Confederate cemetery attracts hundreds of visitors annually

March 4, 2011
Roger Neumann

With the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War slightly more than a month away, Elmira’s Woodlawn National Cemetery will play a major role in the region’s memorial plans because of a runaway slave who buried nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers in the cold earth of Chemung County.

The Confederate soldiers who died at Elmira’s infamous Civil War prison camp were buried at the cemetery. The remains of nearly all of them are still there.

A plaque placed at the cemetery in 1997 by a group of Southside High School students explains: "They have remained in these hallowed grounds … by family choice because of the honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man."

The man was John W. Jones, a runaway slave from Virginia who became the cemetery’s sexton, or caretaker, in 1859.

Jones buried or supervised the burial of 2,973 Confederate soldiers in neat rows and marked each grave with the best information available to him. In doing so, he preserved the memory of men whose identities might easily have been buried with them.

Reports say that families returned the remains of three soldiers to their southern roots, but cemetery records show that only two were taken. In either case, the number is small.

Today, white marble headstones stand in straight rows that offer a dramatic and respectful setting for the 500 to 1,000 visitors who come to that section of the cemetery each year to pay their respects.

That number of visitors could be higher this year, the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. But Walter "Skip" Baroody, director of the cemetery, said no special events are scheduled to recognize the occasion, either at Woodlawn or at the Bath National Cemetery.

Baroody also is director of the Bath cemetery, which is adjacent to the Bath VA Medical Center. He said it contains the remains of an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 Union soldiers, but no Confederates.

Among those buried there is Pvt. Robert Knox Sneden, a Union map-maker and artist who left "the largest collection of Civil War soldier art ever produced," according to the Virginia Historical Society.

A 40-foot high granite monument dedicated to Civil War soldiers and sailors was erected there in 1892.

At Woodlawn, prisoners who died at the camp were buried between July 1864 and August 1865 in graves now numbered from one to 2,963, said Brian McCabe, the current caretaker. Four headstones have two numbers and the names of two soldiers buried below. Ten markers contain the names of two soldiers each but only one number, bringing the total number to 2,973.

Each original wooden marker contained at least the name of the man or men buried in the plot, McCabe said. Most included the soldier’s unit, and many also had his rank and the date he died.

Seven are marked as unknown, McCabe said.

The information that was on the markers now appears on the stones.

The national cemetery also contains the remains of 49 Confederates and 17 Union soldiers who were killed in the crash of a prisoner-of-war train near Shohola, Pa., as it headed to Elmira. A monument to those who died in the crash rests at Woodlawn — prisoners’ names on one side, Union soldiers’ names on the other.

Visitors who come to see the gravesites and the monuments usually arrive unannounced, individually or in couples or small groups. But Baroody said he and his staff know that certain days will draw the most people to the Confederate section, including Confederate Memorial Day, which is observed on various dates in different Southern states.

"They come out and pay their respects and say a few words and have a little service by the (United) Daughters of the Confederacy monument," Baroody said. "Two years ago they put a Confederate flag on each gravesite."

Federal regulations require that Confederate flags in the cemetery be removed by sundown. Throughout the year, employees at Woodlawn occasional discover a small Confederate flag or other memento left by a visitor, which they remove later that day and file away in the office.

In addition to flags of various sizes, McCabe said he’s found soldiers’ photographs; a container full of Georgia red clay; a branch from a cotton plant, with cotton ball attached; a prayer book, and other items. Some people place stones atop the grave markers.

When requested, McCabe will mail a small sample of soil from a gravesite to a family member.

On U.S. Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May, American flags are placed on all graves in the national cemetery, Baroody said. That includes the graves of 325 Union soldiers that surround the Confederate section.

The American flags stay in place from Saturday through Monday of that weekend.

For a few years in the late 1980s, when there was still a big empty field to the right from the entrance to the national cemetery, Confederate re-enactors staged events there.

Most people who visit the Confederate section are on their first — and probably only — trip to the cemetery, and they usually need help finding the gravesite they’re looking for.

"A lot of the ones that I’ve had the privilege to talk to, they’re just finding it for the first time," McCabe said. "Some of them can get quite emotional. They seem to be very pleased with the way the cemetery’s been kept."

Baroody said the Confederate section was renovated three years ago. A government contractor raised and aligned all the white stones — the first time that had been done to the entire section at once — and put down new turf.

The marble stones have been there since 1907, when the federal government replaced the original wooden markers, McCabe said. By then, some relatives of the buried soldiers had already placed permanent headstones on graves, a few of which had no marker previously, and those were allowed to stay, he said.

Despite the appearance of complete uniformity at a glance over the field, there are seven to 10 of those private stones, McCabe said, including one that is black.

For some reason, the marble stones are shaped differently at the top for Confederate and Union graves. The Southerners’ stones come to a point at the top; the Northerners’ are rounded.

Unable to explain why, McCabe was told by a Southern visitor: "It’s to keep the damn Yankees from sittin’ on ’em.

Copyright © 2011

On The Web: