Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Throughout the nine-and-a-half months of fighting around Petersburg, thousands of Union soldiers were buried on the fields where they fell. For the great majority, their identity was lost forever in the dirt that dominated the landscape around the city. Prior to the siege, in July 1862, the United States Congress authorized the establishment of National Cemeteries “for soldiers who shall die in defense of their country.” When the war ended, the many battlefield sites around Petersburg were surveyed to find a place for a National Cemetery where soldiers could be honored in a final resting place.

An area just south of Petersburg was selected as a central location to the scattered burial sites around Petersburg. This site was once the camp of the 50th NY Engineers who constructed a church that they named Poplar Grove, after a church that had been destroyed in one of the nearby battles. With the site chosen, a burial corps of 100 men with army horses, mules, and wagons scouted the surrounding countryside to locate and move the remains of more than 6100 Union soldiers into proper burial sites. The cemetery remains today, a site where soldiers are honored, families remember, and visitors never forget those men who gave their lives for a United States of America.

Voices from …

After the Civil War, there was little question that a central site in the Petersburg area was necessary for the proper burial of thousands of Union soldiers who gave their lives during the siege. From the soldier who chose Poplar Grove as the cemetery location to the soldier who was buried there after being pierced by a Minnie ball in the forehead while leading his company's charge against Petersburg, this site is a testament to those who survived and those who did not. This site honors those who are known and the many more who are not. This site is a place where visitors today can remember soldiers from the past.

Known and Unknown Soldiers

William Ferrin

Jan 30th, 1863

Sister Sati,

I have a few minutes to spare before going on guard & thought I would write . . . There is a little snow on the ground and it has melted so as to make it very muddy – The sun has shone bright all day today – I presume very likely we will have to go south in a week or two for we have all got our guns and have no excuse for not going but wherever we go you must not feel any fears for me for all our fighting if we have to do any is done in rifle pits and we shall not be exposed to enemy fire very much. . .

Name: William Ferrin
Regiment: 1st Battalion, New York Volunteer Sharpshooters
Killed In Action: August 18th, 1864, Battle of Weldon Railroad, Petersburg, VA

William came from a large family, so he often sent money home to
help support his parents and family.

Tanner W. Thomas

September 4th, 1862

It is with trembling hand and sad heart that I write you a few lines to inform you of the death of your brave and noble son . . . He fell at the battle of Bull Run on Saturday, the 30th, while bravely defending his country. He was a good and faithful soldier, always cheerful; ever at his post; and commanded the confidence and esteem of his companions and fellow soldiers who sorrowfully mourn his loss. . . While you have reason to mourn the loss of one so dear to you, you still have reason to rejoice, and give God thanks that you had so noble a boy, willing to sacrifice for all his country.

Tanner Thomas witnessed the deaths of many comrades and friends during the war. For a few of these men, he wrote letters home to their parents telling them of their brave service.

Name: Second Lieutenant Tanner W. Thomas
Regiment: Company A, Seventh Wisconsin
Killed In Action: June 18th, 1864, Pierced by a Minnie ball in the forehead while leading his company in a charge against Petersburg.

One of his comrades, Lieutenant Mark Finnicum continued Tanner’s tradition of writing letters home to the parents of the fallen, when he wrote about Tanner’s death:

As it was God’s will that he should fall, his State can chronicle his name among the bravest and most devoted of her patriots, who have fallen in this mighty contest for the principles involved; and you can have the cheering intelligence that notwithstanding all the temptations of vice thrown around the soldier, he never swerved from the path of rectitude and right, and died in the Christian’s hope.

