CHAPTER FIVE: Toward a More Permanent Cemetery
Photos · Additional Resources
Over time many of Fredericksburg’s markers have become soiled, such as this headstone of Charles Alsop and the block marking the grave of four unidentified soldiers buried in plot #4073.
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These memorials on the graves of unknown soldiers are examples of lettered headstones.
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The oldest privately funded headstone in the cemetery belongs to Sergeant Edward L. Townsend of the 25th New Jersey Infantry, which was erected shortly after the cemetery’s creation at a cost of twenty-five dollars. His parents erected the memorial within five years of the cemetery’s creation, but for some reason cemetery officials left standing the original stone. Townsend is one of five soldiers at Fredericksburg to have two headstones.
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Some headstones have been totally or partially absorbed by neighboring trees, such as this one belonging to Private Wesley Daley of the 10th United States Infantry.
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Most unknown soldier plots contain the remains of more than one soldier. Three of them, including #4087 shown here, contain the bones of a dozen men.
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Tilted headstones, like those shown here, are an ongoing maintenance problem.
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Six of Fredericksburg National Cemetery’s privately funded headstones belong to former superintendents or their family members. This one marks the grave of Superintendent Thomas B. Robinson and his wife, Clara.
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Many headstones have been chipped by lawnmowers over the years.
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As shown here, the subterranean portion of headstone blocks far exceed the few inches that appear above the ground. Like icebergs, most of the granite that make up each unknown headstone lies beneath the surface.
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Superintendent Andrew Birdsall and his wife, Julia, are buried in these graves.
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Many of the soldiers buried at Fredericksburg have only partial identification, such as this Pennsylvania soldier, known only as “George.”
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Note the beveled edges on this unknown marker. Small anomalies like these are common.
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The Woodmen of the World, a fraternal benefit society, funded the private headstones of two soldiers, James L. Corbin and Charles Wissner. The latter’s headstone is shown here. It bears the organization’s logo on the back.
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Frederick E. Wagner is one of five Fredericksburg superintendents buried at the cemetery they administered.
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This bronze shield has adorned the front gatepost of the cemetery since the early 20th century.
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This gate, located on the north side of the cemetery, was added ca. 1882-1883 to facilitate the removal of topsoil from the John G. Lane’s property.
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These brick steps, located near the center of the south terraces, were constructed in 1875 to replace a similar set of wooden steps that had started to decay.
Numbering, Orientation, and Maintenance of Headstones
When cemetery officials installed headstones in 1874, they gave them consecutive numbers, running from 1 to 6604. The numbers started at the eastern end of the cemetery, on Terrace 9, and ended at the western end, in Section AB. Later, they created more grave sites by eliminating avenues and by adding plots to the end of existing rows. As a result, headstones with numbers greater than 6604 are in no particular order.
The highest numbered headstone, #6754, belongs to the cemetery’s last interment, Iva Boggs. However, there are not 6,754 headstones in the cemetery. Cemetery officials did not use 13 of the numbers (#6605-6613, 6655, 6663, and 6738), and in 29 cases they duplicated an existing number and simply added a letter to it. At least two headstones are missing—probably damaged and never replaced. Consequently, there are currently 6,768 headstones in the cemetery.
The headstones’ orientation follows a distinct pattern. Those on Terrace 1, at the crest of the hill, face west toward the adjacent avenue, while those on Terraces 2-9 face east, toward modern Lafayette Boulevard. The only exceptions to this rule are Graves #6656 and #6657 on Terrace 8, which face west. Situated at the northern end of the south terrace, these graves were added to the row in the 20th century. Cemetery personnel probably oriented them westward to make them easier to read.
The orientation of the headstones situated on the plateau is more complex. There, graves in the front (eastern) half of each division face east, while those in the back (western) half face west. The Army did this so that the inscriptions would face the avenue closest to the grave. Officials later upset this design by filling one of the principal east-west avenues with additional graves. As a result, tombstones once separated by that avenue abut one another.
Even that pattern is not entirely uniform, however. Nine post-Civil War tombstones located in Parcel AB and one tombstone in Parcel DC face east, while other headstones in those parcels face west. Like Graves #6656 and #6657 mentioned earlier, cemetery employees deliberately oriented the headstones to face east in order to make them easier to read by visitors approaching from that direction. The same cannot be said for Graves #4204 and #6453, whose improper orientation appears to have been simply the result of human error.
