Peaceful cemetery stands as proof of war’s horrors

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Peaceful cemetery stands as proof of war’s horrors

August 10, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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Looking south into Soldier's Cemetery, renamed Alexandria National Cemetery in 1939, some after 1876 when marble headstones replaced wood markers.
To explore one of our town's inland waterfronts, Hooff's Run, drive or bike to the new Alexandria African American Heritage Park on Holland Lane. This street running between Duke and Eisenhower Avenue has been used more by commuters recently with the bridge repair near Union Station. Walk along the paths and boardwalk into the Hooff's Run wetlands to see a variety of birds, turtles, insects and even a beaver.

Look west over the Run and you will see Alexandria National Cemetery. You can walk to the Cemetery over the old stone railroad bridge or drive down to Route 1 South, turn right and then right again onto Wilkes Street. The 12 foot high gates to the cemetery are at the end of Wilkes Street.

The Alexandria National Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places along with 72 other Civil War era national cemeteries in 1994 by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Alexandria was one of the first 14 locations selected as cemeteries in 1862. Pursuant to a Congressional Act in July, President Lincoln was given the authority to purchase grounds "to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country."

In actuality, the land for the cemetery was leased for 999 years to the federal government one month earlier by the Alexandria Common Council, according to Bill Smith and Michael Miller's book, A Seaport Saga. Clear title to the land occurred in 1875.

By 1862, the government recognized the need to establish such cemeteries. While an early policy in September 1861 had delegated the burial of men to their commanding officers, no one had recognized that burial lands had to be acquired for such purpose. The Alexandria Cemetery (originally called Soldier's) served a great need, since the town was the scene of one of the largest concentrations of encampments and hospitals. Other cemeteries were established at battlefields, military posts, large Northern cities, and emergency mobilization points.

It is hard to believe that there are 4,066 graves stretched out along 5.5 acres of the eastern bank of Hooff's Run. Each grave has a white marble headstone today, but ordinally wood headboards marked each burial. They were painted and lettered, and often had hoop-iron strapping at the top. The marble markers were erected in August 1876.

Generally enlisted men were buried here, since officers were usually embalmed and shipped home. Originally 39 Confederate soldiers were also buried next to Union troops, but they were reinterred at Christ Church in 1879 by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Enjoy a summer day here--it is far from the noise of the town and a reminder of how war has touched Alexandria.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.