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 descendents 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.