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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Hampton National Cemetery is located halfway between downtown Hampton and historic Fort Monroe at the entrance to Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The cemetery contains more than 26,000 burials, including Union soldiers, Confederate soldiers, and World War II prisoners of war. It is also the home of the Union Soldiers’ Monument, which towers over the hallowed grounds. The cemetery consists of two separate burial grounds, the Hampton Section, on the west side of Interstate 64, and the Phoebus Section, east of the highway.
The site of Fort Monroe, on the tip of Old Point Comfort, has been a key defensive position for nearly 400 years, dating to the British Jamestowne Colony. After the Battle of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, the United States sent major reinforcements to Fort Monroe, and the Union was able to hold the fort for the duration of the Civil War. Control of the fort also allowed the U.S. Navy to patrol the Virginia ports of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Petersburg, and Richmond from the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
In addition to providing a key Union defensive position, Fort Monroe was also the location of Hampton Military Hospital during the Civil War. The 1,800 bed facility was well staffed, yet mortality rates remained high. Beginning in 1862, those who died in the hospital were buried at a cemetery two miles northwest of Fort Monroe. In 1866, this cemetery officially became Hampton National Cemetery. After the war, the remains of Union soldiers were reinterred here from sites in Big Bethel, Newport News, Jamestown, Craney Island, Deep Creek, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Blackwater, Smithfield, Suffolk, and Cherry Stone.
The cemetery originally covered 4.75 acres, but has since increased to 27 acres on two discontinuous parcels. The older Hampton Section is at the intersection of Cemetery Road and Marshall Avenue, while the Phoebus Section, added in 1891 due to the need for additional burial space at this national cemetery, is one-half mile east, near the intersection of West County Street and Frissell Street. The Hampton Section is roughly rectangular, containing six burial sections, and is bounded by Hampton University on all sides. The main entrance at the center of the northern boundary is marked by a 12-foot wide, wrought-iron gate with granite piers and pedestrian gates on both sides. A five-foot tall stone wall encloses the north and south borders of the old section, with a granite wall surmounted by an iron picket fence enclosing the others. The roadway leading from the entrance terminates in a circle looping around the flagpole, approximately one-third of the way into the cemetery grounds.
In total, the remains of more than 26,000 are buried at Hampton National Cemetery, including 638 unknowns. In 1891, remains from the Fort Monroe post cemetery were reinterred here. The cemetery closed to new interments in July 1969, reopening for a decade between 1983 and 1993. The brick superintendent’s lodge, constructed in 1940 and located just inside the Hampton Section entrance, is a 1½-story building, designed in the Cape Cod/Colonial Revival style. The Bethesda Chapel once stood on the cemetery property near the lodge and entrance gates. The New York Home Missionary Society built the wood-framed chapel during the Civil War. The chapel hosted services on Sundays, and President James A. Garfield spoke to students of the Normal School at the chapel in 1881, one month before his assassination. It was removed in the late-19th/early-20th century.
The only major monument at the cemetery is the Union Soldiers’ Monument at the intersection of Sections B and D in the Hampton Section, on the central axis with the main entrance and the flagpole. Dedicated in 1868, the monument rises 65-feet from a 20-foot square base. More than $12,000 was raised for the monument through an effort led in part by Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army, who was authorized in 1861 by the Secretary of War to establish military hospitals during the Civil War.
Two rusticated granite blocks located at the head of Sections D and E of the Hampton Section honor the 272 Confederate soldiers buried at the cemetery. Also buried in the Phoebus Section are the remains of 55 Germans and 5 Italians captured as prisoners of war during World War II. Additionally, 28 German sailors who perished when the USS Roper sunk their U-boat off Cape Hatteras on April 14, 1942, lie in the national cemetery. In 2001, a German Enigma coding machine was recovered from the site of the wreck, and is currently held on loan from the German government at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, North Carolina.
Hampton National Cemetery is the final resting place for seven recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”