This lecture is part of the 2009 Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit
What is historic? Issues at Poplar Grove National Cemetery by Elizabeth Dinger
I thank you so much for the chance to talk a place that means a great deal to me, and a special thank you to Dr. Streagle and Jason Sharpe for their kind invitation. When I started at Petersburg in 1997 I was on a road trip with about 4 other new ranger, and we were getting the overview of the site. The big thrill for me that day was a trip out to Poplar Grove Cemetery. I couldn’t wait to see the place. I’d seen it in postcards, was familiar with a little bit of its history, that was my big thrill for the day. Naturally my expectations were high as we approached the main gate.
As soon the grounds came into view my heart sank. I went to Poplar Grove and thought, this doesn’t look anything like any national cemetery I’ve ever seen. It didn’t look anything like I expected. The markers were all flat, flushed to the ground. This look might work in a memorial park but it certainly didn’t work for me in a national cemetery. I knew there were very high standards for such places and Poplar Grove wasn’t even close. As I walked around, stunned at what I was seeing, the Battlefield historian gave a brief history of the cemetery.
Poplar Grove, is one of the national cemeteries established by congress just after the war so that the resting place of the honored dead may be kept sacred forever. The location for the cemetery was chosen in April of 1866 by Kernel James Moore, who was the same man responsible for cemeteries in the wilderness and also at Andersonville.
During the 292 days siege of Petersburg there were approximately 70000 causalities and 176 square miles of fighting. Kernel Moore felt that the 9 acre track of land that he chose, just south of the city by about 8 miles, would be the perfect spot for these scattered battle sites. Beginning in July of 1866, burial teams moved the Union dead from all around the Petersburg front ultimately traveling as far west as Lynchburg, which is 120 miles away. By the time the teams completed their work in 1869 nearly all the 9 acres was filled with the remains of approximately 6000 Union soldiers.
For the years that followed the initial burials there was a time of development and beautification. At the end of 1871 construction began on Armagh’s Lodge which provided working and living space for the cemetery superintendent and his family. In 1876 they started to construct the brick wall. Unlike other national cemeteries, especially the ones Sarah just mentioned, Poplar Grove did not receive any state markers nor did they receive any sort of veteran society memorials.
The only real feature that the cemetery has to suggest a commemorative feeling doesn’t come until 1897. That comes with the addition of the octagonal pavilion with the rod iron post and ornamentation. Well, the first superintendent August Miller spent a time a deal of time and energy trying to improve the cemetery. He built hot beds for growing flowers and annuals which he had planned to arrange in various carpet beds.
In a report to his superiors he reported he had over 50 blooming rose and 380 flowering trees planted throughout the cemetery. Miller also clipped hedges into the geometric designs that Sarah mentioned including this one he shaped into a Maltese cross, which was the symbol of the core on which many of the soldiers who were buried at Poplar Grove fought under. This hedge survived until the 1950s, but it’s one of my favorite photographs.
Well, the flowerbeds and the geometric-shaped hedges reflected what was popular in the Victorian garden cemeteries but they certainly weren’t the features that the quarter master general promoted for cemetery landscape. National cemeteries were to be more in keeping with the simplistic lawn style. Such improvements were way too ornamental for the quarter master general’s office and on a visit late 1870 they gently suggested to Superintendent Miller that he let nature attend to the form of the trees.
With 1877 Poplar Grove was the very last national cemetery to receive the congressionally approved new markers. The marble markers arrived at Poplar Grove as even the late tablets or as the small 6 by 6 inch for the unnamed graves. The difference in the 2 styles showed clearly the large number of soldiers, nearly 16%, who had died and were buried at Petersburg without any sort of identification. The new marble markers also changed the uniformity of the original circular plant.
Things were very quiet at Poplar Grove for many years and then in 1896 the very first civil war veteran is buried there. Very few burials were added after with the exception of 1918 when new graves were dug for veterans and casualties of World War I, and as a signet to our history at Poplar Grove we have the remains, the burial site of one British soldier who died in the flu epidemic in 1918. Occasionally, we do deal with the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
On August 10th 1933 Poplar Grove National Cemetery and Petersburg Battlefield were officially joined together with the restructuring of the military parks which were then under the control of the war department and those needed to pass under the care of the national park service. The first and the most obvious problems for the new park managers was the amount of time and energy required to mow 9 acres and trim around approximately 6000 graves. Even with new power equipment and the availability of civilian conservation core to do the work it was very time consuming.
Also, there were additional tasks of cleaning correcting alignments and resetting markers. Another problem that came into view was that the cemetery was viewed, landscape wise, very different by park service staff. First, they had no institutional memory with which to judge the time and effort needed to maintain the cemetery grounds. Even the whiteness of the markers and the geometric patterns went against the more natural landscape which park service managers were trying to maintain. Poplar Grove indeed had more in common with its sister cemeteries still under the control of the war department than it did with anything under the park service ideas of landscape design or care.
Yorktown National Cemetery was the first one to try what they thought was an improvement. They decided that all the headstones and unknown block markers should be set flush with the ground as a maintenance economy. Yorktown, at that point overseeing the cemetery at Poplar Grove, decided that this is what should be done, and in the spring of 1934, civilian conservation crews cut approximately 24 headstones off their bases and laid the inscriptions flush with the ground or where they thought the graves were. That’s a whole other story.
The markers were not set on any foundations and in a very short time they began to shift and settle. The whole look and feel of Poplar Grove changed dramatically through this one action. My favorite story, and I always tell my visitors, in an unusual and somewhat strange side note to the rest of the story, the bottom portions of these markers became excess property and they were sold to a man in town for approximately $1 a piece. He built a house about three miles away, which is still luckily referred to as the tombstone house.
