In July 1862, Congress passed legislation granting the President of the United States the authority to purchase land for the establishment of cemeteries "for the soldiers who shall die in the service of their country." This legislation effectively began the National Cemetery system. At Petersburg, however, implementation of this system did not begin until 1866, one year after the siege ended.
Only 2,139 of the 6,718 bodies interred in the Poplar Grove National Cemetery were positively identified.
A Soldier's Burial
During the siege, Union soldiers who were killed in battle were hastily buried near where the fighting took place, some in single shallow pits, others in mass graves. Identification was as simple as a name carved on a wooden headboard, if there was time to leave even that. Most of these soldiers were not given a proper burial, save what their comrades could provide by saying a few words over them. Some units, like the IX Corps, had small cemeteries near their filled hospitals for soldiers who had died while in their care.
A Final Resting Place
In 1866, Lt. Colonel James Moore began his survey of the Petersburg area to locate land for a National Cemetery, eventually settling on a farm just south of the city. This tract of land had been the camp of the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers who, during the war, had constructed a gothic-style, pine log church called Poplar Grove.
With the cemetery now established, work began to move the remains of approximately 5,000 Union soldiers from nearly 100 separate burial sites around the battle lines of Petersburg. Bodies were recovered and moved from nine Virginia counties, reaching as far west as Lynchburg, Virginia.
About 100 men comprised the "burial corps." With ten army wagons, 40 mules, and 12 saddle horses, these men began their search and recovery mission. One observer noted "a hundred men were deployed in a line a yard apart, each examining half a yard of ground on both sides as they proceeded. Thus was swept a space five hundred yards in breadth . . . In this manner the whole battlefield was to be searched. When a grave was found, the entire line halted until the teams came up and the body was removed. Many graves were marked with stakes, but some were to be discovered only by the disturbed appearance of the ground. Those bodies that had been buried in trenches were but little decomposed, while those buried singly in boxes, not much was left but bones and dust." Remains were placed in a plain wooden coffins; if there was a headboard, it was attached to it. The burial corps worked for three years until 1869. In that time they reinterred the remains of 6,718 United States soldiers. Sadly, only 2,139 bodies were positively identified.
Much the same fate was suffered by the nearly 30,000 Confederate dead buried at Blandford Church Cemetery in Petersburg. Of those burials, only about 2,000 names are known.
"Where Valor Proudly Sleeps"
Places like Poplar Grove National Cemetery reflect the tragedy that befell the United States for four years during the Civil War. Each simple headstone is a poignant reminder of the human cost of war. In 1933 responsibility of the cemetery was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service, making Poplar Grove one of 14 National Cemeteries administered by the Park Service. Today Poplar Grove National Cemetery is closed for burials, but visitors are invited to walk the grounds and pay their respects.
Last updated: February 3, 2015