Archaeologist seeks answers to grave questions

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Archaeologist seeks answers to grave questions

May 15, 1997 
By Pamela Cressey

I want to expand my thanks to the people who have called in the last few weeks to share their knowledge about the Freedmen’s Cemetery, St. Mary’s Cemetery, Alexandria National Cemetery, as well as various other burial places along South Payne Street. Memories run deep in Alexandria, and my phone was ringing with calls from people like Joan Furtaw, who has returned to town after a number of years, and from those now residing out of town, such as Fred Sieber. I will follow your leads, and eventually we will determine the geographical boundaries of the Alexandria Freedmen’s Cemetery and where burials are still preserved.

The second set of questions which has directed our research efforts focuses upon the African Americans buried in the Freedmen’s Cemetery. Who are the individuals buried here by the U.S. military authority during the Civil War and the Freedman’s Bureau after the War? Were they all civilians, or were some of those interred serving as soldiers? Can we determine their names from the 1,879 deaths recorded by Revered Albert Gladwin in his ledger book, which has been transcribed by Wesley Pippinger in Alexandria, Virginia Death Records 1863-1868 and 1869-1896 (Family Line Publications 1995)? Are there still families in Alexandria related to those who were buried in this place?

We will be searching for answers to these questions for a long time for several reasons. First, the historical documentation for escaped slaves fleeing into Alexandria is difficult to come by. It is tucked away in many fragile papers filed under assorted headings in the National Archives. To date, a registry of freed people living in Alexandria during the Civil War has not surfaced. Correspondingly, a list of burials accompanied by maps of burial places has not been forthcoming. Second, the Gladwin Record of names is a list of deaths, not necessarily burials in this cemetery. Third, the task of linking names of those who died after fleeing slavery with their homes before the War and their relatives living today will require painstaking research.

Due to military records, it may be easier to find out about the African American soldiers recorded as dying by Rev. Gladwin. But immediately, a problem needs to be solved. Why do the names of black soldiers in the Gladwin Record, which are noted with civilians in the ledger section entitled "Burials from Hospitals, in the New Cemetery," appear on gravestones in Alexandria National Cemetery? And, why are the dates on the gravestones different than the recorded death dates? And, just to add to the complexity of the puzzle--why are those dates on the gravestones all grouped in the same few days, rather than reflecting the 8 months over which deaths occurred?

Here is one case study of the problem, there are hundreds more. On May 5, 1864, the first notation of a soldier dying appears in Gladwin’s ledger: "John Cooley, (Soldier) 30 [age] Buried with honors-white escort, under Supt. New General Hospital." The same day, Julia Wilbur, a teacher assisting freed people in town, recorded in her diary: "...funeral of a colored soldier, the first who has died here. Had a white escort and was buried in the new Freedmen’s Burial ground." Reading over all the soldiers’ deaths in the ledger, Gladwin never recorded that another black soldier was buried with a white escort.

Yet, in National Cemetery a gravestone stands with John Cooley’s name and a date of January 21, 1865, which is eight months after his death. Looking around at the other African American gravestones, most are dated January 6th ,7th, 17th, 20th, and 21st in 1865. The disparity between death and gravestone dates occurs between May 5th, when Cooley dies, and mid-December 1864. Men dying after this time have gravestone dates in line with the recorded demise.

What possible explanations are there for these conflicting facts? Perhaps the military authorities were caught without a policy for the burials of black soldiers when they started dying in hospitals here in the Spring of 1864. While seven soldiers died in May, the numbers ebbed and flowed throughout the year reaching highs of 31 in August and 27 in November. Did they bury these men in Freedmen’s Cemetery and later reinter them at National Cemetery (then called Soldiers)? Wooden headboards were used as the original markers in National Cemetery. When stone gravestones were carved in 1872, were the dates used those of reinterment for African Americans?

Anyone wishing to assist in the research of this project please call me at 703-838-4399. If readers know about archives associated with the Veterans Administration or other government agencies which may provide clues to these questions, we would truly appreciate your guidance.