Unknown Soldier Stone

"Bodies were everywhere; behind stones, and rocky craigs, in fields, in woods, upon the hills- everywhere. Burial details swung out and managed to get most of the things which had once been men into hasty graves. But without any system it was slapdash. Inverted muskets, their bayonets rammed into the earth, or pieces of board penciled with brief information marked the sites of superficial graves. In a short time the woods and fields became a hodge-podge burial ground."
--Unknown visitor to Gettysburg just after the battle

When the war began in 1861, military authorities were unprepared to deal with the high number of casualties. Battle after battle saw soldiers left on the field, buried in hasty graves or shallow trenches, most without any identification. By the war’s end, Federal cemeteries were established to provide Union soldiers a proper resting place. Over six thousand unknown soldiers around the fields and trenches of Petersburg were re-interred at Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

Colonel James Moore

Colonel James Moore served with the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers at Petersburg, Virginia. After the war, his duty was to establish a new Federal cemetery around Petersburg for the soldiers buried in the fields and trenches. Moore chose the site, where his camp was located at Petersburg, as it was central to the scattered battle sites around Petersburg.

Read excerpts of Moore’s letters to find out more about the location of his camp near Poplar Grove Church, Virginia, that he later chose for the location of the new cemetery.

January 22nd, 1864
Headquarters, 50th New York Volunteers

“... The weather during the last week was beautiful up to yesterday, which was made very disagreeable by a rapid and continuous fall of rain which froze almost as fast as it fell ... By the way, we are building a church, and as we have had preaching only twice this winter, hope that when it is done, we will be a little more human and have it every Sunday. We always try to regard the day by refraining from the daily work of the week ...

December 10th, 1864
Near Poplar Grove Church

“... We have a fine camp. I have a good log house and feel quite at home. Yesterday there was some prospects of a move. Last night the men were all ready, the teams hitched up until about 8 P.M. when we received orders to unhitch ... We hold ourselves in readiness to move ... I am not going to bother my brain speculating on possibilities. I think we will soon settle down for winter, and it would please me to stay where I am ...”

December 16th, 1864
Near Poplar Grove Church, Virginia

“... The whole command was ordered out and soon we were on the move ... We then took up the bridge and camped until 2 o’clock A.M., when we started back to camp ... I think it was the most unpleasant day I ever saw in service, but when we arrived in camp and found good fires blazing away in our good log tents, we soon forgot the cold. Since then, there has been no move with us. We are busy building, and the camp begins to look like a city.”

In April 1866, Moore chose this camp site as the location of the new cemetery. During the siege, this winter headquarters of the 50th NY Engineers was turned into a small semi-permanent village, with huts and officer’s quarters. Their greatest accomplishment was the construction of the church. It was considered “a rustic gem…everything except nails, was furnished by the surrounding woods and made by the men themselves

Reverend David McCrae

“We rode out to the Federal Soldier’s Cemetery at Poplar Grove, and tying our horses in the pine wood outside, went in to wander for a while among the graves. The place is laid out in sections, each section with its melancholy forest of white headboards on which are now painted the names and regiments of the dead men below.”

Reverend David McCrae toured the United States in 1868. At this time he visited sites from New York to Florida where he recorded his experiences. Use the links below to read more about McCrae’s tour of the Petersburg area after the Civil War. He describes both his visit to the Union cemetery at Poplar Grove and his visit to the Blandford Cemetery where Confederate soldiers were buried.

“One of the first headboards I stopped to read was marked:

UNKNOWN
U.S. Soldier
Removed from
Fort Dread

I wondered who the man was who lay beneath – where his home was – whether his mother was still alive, away, perhaps, in some far-off part of the world, wondering what had become of her boy, that she had not heard from in so long, but still hoping that someday he would return to gladden her heart in her declining years.”

“Here he lay, alas; sleeping his long sleep among the unknown dead. Here were long rows of these ‘Unknown.’ Altogether 7500 dead men – soldiers of the Union lay buried in this one cemetery.”

“We visited the Confederate cemetery too – a still sadder spectacle – for here, all down the slope of the hill, the graves were thick as the furrows on a ploughed field, with nothing to distinguish them save here and there a slip of wood, or a rag fluttering from a little stick. But every year, on a certain day, the ladies of Petersburg come out to mourn over their dead, and deck the poor graves with flowers.”

