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Sara Amy Leach, Senior Historian
National Cemetery Administration
Department of Veterans Affairs

National Cemeteries:  Post-Civil War Landscapes in Transition

The system of designed national cemeteries that President Lincoln authorized in 1862 evolved in form and formality throughout the second half of the nineteenth century in the wake of the Civil War.  Visitors no longer see the small cemeteries of less than 10 acres with their generous open space, natural and managed plantings, clusters of domestic buildings occupied by resident superintendents, and ornamental and symbolic artifacts sprinkled throughout the sites. These scenes are captured only in early drawings, photographs and written accounts.

The first impermanent generation of wooden structures—buildings, fencing, and head boards to mark graves—lasted less than a decade. Osage orange hedges, floral beds or mounds, and grassy walks somewhat longer.  Memorial monuments—large and small, erected by friends, regiments and states—were installed to honor the fallen.  By the 1870s permanent cemetery features were underway. The most significant construction was the masonry Second Empire-style lodge credited to Montgomery Meigs; others include a brick tool house and “comfort station,” brick or stone walls, and iron gates. Cemetery layouts were influenced by militaristic orderliness as well as, in some locations, the design ideals of contemporary cemeteries and advice from designer Frederick L. Olmsted.

However, starting in the twentieth century, these secular, honorific landscapes were increasingly reduced to dense burial sections highlighted by underutilized historic lodges and rostrums.  Even the most historic cemeteries run by the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) today reflect the priority of burial needs over the preservation of historic landscape aesthetics; this is particularly apparent at “expanded” sites where newer sections do not complement original designs.  It is NCA’s mission to provide burials to veterans and eligible family members, and to achieve this we continue to develop new cemeteries or enlarge older properties.  Among NCA’s 128 national cemeteries are 72 sites that date to the early 1870s.

This presentation will document the changing physical and memorial nature of NCA’s national cemeteries during the decades immediately after the Civil War, starting with the collection of the human remains and their relocation to permanent burial grounds. The developmental era of the cemeteries—associated with modest, impermanent facilities—closes once permanent masonry constructions are complete. By the dawn of the twentieth century these designed landscapes reinforced early recognition of the national cemeteries as “national shrines” in locations where the war played out.

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4 Responses to Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit Abstracts and Video

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  2. Robert Wrigley says:

    My wife’s gr-gr-grandfather is a Union soldier buried there. When we visited this grave site last October we were quite dismayed at the condition and damage done to the stones by lawn mowers running over and chipping it. At the time we did not know the full history of the markers being altered in the 1930s. We would fully support the efforts to restore them.
    Would it be possible for a private citizen to be able to contribute to the restoration of their family’s marker or replacement? Perhaps a volunteer effort of those with relatives there could help accomplish some of this initiative to restore to their original condition.

    • Jason Church says:

      Dear Robert,
      The best person to talk with will be Betsy Dinger Elizabeth_Dinger@nps.gov who is a historian for Petersburg National Battlefield and Cemetery.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro says:

      Mr. Wrigley,
      I don’t know if you’ll get this message but I would be very interested to know which of the men buried at Battleground Cemetery is your wife’s gr-gr-grandfather. I am a historian and I have spent the last several years researcing the battle of Fort Stevens and Battleground National Cemetery. Does your wife have a photograph of her ancestor? That would be a goldmine. I have never seen any picture of any of the men killed at the battle.

      If you can be of help to me, my e-mail address is bryanac625@yahoo.com. Thank you.

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