Sunday, March 20, 2016

'Proper respect': First new upright headstones to be installed at Petersburg cemetery

New headstones after arrival. (Chris Bryce, Petersburg National Battlefield)

Installation is scheduled this week for the first of 5,800 upright headstones that will replace markers that have lain on the ground at Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Virginia for more than 80 years.

“It’s one of the perks of the job to be able to restore something to where it should be to (show) proper respect and care,” said David Beaver, facility manager at Petersburg National Battlefield, home to the 8-acre resting place for Civil War soldiers.

The first 66 marble headstones arrived late last week, officials said.

About 6,200 soldiers are buried at Poplar Grove; about 4,000 of them are unknown. In some instances, multiple soldiers are buried together, hence the 5,800 number. A few Confederates also rest at Poplar Grove.

(Ann Blumenschine, NPS)

The long-awaited, multimillion-dollar rehabilitation project at the cemetery, which closed last November and is expected to reopen in mid-2017, includes significant repairs on an old lodge, repointing and mortar work on a perimeter brick wall, and drainage improvements.

“I have been very impressed when I go out there and see the work the contractors are doing,” said Ann Blumenschine, a Petersburg park ranger and public information officer. “They are taking a lot of care ... they want to do it properly.”

The U.S. military maintained the cemetery for many years before transferring it to the National Park Service.

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 during the Great Depression.

Unfortunately, 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.

Beaver, who oversees maintenance at the park’s several units, said the official likely did not have enough resources to maintain the site. “You probably had a guy who made the best decision he could. I doubt there was malice or negligence.”

Once they are removed, the old headstones -- per custom and law -- will be broken up to leave no trace of their original purpose. “They will be ground basically down to gravel,” said Beaver. (The NPS will keep a few representative samples of the old stones.)

Graves that contain a known individual will receive a new 200-pound headstone with a rounded top to ward off rain, and the signature federal shield and writing. The tops will be about 18 inches above ground.

Work is being done on brick wall (A. Blumenschine)

Lighter markers for unknown individuals will have a flat top that will contain a grave number. They will have a lower ground profile.

Park officials hope that the refurbished lodge may one day be staffed and serve as a visitor stop.

Petersburg maintains a database of soldiers buried at Poplar Grove.

“By the end of the project, we should have an electronic database with an all-weather touch screen where visitors will have access to the information we have,” Beaver told the Picket.

Over the years, much of the cemetery has settled. Low spots occasionally are covered by rainwater. Contractors will raise the ground level in certain areas.

“What makes this so unique is trying to strike the balance of keeping the historic character and material while also attempting to present a cemetery that meets the solemnity and respect due to the veterans who are buried there,” said Beaver.

Work on Columbiad used as monument (A. Blumenschine, NPS)

Instead of golf course-style grass, the park will plant historically accurate, drought-resistant grass, possibly native fescue, said Beaver. A new irrigation system will not be installed. “It is hard on the stones to use a watering system or sprinkling.”

Having the gravestones upright won’t just restore honor to the soldiers. The previous stones suffered water damage from being in a supine position. Many of the identification etchings wore away.

“In some ways it was embarrassing (with) a national cemetery to have it in the condition it was in,” said Beaver.

A lot of people worked here over the years to raise awareness of the cemetery’s needs, the official said. “By the time it is done. I am looking forward to feeling like we have done our part.”

While Poplar Grove National Cemetery remains closed, "Hard Hat Tours" are scheduled throughout the year. The first is Saturday, April 30, at 10 a.m.  Reservations are necessary; contact park ranger Betsy Dinger at (804) 732-3531 ext. 208.
First delivery of new headstones (Chris Bryce, NPS)


  1. A great write on an important historic site

  2. Thank you, friend! Miss seeing you but follow your work.