Oscar A. Mack, Inspector National Cemeteries

August Miller, Superintendent
Inspected August 5, 1874

“The cemetery is situated about five miles southeast of the railway station in Petersburg, and half a mile south of the Weldon Railroad. It is within the second line of field-works established by the United States troops, near the left of the position, and is on the campground of the Fiftieth Regiment of New York Engineers, who erected a very neat rustic chapel within the camp. This chapel and a grove of small pines by which it was surrounded, no doubt caused the selection of the ground for the cemetery, together with the fact that the final conflict took place near the spot.”
--submitted by Oscar A. Mack, Inspector National Cemeteries

According to Federal law, the War Department distributed reports on the condition of national cemeteries throughout the country. Oscar A. Mack submitted this report to Congress in 1874. Read more entries about Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Mack’s Report.

Church
The chapel is in a decayed state, has been taken down; and the young pines, from the necessity of cutting their roots in digging the graves, have nearly all died. One-half of the ground is rolling; the other half is flat, giving indifferent drainage. It derives its name from a spring half a mile distant, and a little church called Poplar Grove Church.

Superintendent’s Lodge
The main entrance is in the west side ... It is approached from the public road from Petersburg (which runs along side the Weldon Railway) by a winding drive of about a mile in length through the open fields.

A rubble-stone lodge has been erected near this entrance. It is one story high, with flat roof, and contains three rooms ... This lodge is on the south side of the avenue leading into the cemetery.

Cemetery Design
In about the center of the lot is a circular mound 50 feet in diameter and 8 feet high, on which the new flag-staff is erected. A wide avenue entirely surrounds this mound, and from it four other avenues radiate in curved lines toward the four corners of the lot ... Between the four radiating avenues ... are four circular segments filled with flower beds and shrubs ...

In this portion of the grounds the graves are arranged in circles concentric with these segments ... In the remainder of the burial sections the graves are arranged in parallel rows.

The graves are generally mounded up and sodded, but the turf is not good, as the soil is very poor ... The graves are marked by headboards or stakes ... The cemetery is quite tastefully laid out, and looks very well, considering the amount of labor employed.

Profiles of Duty

“... Considerable labor will be required, as soon as the weather is favorable, to put the Cemetery in proper order; and to collect the Remains of U.S. Soldiers, still scattered about in this vicinity, for burial in the Cemetery.” --August Miller, Superintendent, National Cemetery, March 31, 1868

Nearly two years previous to Miller’s report, Poplar Grove, located about five miles outside of Petersburg was chosen as a National Cemetery site. Selection for the site came after the war, and on the heels of an 1862 authorization of the U.S. Congress for the purchase of land to establish National Cemeteries “for soldiers who shall die in defense of their country.” This was certainly necessary for the 42,000 Union casualties in the fighting around Petersburg. A Burial Corps was established to handle the tremendous job of finding and moving soldier remains to the cemetery.

Burial Corps

While a factor in selecting the new cemetery site in Petersburg at Poplar Grove was its proximity to major battlefields, the job of finding and moving soldiers to a proper resting place was no small task. A burial corps of 100 men with army horses, mules and wagons, scouted the surrounding countryside, locating, disinterring and moving the remains of the Union soldiers killed around Petersburg.

The burial corps traveled as far west as Lynchburg, nearly 120 miles to the west, to bring remains to Poplar grove for a proper burial. From July 1866 through July 1869, the burial corps moved the remains of approximately 6100 Union soldiers. Eventually, the log pine church that had been built during the siege by a group of New York Engineers who camped there fell into disrepair. The corps took the building down to make room for more graves.

Superintendent’s Report of Burials
March 31, 1869
“The Cemetery contains 5292 Graves, in which 5909 bodies are interred. There is no room for additional Graves, since last January. The Bodies, of 2 Known, and 21 Unknown U.S. Soldiers, are now buried outside, near the Cemetery.”
--August Miller, Cemetery Superintendent

At this same time, the Scout of the U.S. Burial Corps reported that there were still about 100 U.S. Soldiers and 100 more bodies were scattered about between a neighboring railroad station and the Appomattox River. As the Burial Corps continued to bring bodies for re-internment at Poplar Grove, Miller had the task of completing an index of all known Soldiers, organized by state.

