Monday, November 12, 2007

In An Old Virginia Town [Part 12 - National Cemetery]

In An Old Virginia Town - Part 12
Originally published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine
March 1885, pages 601-612.
Author: Frederick Daniel

(continued from Part 11)

On Marye's Heights, within a stone's throw of the Washington and Richmond Railway, there is now a national cemetery. It was laid out in 1865, and completed in 1868, and in it are buried the remains of the soldiers and officers killed in the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Spottsylvania Court House, and North Anna; that is to say, all the bodies the military authorities could recover. The total number of internments is 15, 257; known, 2487; unknown, 12,770.

The sides of the hill have been sloped in terraces, which are planted with small trees. A handsome brick wall incloses the cemetery, through which run tracks for vehicles and walks for pedestrians, and an avenue crossing the plain to the town is soon to be built. In the beginning there was established in the inclosure a conservatory in which flowers were grown for decking the graves on the anniversary of each of the battles, but it was afterward abolished as involving an unnecessary expense. Immediately in the centre, on the summit of the hill, four large old fashioned smooth-bore cannons, surrounded by several small pyramids of balls, are erected, with their butt ends resting on granite foundations, a ball in each muzzle. One of these guns bears a brass shield, with the appropriate dedication. In the midst rises the lofty flagstaff, upon which a small flag is always kept hoisted, except on national festivals, when a large banner is floated in the breeze. In a neat cottage at the entrance, contiguous to a part of the stone wall that served as a breastwork at the foot of the hill during the battle, dwells with his family the guardian, who keeps the ledger of this little city of the dead, and gives to the passing stranger all requisite information concerning them. In the number of its interments this cemetery rates third, those of Vicksburg and Nashville leading it. Only seventy-six of the national cemeteries are in charge of regularly appointed keepers, and the total number of dead buried in all is 308,331.

Of the houses that stood between the town and Marye's Heights on the day of the battle only three remain, but the intervening plain is now much more thickly built over than it was then. Of the shot and shell, grape and musket-balls, which were strewn on the field, there have been gathered many wagon loads, and the small boy still to-day finds a ready source of pocket-money in the lead to be picked up on the broad expanse, now green with varying crops and meadows smiling in the daisies. Indeed, excepting the cemetery itself, it is hard to find a trace of the battle's havoc, such is the remedial power of time; earth-works were long since leveled, and new houses in the town itself replace those that were burned or battered during the bombardment. A single cannon-ball is allowed to remain imbedded in the rear wall of a drug shop on the main street as a curiosity, or rather a freak in the dynamics of war. On the neighboring field of Chancellorsville only one house now stands, and no one would ever imagine from the unscarred locality that the deadly encounter of two great armies took place there twenty years ago.

THE END of In An Old Virginia Town

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