It was featured in the 1930s magazine depicting some of things in that were in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and once upon a time in late 70s was voted the eeriest house in America in Architectural Digest. Up until about 10 years ago it was on the haunted bus tour of Petersburg. This time of year it’s a destination, but these are the bottoms of our markers.
Once this work was done complaints began almost immediately. One superintendent said he got nearly 1600 complaint in one year, and he said, “There had been many verbal expressions from tourists and visitors about the horizontal positions of the headstones. We’re told that when the stones are in an upright position there was an attractiveness and beauty which is at present lost.”
Well, ironically, the leveling out of the markers did little to help with the maintenance. The grass still had to be cut, trimming still needed to be done. With the markers flush to the ground it was easy for grass to encroach on the markers or cover up the small faces of the [inaudible 00:07:48]. Weather contributed to erosion, free soil caused the markers to shift and sink rain, and snow erased some of the names all together. If it weren’t for the burial listing and the database it would be almost to tell where some of the graves are or what’s some of the names for the men that are buried there.
The decision to alter the grave markers forever changed the appearance of this very special place on this very special ground. One visitor in the 1870s called this a “melancholy forest of white headboards.” But sadly, now it looks like any other open field around Petersburg. If you didn’t notice the mix lodge or the brick wall of the cemetery gates it wouldn’t look like any place unusual. The occasional glint of something white against the green grass is only clue that the ground there is not bare.
In the 76 years since the cemetery was altered we’ve had more complaints from visitors. The most poignant are those who come from the folks who have ancestors buried at Poplar Grove. The chipped, broken or illegible markers do very little to remind them that their ancestors are not forgotten. They all want to know, why doesn’t the Poplar Grove look like every other national cemetery we’ve ever seen? Why doesn’t Poplar Grove have the visual and emotional impact of other cemeteries.
Sadly, it no longer retains its 19th century atmosphere. Then a few years ago the Battlefield began to work on a rehabilitation project so we could hopefully correct some of our past mistakes. Just this past spring a cultural landscape or CLR was completed. It provides the history of the site and the physical changes that have taken place under both the war department and the park service. It details in great detail the existing conditions of the cemetery as well as its associated features. It also evaluates and defines features that give the cemetery an history feel and appearance. Finally, CLR offers treatment options for the landscape and related features.
Some decisions were easier than other in this process. Preserving the Miggs lodge and using it as a contact station for visitors to that part of the cemetery is universally agreed on. The way in which the structure is rehabilitated is open for discussion. Of course, there are accessibility issues to a building made in the 1870s. We have some of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen and they’re part of the historic landscape but over the years many have impaled grave markers or pushed them out of alignment. Many need to be removed but what about their historic value?
Then those are the beautiful brick wall which needs maintenance if it’s going to stand for another 40 years. Reaffording the wall with traditional methods is costly and time consuming but it’s an integral part of the cemetery landscape. Finally, there are the grave markers forever altered. There are several options available.
One, of course, is to do nothing, or in the words of a casual visitor, who later turned out to be a park superintendent, just interpret your mistake. The second option is to replace all the markers with new ones issues by the national cemetery administration. This option seems to have the most support but that presents problems too. What do you do with the old markers, considered by some people to be a historic resource? Do you build a building to store them? Do you crush them beyond recognition or do you bury them in the ground?
If the decision is made to get new markers do you then, for expelling mistakes, amend state affiliations or do you replace historic mistakes in kind? Well, the rehabilitation project has generated more questions than answers, but it finally has people talking and it finally has them thinking about the long term care and maintenance of Poplar Grove. The power of which brings someone to visit, to walk the 9 acres doesn’t rest in the type of marker or how it sits.
The stones aren’t inconsequential but at the end of the day it’s the stories of the men buried at Poplar Grove which stand on their own, the dead of majors found sacred, and the cultural landscape connects us to their sacrifice. By conducting the rehabilitation work according to the best treatment options we can assure that this resting place of the honored dead may be kept sacred for all time.
Poplar Grove National Cemetery, a unit of the Petersburg National Battlefield, was established in the spring of 1866. The site was chosen so the cemetery would be central to the scattered battlefields from the 292-day siege of Petersburg. In 1933 when the cemetery was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service a dramatic change took place. In an attempt to incur lower maintenance costs the upright government issued grave markers were removed, the inscription portion with its recessed shield was removed and returned to the graves.
In the years since the marble has deteriorated, in some cases to where it is completely illegible. Additionally maintenance of the cemetery has caused significant damage to the markers themselves; chips, cuts, scrape and cracks being the most common. The cemetery no longer retains its 19th century atmosphere. In an attempt to amend the mistakes of the past and restore Poplar Grove to its post Civil War appearance, a cultural landscape report has been created to give guidance as to how to proceed to rehabilitate the cemetery’s appearance and historic fabric. The biggest issue in this process has become the historical significance of the grave markers themselves. Various opinions exist as to how to proceed and what role the markers themselves play. Is the most significant resource the altered markers and are they a true historical resource? Is the real resource the graves and their value both to the descendants of those buried there and to the country from a military perspective? The cemetery was established to care for the remains of fallen soldiers in perpetuity, the markers being merely tools for identification.
Is the best course of action to cut and reset new upright Government issued grave markers? Do we correct existing spelling or regimental assignment mistakes or replace the information in kind? Or do we just leave the cemetery as it is and interpret the mistakes? How far do we go to correct the mistakes of the past where there are known errors, both in the physical appearance of the cemetery and in the historical value of the information of the grave markers themselves? The true dilemma of the Poplar Grove National Cemetery rehabilitation project, and its future, will be determined by the historical value of the grave markers.