia.

the Tombstone house
When doing a little research on this house, I found a Facebook page which shows a picture of the fireplace mantle which had been constructed by the bottom portion of the tombstones. Personally, I find this a little bit crass but I suppose during that time when the country's economy had crashed that one had to make do.

While this was the story the NPS ranger shared, there are some who believe that the entire markers were removed and that the names inscribed face inward hidden from the outside. Some believe that the markers are a bit too large to only be the bottom portions of the grave markers. Since some believe that desecration is involved, the property is considered to be haunted. When I drove by, I didn't notice it being creepy but that it was beautifully landscaped.

Today, the cemetery is being completely redone with new tombstones. It's difficult to tell from the pictures how far this place has come. As it is nearing the end of the renovation project, the grounds look amazing with sparkling white marble stones in place. While we were there, there was even a dedication for one of the interred. I'm certainly going to try to return for the dedication. The cemetery is about an hour from my home but there is the first time in US history that any project of this caliber has been attempted. For the most part, I see cemeteries that are dilapidated; and, I see individuals trying to make do with resources. This is a government-funded project that competed for funding. It's beautiful what they're doing. I wish more cemeteries could receive such support. 
Pictures taken in bathrooms

Since the controversial 1930s occurrence, today the US government requires that all grave markers that are removed from a national cemetery be destroyed to the point that they cannot be recognized.

Because this was an active construction site, we were required to wear hard hats. It was a crazy hot day but I took a moment to take a picture with the newly renovated bathroom to go in my Facebook album, Pictures Taken in Bathrooms because apparently that is a thing that I do *shrug*.