“Every tombstone is a biography”

Poplar Grove’s 2014 luminary program (both photos courtesy of NPS)

We are pleased to welcome guest author Betsy Dinger to Emerging Civil War. After obtaining her BS in History from Frostburg State University in Maryland, Betsy began her National Park Service career in 1988 working at Shenandoah NP, Valley Forge NHP and Cumberland Gap NHP. She has worked at Petersburg National Battlefield for 17 years. Betsy has been working on a piece about Poplar Grove National Cemetery for Meg Thompson’s upcoming The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead. We invited Betsy to share some of her thoughts. 


Cemeteries are “my thing.” From the first little lamb I petted on a marker one Sunday coming out of church with my grandfather until now, they are such wonderful and amazing places.

Grandpa was a history teacher, and he always managed to tie a stone to a story about someone with some thread that caught my imagination. “Every tombstone is a biography,” he used to say—a lesson that had a huge impact on me. He created a lifelong passion for me. Guess we never know what we inspire in a child that might have a huge impact.

In the 17 years I’ve worked at Petersburg, I’ve become the battlefield’s “cemetery specialist,” creating various searchable databases from the original burial records and finding new ways to share the soldier’s stories. The best part of my job is when I can connect a descendant to the ancestor they have been searching for.

My work has led me to become interested in military cemeteries worldwide, particularly those relating to World War One. I spent most of October in England and visited a great number of cemeteries and old churches (ecclesiastical architecture is another interest), and it was heaven! I’m always interesting to see the various types of war memorials, too, be they in the church, the cemetery or in the center of the village. How people remember their dead, and military dead in particular, just fascinates me.

Poplar Grove has so many stories. I wish more people would visit because it is such a powerful place. Maybe as people learn more about the place they’ll feel compelled to stop by.

Poplar Grove's 2014 luminary program (both photos courtesy of NPS)

To visit Poplar Grove National Cemetery:

8005 Vaughan Road, Petersburg, VA
(804) 861-2488

For GPS users enter 37 9′ 34.95″ N, 77 25′ 47.33″W

If not using these coordinates then do not use GPS and follow directions below:

The headstones at Poplar Grove lay flush with the ground. (photo by Edward Alexander)
The headstones at Poplar Grove lay flush with the ground. (photo by Edward Alexander)

From Crater Road (Route 301): Turn onto Flank Road and follow it until it intersects with Halifax Road. Turn right onto Halifax and then take your first left onto Flank Road again. Follow to the next cross street Vaughn Road and turn left. Less than a mile on the left side is the entrance to the cemetery.

From I-85: Take the Squirrel Level Road exit and turn onto to it heading south away from Petersburg. After going straight through the first traffic light at Defense Road keep to your left onto Wells Road as Squirrel Level Road turns sharply to the right. Follow Wells to Halifax Road and turn right. Drive down Halifax to Vaughn Road on the right. Follow Vaughn Road through the Flank Road intersection and to the cemetery as mentioned above.

For more information on Poplar Grove, click here.

2 Responses to “Every tombstone is a biography”

  1. I so hugely enjoy the Confederate cemeteries — my favorite is the Resaca Confederate Cemetery. Here in NM and El Paso, there are a few Confederates including a Texas Brigade veteran in El Paso. Charles C Crews is the only Confederate general buried in NM, at Hillsboro. I have pics of all in my stream.

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