May 27, 1869
Poplar Grove
“... In regards to the remains of Union Dead, I would further report, that 82 Bodies have been discovered in this vicinity, since the 17th, making the total number 112 since last January. 82 Bodies are now buried in the strip of Sand, added to the Cemetery. . .and the balance will be interred during the week.”

At the same time, the scouts report that the remains of from 50 to 75 Union Dead could still be found in neighboring vicinity with a careful search.

By the fall of 1869 the main search, recovery, and reinterment, and construction projects were completed. The Burial Corps had moved the remains of almost 6100 Union soldiers. The cost for the new cemetery came to approximately $107,000. A few of the charges were as follows:

$1.25 transporting the remains by horse and wagon
$2.50 coffins
$1.00 digging and filling each grave.

The work of the Burial Corps at Poplar Grove provided thousands of soldiers a final, proper resting place, in return for the service to their country in the American Civil War.

Union versus Confederate

Neither the Union nor the Confederacy was completely prepared to deal with the death tolls of their armies in the American Civil War. Battle after battle saw soldiers from both sides left on the field, buried in hasty graves or shallow trenches, many without any identification. Particularly during the nine-and-a-half month siege of Petersburg, continuous fighting, hasty abandonment of the field after a battle and ground frequently changing hands all contributed to the difficulty in properly dealing with casualties. After the war’s end, both sides worked to create a central area to bury casualties where they could be properly honored for their service.

Explore how concerned civilians worked to establish cemeteries in the Petersburg area where known and unknown soldiers could receive a proper burial service.

Battlefield Casualties

Union Perspective:
After nine-and-a-half months of fighting around Petersburg and 42,000 Union casualties, it was easily determined that a National Cemetery needed to be established in the Petersburg area.

In most cases, soldiers were buried on the battle fields where they lay. For a fortunate few, small temporary cemeteries had been created during the siege, with one Army Corps burying their dead at an area along the Eastern Front, known as Meade Station. However, after a few months the fence enclosing the cemetery started decaying and headboards marking the graves were nearly unreadable.

Confederate Perspective:
Thousands of Confederate casualties on the battlefields around Petersburg led a group of citizens to work on properly burying these soldiers. Identification tags were not standard issue for either army, but there was a greater chance of Union soldiers purchasing I.D. tags from a sutler, than for Confederate forces to have such identification.

After the siege, the need to provide proper burials sites for Confederate forces was tremendous as their shallow dug graves often opened with each rainfall.

Setting Up the Cemeteries

Union Perspective:
The United States Congress authorized the purchase of land for the establishment of National Cemeteries in July 1862, with the primary factor of cemetery locations being their proximity to major battlefields. After supervising other cemetery operations elsewhere, Lt. Colonel James Moore scouted and selected the site for a cemetery around Petersburg, located just south of the city. This site had served as a camp for the 50th New York during the siege, where they had built a church named after nearby Poplar Springs Church that was destroyed during a battle. Once Poplar Grove National Cemetery was selected, the burial corps began their work to find the remains of Union soldiers killed in the area.

Confederate Perspective:
Blandford Cemetery had been established for almost two hundred years when war came to Petersburg’s door. At the time of the war, the church at Blandford had been abandoned for 60 years. However, the structure served as a field hospital during the siege of Petersburg, particularly the Battle of the Crater. After the war, a plot of land in the eastern section of Blandford Cemetery was given by the city to a group of citizens interested in re-interring Confederate casualties. This section was laid out in curbed sections marked by granite markers for the different Confederate states. Once this site was selected, a group of interested citizens known as the Ladies Memorial Association began the task for finding Confederate remains killed in the area.

A Proper Burial

Union Perspective:
THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS: It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . .
--Abraham Lincoln

A burial corps of the United States government, consisting of one hundred men with army horses, mules, and wagons scouted the surrounding countryside, locating, disinterring, and moving the remains of the Union soldiers killed around Petersburg. The burial corps traveled as far west as Lynchburg, nearly 120 miles to the west, to bring remains to Poplar Grove for a proper burial. From July 1866 through July 1869 the burial corps moved the remains of 6100 Union soldiers.

