Thursday, November 12, 2015

Work at Petersburg's Poplar Grove cemetery will return headstones to upright position

Gravestones lie flat on the ground at Poplar Grove (NPS photos)

Ann Blumenschine recalls the day a group of Vietnam veterans stopped at the visitor station of the Five Forks unit of Petersburg National Battlefield. They had made a stop at Poplar Grove National Cemetery – resting place for 6,000 Union soldiers – and were disappointed by its condition.

Perhaps they weren’t expecting to see gravestones placed on the ground rather than standing upright. Occasional flooding from poor drainage had eaten away some of the writing on the stones. The flagpole was in rough shape, as were historical buildings on the property.

“I did not know what to say,” said Blumenschine, a Petersburg park ranger and public information officer.

Now the park has an answer. A dozen years after the push for a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation project began, proper and lasting honor will be restored to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country at this Virginia battlefield in 1864 and 1865.

Typical Poplar Grove grave (NPS)
This Sunday (Nov. 15) is the last day for people to visit Poplar Grove National Cemetery before it closes for an anticipated 18 months. 

Maintenance employees and contractors will repair drainage issues, put in new – and upright – marble gravestones, and repair a brick boundary wall and the buildings, including a lodge that one day may serve as a visitor stop. (The cemetery currently is not staffed.)

Officials said they are unaware of any other cemetery maintained by the National Park Service that contains flat gravestones.

Betsy Dinger, a park ranger who maintains a database of soldiers buried at Poplar Grove, told the Picket earlier this year that her heart sank when she first saw the peculiar arrangement of stones, which are of different sizes. “I thought this doesn’t look right.”

The park superintendent in the early 1930s believed that cutting off the bases of the gravestones and placing the remaining marble on the ground was a good way to save on maintenance money. 

Tombstone House off of I-85 (NPS)

Hundreds of the bottoms from the sawed-off monuments found a new, inappropriate purpose. They were sold to a man who used them on the exterior of his Petersburg house and sidewalk.

While park employees don’t second-guess the superintendent’s maintenance decision, they are well aware that the action needs to be remedied.

Dinger said that the new, familiar military gravestones with a rounded top will “make it easy for elements to roll off and protect the inscription.” Because of poor drainage, some of the current stones have become hosts to lichen.

Blumenschine said a storm once brought down trees, including one that brought up a gravestone in its exposed roots. Rumors that coffins were exposed were unfounded, she said.

Lodge at Poplar Grove National Cemetery
1932 photo shows cemetery with upright markers (NPS)

In accordance with protocol, the old gravestones will be ground up and disposed of in order to prevent their use in a dishonorable way.

Poplar Grove National Cemetery, about in the center of the sprawling battlefield, was surveyed in 1866. The Rev. Thomas Flower’s farm was chose. The War Department administered the site until turning it over to the NPS in 1933.

About 6,200 soldiers are buried there, with about 4,000 of them unknown. In some instances, multiple soldiers are buried together. A few Confederates rest at Poplar Grove.

1869 burial register
Many of them fell along the battlefield’s western front. Some died at hospitals, including at City Point. The last burial at Poplar Grove came in 2003.

Rangers said the rehabilitated cemetery will benefit from a maintenance crew up to the task.

“This project is not just important to Civil War soldiers who sacrificed and died,” said Blumenschine. “It will show the respect we have” for fallen sevicemembers today.

Visitation to Poplar Grove during the project will be very limited. Officials said requests for tours will need to be made at least 30 days in advance. Updates on the project will be posted on the park's website and on Facebook.

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