Sunday, May 29, 2016

At Petersburg battlefield cemetery, new headstones and some discoveries

New headstones at Poplar Grove (NPS photos)

A rainy May hampered workers, but about 1,200 new headstones have been installed thus far at Poplar Grove National Cemetery at the Petersburg battlefield in Virginia.

The first of 5,600 upright markers that are replacing ones that have lain on the ground for more than 80 years were put in place in late March.

The new look is part of a multimillion project to upgrade the cemetery in Virginia. Brick boundary walls are being repointed, a lodge is being redone to return to its Victorian-era appearance and an 1897 bandstand is getting its original colors back – black support areas, a cap with an interior painted blue and the exterior red. Crews also are addressing drainage issues.

Graves that contain a known individual are receiving a new 200-pound headstone with a rounded top to ward off rain, and the signature federal shield and writing. Lighter markers for unknown individuals will have a flat top that will contain a grave number.

Petersburg National Battlefield ranger Betsy Dinger said officials hope the headstone work will be completed by December. Because the cemetery is closed, there will be no customary Memorial Day service this year.

Crews work respectfully around graves but during all the construction some items have been unearthed, said Dinger. That includes a ginger beer bottle, pottery shards and a few small personal items that may have belonged to Civil War soldiers, though that’s not certain. (It is a federal crime for individuals to use a metal detector on federal land or remove artifacts.)

The land held a family farm before the war and saw parts of the battles and siege in 1864 and 1865. The 50th New York Engineer Regiment set up camp for several months and they built quarters suitable to their occupation. 

Maj. George Ford of 50th NY at Petersburg (Library of Congress)

The U.S. Army site included an impressive church with steeple, paddocks, cabins and “raised walkways to keep them out of the mud,” said Dinger. The 50th did a range of work at Petersburg, including construction and repair on fortifications and destroying Confederate railroads.

Engineers built this church (Library of Congress)

The 9-acre cemetery, which filled the camp space used by the Union army, was established a year after the war’s end and the church was dismantled two years after that, Dinger said. For a time, an African-American congregation worshipped inside.

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

While Poplar Grove National Cemetery remains closed, "Hard Hat Tours" are scheduled throughout the year. The next is Saturday, June 25, at 10 a.m. Reservations are necessary; contact park ranger Betsy Dinger at (804) 732-3531 ext. 208.

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