Our National Cemeteries: Hampton Roads VAMC National Cemetery

My first attempt to find the Hampton VA Medical Center National Cemetery takes me to Hampton National Cemetery, tucked along the border of historic Hampton University. I exited interstate 64 just before the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and passed the magisterial “Emancipation Oak” near the front gate of the campus. The tree stands at the site where, on January 1, 1863, Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler offered a public reading of the new Emancipation Proclamation. 

The broad avenue E. Tyler Way takes me straight and true through the heart of the university, founded in 1868. I pass Soldiers Home Road along the way—“Hey, I must be getting close,” I think—before reaching Cemetery Road, where a security officer passes me along through a checkpoint. Hampton National Cemetery stands sunlit before me.

As beautiful as the cemetery is, though, I immediately realize it is not the one I’m looking for. This VA-operated site is beautifully tended and, even on a bright sunny Thursday afternoon, serious in its bearing. Originally 4.7 acres, the cemetery now encompasses just a sliver move than 27.

Hampton National Cemetery serves as the final resting place for more than 30,000 servicemen and women and their spouses from the Civil War through World War II. Hampton VAMC National Cemetery, the one I’m searching for, by contrast, has only 22 interments. That’s how I know this one is too big to be the one I’m trying to find.

Hampton National Cemetery, like so many National Cemeteries, traces its origin to the Civil War, with first burials in 1862: soldiers and sailors who died at the hospital at nearby Fort Monroe. Legendary nurse Dorothea Dix once served as the cemetery’s superintendent. A large Civil War monument—a granite obelisk—stands near the cemetery’s center.

I don’t have time to explore, although the more I learn about this cemetery, the more I want to know. 638 unknowns, mostly from the Civil War. 272 Confederates. Germans, Italians, and even a Brit from WWII. 

But beyond the cemetery’s far brick wall, I can see the VA Medical Center. The national cemetery I’m looking for—Hampton VAMC National Cemetery—sits somewhere on its grounds. GPS, not knowing the difference, brought me to this bigger cemetery instead.

With final respects to those servicemen and women interred at Hampton, I retrace my route back to the university’s front gate—past the giant old Emancipation Oak again, just as impressive on second sight—and take a bit of a roundabout path to get to the hospital. No signs direct me so, on a whim, I take a right at a “T.” There, without even realizing it, I drive right past the cemetery, tucked in a small roadside strip of lawn.

Not seeing it, though, I pull over at a roadside map of the compound, which doesn’t list the cemetery anywhere. I bring up my GPS again, which now seems to suggest the cemetery is at the rear of the parking lot nearest to me, but as it turns out, my GPS seems interested only in offering me an approximation. 

Finally, I notice the flagpole at the far end of the parking lot, almost next to the entrance gate I had passed through. As I walk closer, I see three rows of graves. 

Found it. 

Although two brick columns provided an ersatz gate, the cemetery has no wall around it beyond a platoon of neatly trimmed shin-high shrubs and a low granite curb that separates the lawn on the outside from the lawn on the inside. A small memorial and a wayside marker sits in one corner of the small graveyard in front of the flagpole. The sign explains the cemetery’s history and the presence of these graves. 

In 1870, a branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Veteran Soldiers and Sailors was established in Hampton, eventually evolving into the campus of the huge VA facility that now occupies the site. In 1899, a yellow fever outbreak swept through the area. Eight of the servicemen living at the home succumbed to the epidemic. Because of strict quarantine rules, the dead had to be buried on the grounds of the facility rather than at the adjacent Hampton National Cemetery. Another twelve residents died of other causes, but because of the quarantine, they too had to be interred in the same small cemetery. Two civilians are buried there, too. 

I see that more than 3,700 servicemen lived at the home at the time, and only decisive, proactive work by the medical director prevented a larger loss of life. But I also see that 13 men died. Only eight of them were buried in the small cemetery. What happened to the other five, I wonder? It is a mystery for another day.

Because the epidemic took place during the Spanish-American War, people often mistakenly assume that the soldiers buried in the small cemetery were veterans of that war. A bronze plaque out front even says so. In fact, as the wayside sign inside the cemetery explains, the men buried in the cemetery were veterans of the Mexican War and the Civil War. Their twenty-two graves are arranged in three neat rows, occupying just under 0.2 acres of land. To this day, it remains the smallest national cemetery operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

I’ve wanted to come here ever since my first visit to Ball’s Bluff, where a small brick wall-enclosed national cemetery sits on the edge of the 1861 battlefield. I marveled then at its small size—54 soldiers in 25 graves—only to learn that it was not the smallest. That road, years later, eventually brought me to the Hampton VA.

Here these twenty-two men, from wars long gone by, rest in eternal vigil next to the busy front gate of a bustling modern facility. The cemetery is well tended and trimmed. Monuments and signage tell the history. A flag pays tribute. Yet it was still so easy to past them by in their final bivouac. It reminds me—again—that history is all around us and yet easy to miss. The sacrifices of the fallen are easy to overlook. What we know and what we think we know often become conflated.

These reminders were worth the stop. This tiny parcel and its larger neighbor, the majestic Emancipation Tree, the monolithic Fort Monroe just down the road, the deceptive waters of Hampton Roads—there’s so much here. So much. Yet this plot is so tiny, these rows of grave so small. It is a tiny parcel of dignity.

6 Responses to Our National Cemeteries: Hampton Roads VAMC National Cemetery

  1. My daughter and I had similar trouble locating the bigger Hampton National Cemetery a few months ago, searching for members of the 65th NY Volunteer Infantry regiment buried there to decorarte their graves with flags. We drove around for a bit, puzzled to find the cemetery on the Hampton University campus. A beautiful place.

  2. thanks Chris, nice post … while trying to find my great-great grandfather’s grave years ago, I found there are actually two separate cemeteries … the Hampton Section (the one you reference) is the smaller of the two and on the west side of I-64 … the larger one is called the Phoebus addition (named for a neighborhood in Hampton) and is less than a mile away on the east side of I-64.

    As a teenager and budding Civil War buff, i remember my great aunt telling me about attending her grandfather’s funeral at the Hampton Old Soldiers Home in 1924 … he lived there the last 12 years of his life … but i never made the connection between the home and the cemetery, even after many years of being stationed in Hampton Roads … i also remember her surprise when about 50 African Americans from a local church came to the funeral … the pastor told my aunt they attended all the Union soldiers funerals in honor of their service fighting against slavery.

  3. Nice post, buddy. Based on your photo, it looks like the university has trimmed up the Emancipation Oak since my last time there Good to see. That simple spot is one of my favorites in this area filled with historic places. Imagining the emotions of the local A/A residents hearing that proclamation is moving. Really moving.

    1. I’m glad all y’all gave me the opportunity to visit there on my way down to visit you guys!

  4. I remember being hospitalized at the Hampton military hospital (which I assume it the one mentioned) while I was going through helicopter training school at nearby Fort Eustis. I was in my 30s but somehow got the worst case of what turned out to be Chicken Pox known to man– within an hour it had broken out all over my face and body, no one knew what it was. They actually thought I had AIDS (I looked that bad) so they put me in an airtight room on an upper level of the hospital. I looked like I had the plague all over my body. I remember having a beautiful view of the river and Norfolk on the other side of the river from my window. Of course it eventually subsided and I was released. Finished helicopter school and was stationed to Europe on September 5th, 2001. The next few years were eventful and interesting, to say the least. Didn’t know or care that there was a cemetery nearby. Now I do.

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