Storms & Light at Winchester National Cemetery

With the upcoming battlefield tour at New Market on October 1 and virtual history program on October 7 as a fundraiser for Wreaths Across America, I’ve been working on extra research about soldiers buried in Winchester National Cemetery and other cemeteries in the Shenandoah Valley. I came across some late summer photos on my phone and wanted to share some images.

It always seems to rain when I go to Winchester National Cemetery this year. Not that I’m complaining, since some of my favorite research moments have been on battlefields in pouring rain. It’s just an observation… That evening in April when I watched the dark gray clouds roll up from the south and saw the columns of falling rain, long before the drops fell on me and began to wash the pain of memories and modern war and hide my tears. That August evening when I drove the extra twenty miles because I had a feeling the sunset and storm clouds would make a moment worth seeing from the burial place of the Union in the lower Shenandoah Valley. That more recent September day in the rain locating the marked resting places of the soldiers.

Come with me to Winchester National Cemetery. I’ve brought the photos from that August evening and we can walk among the details of the past—letting the light and beauty of the summer storm tell us part of the story while the history and words of the fallen whisper their own benedictions. This is not a comprehensive photo essay. The details of monuments or gravestones are in more focus than the wider view because sometimes we need to slow down to see the little visuals and remember the stories they represent.

A coming storm—especially the summer thunderstorms—bring wind which snaps the flag to attention. When this National Cemetery officially began internments in April 1866, tensions remained high in the Shenandoah Valley and reconciliation sentiments had hardly appeared. A flagpole and flag kept watch over the work of the men in the U.S. Burial Corps. So from the beginning of this ending place, a flag has been here.

Several monuments stand within the walled boundaries of Winchester National Cemetery. Some are state monuments, others regimental. Each has their own story of creation, dedication, placement, or relocation.

The 34th Massachusetts marched and fought in the Shenandoah Valley region from July 1863 until December 1864, part of its three years volunteer service. The detail carving on part of their moment reflects the memory of the 269 men who died during the regiments service years – some from disease, others from battle, many in the Shenandoah Valley. When the regimental monument was placed here in 1912, the reporting newspapers noted that it was erected “to the memory of the soldiers of the 34th Massachusetts Infantry who were killed at New Market and in the vicinity of Winchester during the civil war.”

The Massachusetts State Monument in Winchester National Cemetery evokes movement. The Civil War Campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley were not always decisive, but each side marched leagues of miles, seeking position, supplies, or battlefield victory. The storm clouds and light around the bronzed soldier perhaps suggest the conflict of war and the ideal of “marching on.”

Unknown. In language, it’s an adjective with meanings:Not known; Greater than is imagined; Not having communication.” Pause and sit a moment with me at an Unknown grave. There is a story greater than we could imagine, but we have no communication and simply do not know.

I find a tension in the word “unknown.” Sometimes, that tension is fearful. Sometimes, matter-of-fact accepting. Perhaps it is the future, the details of circumstance, or even loved ones in this present time caught in the fog of unknown. It’s the tension of coming to peace with the unknown, accepting that we can’t always know but we have to trust and keep walking.

You’ll find this text plaque on one of the “buried” cannons near the center of Winchester National Cemetery, noting the burials of Civil War soldiers (and a few civilians). The phrase on the eagle’s banner “E Pluribus Unum” is the popular patriotic concept “Out of many, one.” While meant in the national sense of unity, perhaps the phrase also reflects here on the cemetery. Many sacrifice stories and many fallen soldiers gathered into one resting place.

Looking back across the cemetery and catching the Massachusetts State Monument with the flag in the background… I’m reminded of this quote from a Massachusetts colonel and the battle of New Market:

“Conspicuous, only, perhaps, from their more exposed position, were Color Sergeant John E. Calligau; Corporal Pepper, bearer of the State flag, hit four times, and struck to the ground; Corporal Wishart, who took the colors from his hands, and bore them the remainder of the day; and Capt. Bacon, of the Color Company, who fell directly behind his colors, while keeping his ranks steady as on parade.”

(We are quite sure that some of these fallen men rest in graves only numbered or marked unknown in the shadow the statue and the flag.)

Stanzas from “Bivouac of the Dead” are often found on plaques in Civil War era National Cemeteries, and Winchester is no exception. The angle of this photo’s view lets the lines of historic poetry form the go between for the dead and the sunset storm. Something between the dead and the living, perhaps?

The Pennsylvania State Monument includes this plaque fastened to the reddish stone which forms the base, supporting the bronze image of a female figure holding a fallen soldier—almost Pieta-like. But focus a moment on the words chosen here. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is echoed, offering a meaning for the cost of liberty and national unity.

The 114th New York Regiment’s monumental obelisk is the tallest of the columns in the cemetery. On the August storm evening, the clouds parted around it, leaving the setting light to spotlight it. Obelisks as monuments date back to ancient times, once inscribed with hieroglyphs by Ancient Egyptians, recording the deeds of kings, rulers, religion, and soldiers. The New Yorkers skipped language that needs a Rosetta Stone, instead leaving an inscription of their regiment’s role in the Third Battle of Winchester which was fought over this ground. They also left a visual in bronze of that battle, ensuring that even without inscribed words, their story would be seen.

Eventually the rain and late hour drives me from the cemetery on that August evening. But the scenes and the stories go with me.


Now, I’m looking at research files and drafted tour notes…in a few days some of the stories of these buried soldiers will be told on the field of their final fight: New Market battlefield. Come join us on the fundraiser battlefield tour, rediscover some soldiers’ stories, and help to support Wreaths Across America to place wreaths on their graves this coming December.

1 Response to Storms & Light at Winchester National Cemetery

  1. Storms in the Shenendoah seem appropriate. After reading the Wittenberg-Mingus two volume series on the march towards Gettysburg, one takeaway: thetroops seemed to be marching in rain and sleeping in mud much of the time.

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