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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
The eight-acre Poplar Grove National Cemetery is the final resting place for 6,181 Union soldiers, Native American Civil War soldiers, and one British solder from WWI. The majority of the soldiers buried in the cemetery died in one of the last engagements of the Civil War, when Union troops moved to isolate the Virginia town of Petersburg from the Confederate capital of Richmond. The Federal Government established the national cemetery in 1866. The last burials were of three unknonw Union solders on Memorial Day in 2003. Today, the cemetery is one of four components of the Petersburg National Battlefield, a National Park Service unit preserving the battlefield and its landmarks. The battlefield’s visitor centers feature exhibits, films, and tours to illustrate how the Union actions against Petersburg led to the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the end of the Civil War. Poplar Grove National Cemetery is one of 14 national cemeteries managed by the National Park Service.
After unsuccessful attempts to directly assault and capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Union General Ulysses S. Grant devised a new strategy to choke the city slowly. The new target became the town of Petersburg, 25 miles south of Richmond and an important supply center for the capital. After a series of fruitless attacks on Petersburg in mid-June of 1864, Grant adopted a strategy to surround Petersburg slowly and methodically and cut the rail and road supply lines feeding Richmond. For ten months, Union soldiers, set in trenches around the town, fought Confederate forces holding Petersburg. Sniper fire, light artillery engagements, and mortar shelling filled the days as Grant’s men gradually wore down the thinly stretched Confederate defense.
In mid-March 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered a surprise attack against the Union at Fort Stedman at the western side of Petersburg. Considered Lee’s last grand offensive move of the war, the attack failed. On April 1, 1865, Union forces routed a Confederate defense at Five Forks and gained control of the last rail line from Petersburg to Richmond. This final blow forced Lee into retreat, abandoning both Petersburg and Richmond. A week later Lee surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia.
In the wake of the Civil War, the U.S. government established numerous national cemeteries in Virginia at the site of intensive battles and other engagements. In 1866, the Army’s Office of the Quartermaster General selected a site for a cemetery to hold the remains of Union soldiers who died during the siege of Petersburg. The site selected was a former Union camp south of Petersburg. The 50th New York Engineers built the camp in October 1864, which consisted of a central parade ground surrounded by barracks, officers’ quarters, and the Poplar Grove Church.
After the war, most of the old camp buildings were removed and remains were brought from sites around the Petersburg area. By 1867, nearly 5,200 burials lie in the Poplar Grove National Cemetery.
Beginning in 1871, the Federal Government implemented a series of improvements for the cemetery, including the cemetery’s brick enclosure wall and iron gates, marble headstones for the graves, and the erection of a superintendent’s lodge near the cemetery’s entrance. The lodge is a one-and-one-half story brick building in the Second Empire style, notable for its mansard roof and dormer windows. The lodge’s design is of a standard plan created by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, and is one of the 17 remaining Second Empire-style Meigs lodges found at the Civil War era national cemeteries.
Additional improvements at Poplar Grove National Cemetery included the construction of an iron rostrum (1897) and restrooms and maintenance facilities (1929). In 1915, a tornado swept through the cemetery, destroying 139 trees. Many of these trees were replaced during the 1930s. In 1933, the appearance of the cemetery was radically altered when the upright headstones were laid flat into the ground in order to facilitate landscape maintenance.
In 1957, the last burial in the cemetery took place, and the government officially closed Poplar Grove National Cemetery to interments. Since that time, little has changed to the physical landscape within the cemetery. In 1991, the National Park Foundation purchased roughly four acres west of the cemetery in order to provide a small space for parking and to serve as a wooded barrier as residential growth encroaches upon the cemetery property.