Confederate Perspective:
“Now that the storms of war have been hushed for us, and the paralysis of crushed hopes is giving place to a healthier tone of activity and responsibility, we come together to devise means to perpetuate our gratitude and admiration for those who died for us.”

There was no government agency to care for the remains of the Confederate dead. A concerned group known as the Ladies Memorial Association, met in May 1866, with the purpose of giving the Confederate dead a proper resting place. With a monthly subscription of 50 cents per person, any lady of Petersburg could join this group who sponsored oyster suppers, baked good sales, concerts, and other special events to gather funds for Confederate burials. With this money, men were hired to remove bodies from the battlefields, dig new graves at the cemetery to inter the remains, and carve and paint wooden headboards.

Expense of Burials

Union Perspective:
The job of reinterring Union soldiers was completed in 1869.

Total cost for the new cemetery at Poplar Grove = $107,000
These costs included:
Transporting the remains by horse and wagon = $1.25
Cost for each Coffin = $2.50
Cost to dig and fill each grave = $1.00
Wooden Grave Marker = $1.23

By 1873, the Federal Government decided to mark the graves with stones made from white American marble, more durable material.

Confederate Perspective:
The job of reinterring Confederate soldiers was years from completion in 1869.

As the committee reported in June 1868,

“From information that has been given to us, there are a good many more bodies on our lines ought to be removed, but not having correct knowledge of the finances of the Association, we have suspended any other removals . . .”

Total cost at this point for Confederate burials at Blandford Cemetery at this time:
163 Bodies at $3.75 each = $611.75
114 Bodies at $3.00 each = $342.00

TOTAL: $953.25

The Ladies Memorial Association began hiring people to take care of burying the Confederate dead in 1866. In the first six months of their work, this organization exceeded its expenditures by over $1600.

“Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”
--William Gladstone, Prime Minister of England

The Cemeteries Today

Union Perspective:
Today, Poplar Grove contains the remains of just over 6100 Union soldiers, with about 4000 of them listed as unknown. Poplar Grove is a first generation National Cemetery, established to care for the Civil War dead. In the years following the War, burial in a National Cemetery was expanded to include all citizens who honorably served in the military. This site stands as a memorial to those Union soldiers who bravely served their country during the bloodiest war in our history.

Standard government issued stones were eventually placed at Poplar Grove. In early 1934, the stones were taken out of the ground, the bottom two foot sections removed, and the stone was laid flat to the ground, with the inscription facing upwards. This was done as a way to save money on the maintenance of this site. The National Park Service is working on a restoration project to return the cemetery to its original appearance.

Confederate Perspective:
The burial project in Petersburg, which began in 1868, was completed in the early 20th century. The burials on Memorial Hill total approximately 30,000 Confederate remains, with the great majority unknown. The Ladies Memorial Association proposed in 1899 to make Old Blandford Church into a mortuary chapel and a Confederate Memorial. Today, Blandford Church and Cemetery continues to commemorate the lives of men who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs. Still active, the Ladies Memorial Association continues to raise funds to maintain the church and Memorial Hill.

Park Rangers

As part of the National Park, Poplar Grove National Cemetery is the final resting place for 6,178 Union soldiers who fought around Petersburg during the Civil War. Park Rangers have the responsibility of keeping the cemetery grounds in good condition, taking care of the grave stones, and relating stories of those buried here to visitors who come to the site. Explore this image to identify how park rangers take care of this historic site.

Historic Monuments

Preserving the gravestones at Poplar Grove National Cemetery is a major challenge for park rangers. Established in 1866, the cemetery became the final resting place for 6,178 Union soldiers, with the original headstones marking the known and unknown graves made of wood. By 1877, these headstones were replaced with white marble. However, in 1934 the headstones were cut off the bases and laid flat to facilitate the maintenance of this site. Today, the integrity of these stones is diminishing, and park rangers are working to replace the stones that stand as monuments to those who served their country.

