Saturday, December 17, 2016

At Petersburg, a 'powerful' new appearance as cemetery rehab work nears completion

Reproduction Columbiads will be set near flagpole (NPS photo)

Betsy Dinger has had a front-row seat to a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation project at a cemetery containing the remains of nearly 6,200 Civil War soldiers.

The park ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia has witnessed and spoken with workers and craftsmen restoring dignity to the graves on the rolling grounds of Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Some 5,700 upright headstones have been installed this year, replacing worn, sometimes broken, markers that were placed on the ground in the 1930s to save on maintenance costs.
Dinger has photographed the restoration of the cemetery lodge to its Victoria appearance, repointing of bricks, drainage improvements and the installation of a new flagpole and reproduction artillery pieces, among many improvements.

Having spent so much time there, loving it as much as I do, it is very powerful,” she told the Picket this week.

Finishing touches are being put on the multimillion-dollar project. Crews are completing a “big punch list” and will try to complete them by next month. Grass will be sown and the 8-acre resting ground will be readied for a spring opening, with an April 29 rededication ceremony. Poplar Grove has been closed to visitors for more than a year.
Dinger said she has been heartened to see the markers now jutting from the ground. Most are above remains of unknown soldiers. The top of those stones have a grave registration number and indicate how many soldiers are interred in that spot.
“Even for the poor fellows whose identity was lost… you still know that that grave is properly marked, she said. “It sort of slaps you in the head. Oh, my gosh, look at this huge number of unknown soldiers.”
All but 100 headstones have been put in place. In many of those cases, the stones are broken or have errors in the inscriptions.
The ranger and others have been putting together a searchable database of the known dead buried at Poplar Grove. Many died in the fighting during the 1864-65 siege of the city.
A view from the refurbished lodge (NPS photos)

Starting in the spring, visitors will have access to a kiosk on the lodge porch. They’ll be able to enter biographical information and find the grave’s location. (Previously, they would need to send an email or get assistance from a park ranger on site or at a headquarters location.)
Dinger said a chaplain from the Army’s Fort Lee will take part in the April rededication. She hopes some of the brick masons and other workers attend. And, of course, descendants of those buried at Poplar Grove are welcome. She knows of one such individual from Washington state who plans to attend.
The National Park Service maintains 14 national cemeteries, but replacing headstones that have lain on the ground for decades is unique.

"Usually, you don’t almost redo an old cemetery from the ground up,” said Dinger.

Three unknown soldiers are buried here.

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