From Eric Mink:
While landscaping her backyard last year, a resident on Caroline Street in downtown Fredericksburg turned up numerous large pieces of partially worked granite. All of them were irregularly shaped, with the exception of one piece that measured six inches square and had a finished face, on which a series of numbers had been chiseled. A call to the National Park Service resulted in a visit and determination that the granite block was the top of an unknown gravestone from a national cemetery. There are often two numbers carved into these stones. The top number identifies the grave, while the bottom number identifies the number of individuals buried in the grave. In this case, there was only one number – 2694. That meant that the stone was intended for grave 2694, which contained only one burial. A quick trip to the cemetery revealed that that particular grave is marked with an identical stone.
In June of this year, another downtown resident contacted park. In the backyard of his home on Princess Anne Street, he came across a larger piece of granite with a finished and engraved square top. He recognized it as possibly being a national cemetery stone. A visit to his property determined that is was in fact another unknown marker from the national cemetery. This time, the stone was intact. It measured approximately three feet in length. The top six inches was worked into a square and on the face was carved the numbers 716 and 5 – grave number 715, which contains the remains of five soldiers. Another trip up the hill to the cemetery and the same result. Grave number 716 has the correct stone and identical information.
This also brought to mind that when the park rehabilitated Sunken Road in 2004, government contractors unearthed three unknown granite stones from deposited fill while removing pavement from in front of the cemetery entrance.
The obvious concern is the possibility that these stones mark the locations of graves. No remains have been found in association with any of the stones and the numbers are identical to stones currently in the cemetery. A conclusion can be drawn that these are duplicate stones, but why are they showing up in backyards and locations outside the Fredericksburg National Cemetery? The answer may be attributed to government contracting and shoddy work going back more than one hundred and thirty-five years.
Fredericksburg National Cemetery was established in 1865 as the final resting place for Union soldiers who died in the Fredericksburg area, including the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Mine Run, and the North Anna River. From the beginning, the government marked the graves with wooden headboards containing the name, regiment, date of death and original burial location painted on the tablets.
The wooden headboards did not last long. Exposed to the elements they deteriorated and rotted rather quickly, resulting in the need for routine replacement and repainting. An 1873 inspection report stated that the headboards in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery were “a good deal decayed, and a number had fallen down…” The Quartermaster Department, which managed national cemeteries, decided to replace wooden headboards nationwide. The wooden grave markers were to be swapped out for granite slabs for known burials and granite blocks for unknown graves. The contract for the replacements stones at Fredericksburg was awarded to Major Edward P. Doherty, of Washington, D.C., in November 1873. Doherty is remembered as the commander of the 16th New York Cavalry detachment that cornered and shot Lincoln assassin John W. Booth. Doherty resigned from the army in 1871 and obtained the contract as a civilian.
Doherty’s instructions were to produce granite slabs for the identified graves, for which he would be paid $3.95 per slab, and granite blocks for the unknown graves at a price of $3.50 per block. Government officials inspected some of Doherty’s stones in March 1874 and deemed them unacceptable. A couple months later, Doherty sent another shipment, which was recognized as stones that had been rejected from another national cemetery. Doherty’s workmanship did not match the government requirements. The unknown blocks were to be six inches square and flat on the bottom. The stones Doherty sent were angular and pointed on the bottom. A small thing, but not what the government specified. An inspector acknowledged the stones might have been accepted had Doherty not attempted to bully and force his work upon the inspectors. In July 1874, another shipment of Doherty’s stones arrived and again the inspector rejected them. This time, the stones would not be accepted until he removed those rejected markers previously delivered. No further official government documents or correspondence has been located on how this issue was ultimately resolved, but square blocks that adhere to the government standards are in the cemetery today.
A clue on what may have happened to these rejected stones and why stones are being found today in Fredericksburg appears in an article published in an 1886 issue of Harpers New Monthly Magazine. In this article, Moncure D. Conway, a former resident of the Fredericksburg area, discussed burial situations in Fredericksburg and quotes a local correspondent who wrote to him:
“…Fredericksburg ‘has more tombstones than people’—not wonderful since the soldiers who fell here lie in their cemetery; and that ‘tombstones are in such favor as to be utilized for door-steps and fire places’—a characteristic rendering of the fact that some hundred of the stones ordered for soldiers’ graves were rejected, and are utilized for street crossings.” Thomas F. Knox, quoted in Moncure D. Conway, “Hunting a Mythical Pall-Bearer,” Harpers New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 72, Issue 428 (January 1886), p. 213
If this is true, than it is quite possible Major Doherty disposed of his rejected stones in Fredericksburg. Perhaps he either sold or gave them to local residents who used them for whatever purpose they desired, including landscaping of their properties. A look at the stone unearthed this year by the resident of Princess Anne Street shows that the base of the stone is cut to an angle. This irregularity used as an explanation as to why some of Doherty’s stones were rejected. Is this an example of his shoddy work?
It is highly probable that more discarded stones from the Fredericksburg National Cemetery may surface on downtown properties, but there is no reason residents should fear human remains being found with them.
Much of what we know about the development and history of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery stems from Don Pfanz’s yet unpublished manuscript Where Valor Proudly Sleeps: A History of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 1866 – 1933.
Eric J. Mink