Use the links below to explore how different divisions of the National Park Service protect and preserve the historic monuments at Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

Maintenance Ranger

I am a maintenance ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. I work to maintain the grounds of the cemetery, including the historic gravestones. I keep the grass trimmed around the stones that lay flat on the ground and keep them clean, so that the overall appearance of the cemetery is appropriate for visitors. In addition to monitoring this site, I make suggestions to better care for the gravestones and buildings that are considered in future management plans for this site. I work with resource management to acquire funds to improve park facilities, like a current project to replace the headstones and return them to an upright position.

Interpreter

I am an interpretive ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. It is my job to share with visitors stories of the soldiers buried at the cemetery who gave their lives for the preservation of the Union. I sometimes provide tours of this site to visitors and school groups who want to learn more about the soldiers who fought here. I also answer visitor questions about the burial location of their ancestors who fought here. Though the majority of the soldiers buried at this site are unknown, I research the burial records and make any corrections or updates to the register, so that they are as accurate as possible. This register will be used when the park is able to replace the headstones to an upright position.

Protection Ranger

I am a Protection Ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. My job is to patrol the park to ensure that visitors have a safe and enjoyable visit to Poplar Grove National Cemetery, while also taking proper care of the park’s resources. I perform daily patrols of this site to ensure that the historic structures are protected. As part of my duties, I also update and check the security systems for the historic superintendent’s lodge that is a visitor contact station for this site.

Resource Manager

I am a resource manager at Poplar Grove National Cemetery. I work with the maintenance division to determine how to properly manage this site, including the proper care of the gravestones. Using past management decisions, current issues at this site, and plans for future interpretive programs, I determine the best methods to use to preserve the historic monuments in this cemetery. I submit reports to acquire funding that will help the Park Service better manage the site, in part by replacing all of the headstones to a proper, upright position. It is the responsibility of the Park Service to maintain the cemetery in accordance with established laws and regulations governing all cemeteries. This is just one example of my duties of managing park resources.

Cultural Landscapes

Though established in 1866, Poplar Grove National Cemetery became a Park Service site in 1933 when it was transferred from the War Department. The cultural landscape of the cemetery encompasses the entire site, including gravestones, the superintendent’s lodge, trees and shrubs, and other monuments that are located within the confines of the brick wall that was originally constructed in 1875. Park Rangers have the responsibility to see that everything within this landscape is properly managed.

Use the links below to explore how different divisions of the National Park Service protect and preserve the cultural landscape at Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

Maintenance Ranger

As a maintenance ranger at Poplar Grove, I work daily to care for the cultural landscape of this site. I cut grass, trim hedges, and keep the grounds clean and well groomed. I also perform daily maintenance of the buildings, keeping these areas clean and safe for visitors. I do preventative maintenance by monitoring the site and reporting to park management any major problems with the grounds, including the headstones and the buildings.

Interpreter

I operate the visitor contact station at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, which is open during busier seasons. At this site, I provide tours to visitors and school groups that teach them about the sacrifices made by the soldiers buried here, and I answer questions that visitors have about their own ancestors who fought in the area. I also provide park management suggestions on how to better manage this site by targeting what programs can reach a greater audience in the future.

Protection Ranger

As a Protection Ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield, my job is to patrol the park to ensure that visitors have a safe and enjoyable visit to Poplar Grove National Cemetery, while also taking proper care of the cultural landscape. I perform daily patrols of this site to ensure that the site is in good condition and along with maintenance ranger; I monitor any damage done to the cemetery due to storms or other factors.

Resource Manager

Using the suggestions of the maintenance rangers who maintain this site daily, and interpretive rangers who decide what stories to tell at this site, I provide input on the best way to manage the cultural landscape at Poplar Grove. I research the most cost-effective way to manage and protect the resources of the cemetery. I work to acquire funds to improve park facilities and repair damaged structures by writing reports on the condition of historic monuments like the gravestones or the cemetery wall that was damaged in a recent storm. The cultural landscape report provides rangers with guidance on how to better manage this site for future generations.

 

Links

Petersburg Index

Introduction

Grant's Headquarters at City Point

The Eastern Front

The Western Front

The Battle of Five Forks

Poplar Grove National Cemetery (current section)

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