Maintenance of the headstones was, and is, an ongoing concern. Cemetery workers had to raise stones that sank too far into the ground, straighten those that became tilted, and wash those that became dirty. In his 1884 report, Civil Engineer C. W. Foster found all the headstones to be “in very good alignment,” but he felt that “they are all too low and should be raised.” The graves too could be a problem. As the wooden lids of the coffins decayed, the dirt above them collapsed into the graves creating depressions nearly a foot deep. When that happened, cemetery workers had to take up the sod over the sunken grave, fill the depression with fresh dirt, and re-lay the sod. At Petersburg, cemetery officials foresaw this problem and addressed it by mounding 10 to 12 inches of dirt over each new grave.
Variations in Design and Lettering
Although both the slab and block headstones fit a prescribed pattern, close inspection of the headstones reveals subtle variations in design. For instance, a small number of slab-style headstones feature a beveled top front edge, clipped left or right corners, or both. Similarly, the blocks marking the graves of a few unknown soldiers feature clipped corners and, in at least one instance, beveling around each of the four top edges. Like much else in the cemetery, there is no rhyme or reason to these anomalies, leaving one to question why they exist.
Comparison of the slab and block headstones likewise reveals subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) variations in lettering. Nowhere is this more evident than on the block-style headstones that punctuate the South Terrace #9, some of which feature unusually large and widely spaced numerical figures. At other places in the cemetery, the lettering on the headstones appears less rigid, even mildly ornate. Unlike markers with variant designs, headstones with variant lettering are often grouped together, suggesting that they came from the same manufacturer.
While some headstones have unusual lettering, a few are downright flawed. The defect usually involves a mistaken digit in the stone’s identification number. Rather than discard the imperfect stone, the manufacturer simply carved the correct digit on top of the faulty one, creating a puzzling mark. At a glance, such mistakes are easy to miss, which may explain how they got past the searching eyes of the cemetery superintendent and its inspectors.
Each of the 15,000 headstones at Fredericksburg National Cemetery has a number identifying its plot. The numbers begin on the lower terraces and grow progressively larger as you move west. (The exception is Officers Row, which has its own unique numbering system.) Captain Alexander McDonald of the 1st Maine Cavalry occupies Grave #1.
Twenty-nine headstones have both a number and a letter. Seven of these belong to Civil War soldiers who have slab- or block-style headstones like those issued between 1866 and 1868. Cemetery officials may have inadvertently failed to assign these seven graves a number. Rather than throw off the sequence of the numbering system, they may have simply added a letter to the number of the neighboring grave. That would explain why the letters on each of these graves is an “A.” In the case of David Stevens (#3205A), the letter appears to have added later, suggesting that cemetery officials originally ordered two headstones with the same number. By contrast, the letter on Henry Nichols’s headstone (#6015A) was obviously chiseled at the same time as the number.
The interment dates for 20 of the headstones run from 1929 through 1944. By then, the cemetery was full. To make room for the new graves, cemetery authorities filled in cemetery avenues, added individual graves to the end of existing rows, and placed graves in plots that, for some reason, had been left vacant. Twenty of the lettered headstones are situated in the avenues that formerly divided Sections CD, CE, and CF, in what, for lack of a better term, might be called the Fill Row Extension. Four others lie in Section CF; two are in Section BC; and the other three are in Sections AB, CB, and DC respectively.
Each of the headstones has a counterpart which has an identical number but which is lacking the accompanying letter. With a single exception, the original graves contain the remains of multiple unidentified Union soldiers. The exception is S. V. Hall of the 8th Ohio Infantry (#2915), whose grave lies next to Edith Rose Tench (#2915A) in Section BC.
Like Tench, most lettered graves lie adjacent to, or within 50 feet of, their lettered counterpart(s). As usual, there is an exception. Alexander Allison (#6145A) is buried in the southeastern corner of Section AB, while his grave’s non-lettered counterpart is two sections over, in the southwestern corner of Section CB. Even so, there is numerical continuity. Because no graves lie between it and Grave #6145, Allison’s plot is next to Grave #6145—numerically, if not geographically. But why not give him the same number as the grave immediately beside him, #6416, rather than a grave two sections away? While that would seem to make sense, it apparently violated the cemetery superintendent’s sense of order, which dictated that lettered headstones receive the same number as the next grave below them in the sequence. Thus theory triumphed over practicality.
The purpose of giving the new graves a letter obviously was to differentiate them from the previous non-lettered ones. The question then arises: Why not just issue the new interments different numbers altogether? And, in fact, cemetery officials were doing just that at other parts of the cemetery, most notably in the Fill Row. Curiously, while cemetery officials were packing the Fill Row Extension with lettered headstones, the Fill Row itself did not get a single one. Both of these areas continued to receive new burials until 1945 when the cemetery closed.
