Union soldier figure atop monument at Baxter Springs National Cemetery; Bivouac of the Dead plaque at Wood National Cemetery; Flagpole and graves at Togus National Cemetery
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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served

Salisbury National Cemetery

Salisbury, North Carolina

Salisbury National Cemetery
Main Gate
Courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, History Program

“Forever shall men’s hearts revere their loyalty, and hold this spot sacred because they perished here.” So reads the inscription on a monument located on the grounds of the Salisbury National Cemetery in Salisbury, North Carolina.  Many Civil War era national cemeteries were established in proximity to battle sites; however, the Salisbury National Cemetery was established around the mass burial of thousands of Union troops who died while being held as prisoners of war at Salisbury Prison. 

The Confederate government established the Salisbury Prison in October 1861 on the site of an old cotton factory enclosing a portion of the grounds with a stockade fence in preparation for the first prisoners.  Designed to hold about 2,500 persons, the prison was intended for Confederate soldiers who had committed military offenses and prisoners of state.  However, the first Union soldiers arrived in December from Richmond, Virginia, in an effort to reduce the number of prisoners of war there.

During the early years of the war, prisoners at Salisbury received adequate shelter, rations, water and sanitation.  The situation changed rapidly on 5 October 1864, with the transfer of 5,000 prisoners of war to Salisbury. By the end of the month, more than 10,000 men were incarcerated in the prison.

Overwhelmed by a population four times larger than intended, the prison quartered prisoners in every available space. Those without shelter dug burrows in an attempt to stay warm and dry.  Rations and potable water were scarce.  Adding to the poor conditions was an unusually cold and wet winter.  Disease and starvation began to claim lives, and all buildings within the stockade were converted to hospitals to care for the sick.

Each morning, the dead were gathered from the grounds and placed in the “dead house.”  Later, they were removed for burial in trench graves located in a cornfield west of the prison.  Although no complete burial lists for the prison exist and no headboards were used to mark the graves, records indicate that approximately 3,700 men died between October 1864 and February 1865.  Surviving prisoners were released at the end of February when a prisoner of war exchange was carried out. Union forces burned down the prison in April 1865.

Unknown Soldies Monument
Monument to Unknown Soldiers
Courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, History Program

After the war, the Office of the Quartermaster General worked to locate the graves of Union soldiers.  National cemeteries were established, and bodies were removed from battlefields and other locations to these hallowed grounds.  Inspection reports from 1866-69 record 13 to 18 trenches present at Salisbury.  Early speculation as to the number of dead ranged from 1,800 to more than 10,000.  Because there was no comprehensive list of the dead, the government decided to erect a 50-foot granite obelisk to commemorate the soldiers who died at the prison and place “Unknown” markers at the ends of the trenches.  During this time, the Army began reporting an estimated 11,700 burials based on limited trench excavations.  This number was ultimately inscribed on the memorial.  Based on earlier documentation and the death figures from 1864 to 65 when the prison population peaked, a much lower number is more likely.

Near the Unknown Dead monument is the Maine Monument, an elaborate 25-foot-tall granite monument capped with a granite statue of a Union soldier.  Erected in 1908, the monument pays tribute to soldiers from Maine who died while prisoners in the camp.  At each corner of the monument’s base are polished black granite cannons and cannon balls that evoke Civil War-era munitions.  Above these, rising along the monument at each corner, are polished black granite columns, capped with an entablature upon which the granite statute stands.

Closer to the entrance of the cemetery, north of the burial trenches, stands a monument dedicated to the Pennsylvania volunteers who died at the prison camp.  Measuring 40 feet in height, the monument has rough hewn granite columns that support a shallow stepped dome.  Atop the dome is a bronze statue of a Union soldier.  The monument is open on three sides; the solid back wall holds three bronze plaques. Two plaques provide a dedication inscription commending the valor and self-sacrifice of the Pennsylvania prisoners.  A third plaque contains a bas-relief of the Salisbury Prison. The Pennsylvania Legislature funded the construction and placement of the monument, which was dedicated in 1910.

Maine Monument
Maine Monument
Courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, History Program

The cemetery’s lodge and utility building are located just inside the main entrance gates of the historic cemetery.  The elaborate ornamental cast-iron gates are connected to a stone perimeter wall that encloses the original rectangular cemetery. The lodge, built in 1934, replaced an earlier one-story structure constructed between 1868 and 1871.  The Dutch Colonial style brick lodge features a gambrel roof punctuated in the center by a hipped dormer with four windows.  The national cemetery’s superintendents and directors resided in the lodge until 1989 when the building was converted to administrative space.  An adjacent utility building, constructed in 1929 and used as a stable and tool shed, was substantially renovated in 1998. 

Between 1893 and 1932, a rostrum, consisting of an octagonal brick base and ornamental iron railing and roof, resided on the grounds of the cemetery. Removed in 1946 and placed in the city dump, the rostrum was rediscovered in 1995, restored, and now stands in Bell Tower Park in downtown Salisbury.

Over the years, the national cemetery gradually expanded from its original three acres to approximately 12 acres, acquiring additional parcels from donations from local landowners and the city of Salisbury. In 2000, a 40-acre annex to the original cemetery was opened on the grounds of the Salisbury VA Medical Center.

Salisbury National Cemetery is the final resting place for a recipient 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."

Other notable burials include that of Marshall Sharp, an African American Buffalo Soldier in Troop K of the U.S. Calvary, who is buried in Section A.
Plan your visit

The historic section of the Salisbury National Cemetery is located at 202 Government Rd. in Salisbury, NC. The cemetery is open for visitation daily from dawn to dusk. The administrative offices are located at the Salisbury National Cemetery Annex at 501 Statesville Blvd.  The offices are open Monday to Friday from 8:00am to 4:30pm, and are closed on on all Federal holidays except for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  For more information, please contact the cemetery offices at 704-636-2661, or see the Department of Veterans Affairs website. While visiting, please be mindful that our national cemeteries are hallowed ground.  Be respectful to all of our nation’s fallen soldiers and their families.  Additional cemetery policies may be posted on site.

Rowan County Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a driving tour of the cemetery available on audio CD.  The CD can be purchased at the bureau’s Visitor Information Center at 204 E. Innes St. in Salisbury.  The center also provides information on Salisbury’s African American Heritage Trail, a self-guided tour chronicling the great leaders and lives of generations of African Americans who lived, worked and contributed to the Salisbury community.

Salisbury National Cemetery was photographed to the standards established by the National Park Service’s Historic American Landscapes Survey.

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