From John Hennessy [We offer this up in advance of Friday night’s History at Sunset program in the city and Confederate cemeteries in Fredericksburg. This post originally appeared in the Free Lance-Star in 2010.]
Few things of such permanence in Fredericksburg came to be so quickly. On the night of January 3, 1844, as the town of 4,000 or so regained its rhythms after the holidays, a group of nine men gathered in the study of 28-year-old Presbyterian pastor George W. McPhail. They came together to discuss, as the minutes of their meeting described it, “a Cemetery for the Burial of the Dead.” The old Corporation Burial Ground on Prince Edward Street was nearly full, and looking tattered to boot. Now, an old field of corn along the “New Turnpike” (what we know as William Street) was suddenly available. The nine men of rather common backgrounds, including a shoemaker, editor, jeweler, bookseller, saddler, and merchant, decided that night to purchase the land. The next day the deed was done: three acres for $550, bankrolled by bookseller Edward McDowell. The new town cemetery was born—a place “for the decent interment of the dead.”
Within ten days the committee decided how the lots would be laid out; in six weeks the group petitioned the legislature to incorporate, in two months the site was cleared of its rotting cornstalks; in May grass was sown; and by September 1844 workers completed the brick wall surrounding the cemetery—with the prominent gate on William Street that still stands.
Soon thereafter someone stenciled the name “Fredericksburg Cemetery” on the walls, and the place opened for business and burials. A thirty-by-eighteen-foot lot cost $30; a lot eighteen feet square $15 (by 1860, the lot prices would nearly double). The new corporation contracted to have graves dug: two dollars for a “plain grave” and $2.50 “where a box is used.” )Only white residents qualified for burial here. Slaves and free people of color were usually buried across William Street in the “Potter’s Field,” where Maury School now stands.) The corporation reserved the four lots around the center point of the cemetery “for the exclusive use” of the pastors (and their families) of the four major churches in town: St. George’s, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian. By 1860, more than 160 burials had already taken place.
By then, remembered a visitor, the cemetery was “regularly laid off…the walks being graveled, and the plats covered with a rich carpet of greenwood and adorned with many a fragrant shrub and flower.” Each family decorated its plot according to taste or means: “Some were simply surrounded by a plain white paling and improved and attended within by the assiduous hand of affection. Others were enclosed with costly, elaborate railings and the interior embellished with every thing that wealth could purchase.” The overall effect, wrote this observer, “was pleasing in the highest degree.”
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The cemetery that so swiftly and beautifully found its place on the Fredericksburg landscape still exists; the corporation that engineered its rise continues on as well. The problem is, few people in town today realize it.
In 1865, in the wake of a civil war that left the region scarred with graves and destruction, the Ladies Memorial Association (LMA) of Fredericksburg sought to create a distinct and honored place for the burial of Confederate dead. The LMA approached the Fredericksburg Cemetery Company to discuss a merger and expansion of the existing cemetery. The merger never happened, but the expansion did. The LMA acquired several acres just beyond the north wall of the Fredericksburg Cemetery. The Cemetery Company, surely inspired by the dire need to give Confederate dead a proper burial, fully cooperated with the LMA and agreed to take down the wall that separated the new Confederate Cemetery from the existing Fredericksburg Cemetery. The LMA had a new gate manufactured for a new entrance at the end of Amelia Street. Above the gate is a beautiful arch, with raised cast letters that read “Confederate Cemetery.”
The new entrance far outshined the original cemetery gate on William Street, and over time visitors invariably started using the Amelia Street gate as the main entrance. And when the town lowered the level of William Street several feet in the 20th century, the William Street gate became almost invisible. Today, few people even realize it’s still there. (This gate, more than many landmarks in area, needs the public’s help to repair its crumbling stone.)
The end result: over the years and decades, Fredericksburgers and visitors increasingly identified “the cemetery” at the end of Amelia Street as simply the Confederate Cemetery. In fact, though, inside that gate are two cemeteries, managed in different ways by different organizations. To the left of the gate is the Fredericksburg Cemetery, managed by the Fredericksburg Cemetery Company, and to the right the Confederate Cemetery, still lovingly managed by the LMA. How many people in Fredericksburg realize that? Not many.
[The confusion is made worse because the LMA acquired more land than it needed to bury Confederate soldiers and started selling burial plots to local residents. As a result, about two-thirds of the Confederate Cemetery consists of civilian burials. To the casual observer, the two cemeteries look like one, with a designated area for and memorial to Confederate soldiers tucked away in the northwest corner.]
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Still, over the years the Fredericksburg Cemetery became the burial place for many of Fredericksburg’s most prominent families. The diarist Jane Beale is there, along with her son killed at the Battle of Williamsburg. The town’s Civil War mayor Montgomery Slaughter lies in Section 5; his wife, one of Fredericksburg’s most vocal Yankee-haters, is next to him. The legendary pastor of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, William F. Broaddus, occupies the Baptist Church’s reserved plot near the cemetery’s center. Peter Goolrick, one of Fredericksburg’s richest men, lies beneath a stunningly simple headstone not far from rows of than Confederate burials put here before there was a Confederate Cemetery next door.
And not far from the Amelia Street wall is a memorial stone for Robert Shenton Harris, a Fredericksburg area student killed on September 3, 1939, when a German u-boat sunk the passenger ship S.S. Athenia off Ireland just hours after Britain declared war. This Fredericksburg boy was among the first of millions to die in that war. His body was never recovered. I have written more about him here.
If headstones and tended plots (some of them with impressive ironwork and art) inspire us to remember individuals, the cemetery itself recalls the life and trials of a community. Among the graves (section 10, #169) are those of young siblings Evy and George Doswell, who died nine days apart in the fall of 1861—the victims of a scarlet fever epidemic that may have claimed as many as 100 victims, many of them children (including more than fifteen buried in the Fredericksburg Cemetery). The epidemic was likely the greatest human disaster ever to befall Fredericksburg’s residents. Even at the distance of 149 years, we can momentarily mourn for Evy’s and George’s parents, Temple and Evelina Doswell, who are buried next to them.
For those with loved ones buried there, headstones inspire remembrance. But as time erases those who can remember, we who remain are left to look at the stones and simply wonder. Who was she? Why did she die so young? And what of her mother, buried there? How did she endure? In most places, such cemeterial questions are musings only. But in Fredericksburg, a place so conscious of its history and intent on caring for it, those questions sometimes have ready answers.