Why cemetery officials chose to create new numbers for some graves and reuse existing numbers for others is just one mystery surrounding the lettered headstones. There are others. For instance, soldiers who died prior to 1930 received headstones with the letter “A” and were not part of a series (A, B, C, etc.). After that date, however, all lettered graves, save one, were part of a series. Just as baffling is the fact that some series of lettered headstones utilize the same number, while others use sequential numbers. For instance, one series consists of Graves #4677A, #4677B, and #4677C. By contrast, another row, just a few yards away, contains Graves #4680A, #4681B, #4682C, etc. The numbers in the first series are the same; those in the second series are sequential. A third series borrows from both patterns, beginning with Graves #4673A, #4673B but then switching abruptly to Grave #4674C , #4675D, #4676E, etc. Did the company that manufactured the stones mislabel Grave #4672A and make it #4673A instead? Or was the peculiar sequencing the responsibility of the cemetery superintendent who ordered the stones?
Decades of exposure and wear have left their mark on many of the headstones. Although modern lawnmowers have knocked the corners off of some 1870s stones and have chipped others, they have held up remarkably well. There are, of course, exceptions. A couple of the 1870s stones have major cracks and a couple of others are severely mangled, the victims of repeated mechanized assaults. Those located near trees frequently suffer from the growth of mold or lichens, while a small number have literally disappeared into the trees themselves. Dirt or mold has visibly darkened the surface of many block-style headstones. A few are positively black with grime.
Far worse, however, are the General-style headstones erected after 1920. Without exception, these white marble stones are heavily stained, and those situated under trees suffer from mold and lichens. Unlike the 1870s stones, which lie close to the ground, many of the General-style headstones tilt forward and require straightening.
With the exception of minor chipping, the problem affecting the greatest number of headstones is elevation. A survey done in 2006 identified 319 headstones that are significantly low. Of that number, 65 have sunken so far into the earth as to cover all or part of their inscriptions. This is particularly true of headstones located in the back half of the cemetery, in Sections BD, BD, and CB. Far fewer are the headstones that stand too high. Like Prometheus, these granite shafts have risen from the earth to reveal their rough-hewn bases. Compared to sunken stones, their number is not large. A 2006 survey identified just 52 of them.
Woodmen of the World
Among the 15 privately funded headstones at Fredericksburg National Cemetery are two that bear the emblem of Woodmen of the World emblem: James L. Corbin (#6708) and Charles H. Wissner (#6669). Woodmen of the World is a fraternal benefit society with origins that date back to 1883. In that year, Joseph Cullen Root of Iowa created a group called Modern Woodmen of America, that had three goals: 1) to provide financial security for families following the death of the breadwinner through the issuance of life insurance policies, 2) to create social bonds between its members, and 3) to raise money for local charities. In 1890, the founder and several other prominent members left Modern Woodmen of America over a dispute in leadership and formed a new group called Woodmen of the World that was nearly identical to the society that they had left. Both organizations still exist.
Woodmen of the World is a national organization with local chapters, or camps, scattered throughout the country, two of which were at Fredericksburg. In many respects, its history mirrors that of other fraternal organizations. New members had to have a sponsor, agree to abide by the organization’s principles, and undergo some good-natured hazing. Members wore uniforms (including axes) and shared secret rituals such as handshakes, passwords, and symbols. The group held annual conventions to conduct business and elect national leaders and its chapters often fielded ax-wielding drill teams that performed at parades and other public events.
What made Woodmen of the World different from the Masons, Shriners, Odd Fellows, and other fraternal organizations was its emphasis on protecting the wives and children of its deceased members from financial hardship. It did this by making each member purchase a Woodmen of the World life insurance policy.
One of Joseph Cullen Root’s objectives in creating Woodmen of the World was to give its members a decent funeral. As part of its benefits package, the organization agreed to furnish each member with a headstone. (Later, as headstones became more expensive, members had to pay an additional 100 dollars for this benefit.) Although the Woodmen discontinued this policy in the 1920s, many local chapters continued the practice. Their headstones typically featured one of two Woodmen symbols, a tree stump or a stack of hewn logs, accompanied by the organization’s logo. While national cemetery regulations forbid Wissner and Corbin from receiving such elaborate headstones, the markers for both men include the Woodman of the World emblem.