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Grave Injustice: Park Restores Dignity to Fallen Americans

Workers put in new headstones last summer at Poplar Grove National Cemetery. (CNN)

PETERSBURG, Virginia  —  The first time Carol Hull set foot on Poplar Grove National Cemetery near Petersburg, Virginia, she was focused on a single grave — that of her great-great-grandfather.

But as she continued to visit the 9-acre cemetery, the gratification of finding him grew into a festering anger.

The burial grounds were in disheartening disrepair.

The grave markers for identified Civil War soldiers, which had once stood upright, had been removed, cut shorter, and laid flat on the ground. Many of the headstones were damaged and broken.

Hull was outraged. “His life was every bit as important as those (buried) at Antietam, Gettysburg and Arlington,” she said.

On Saturday, Hull’s great-great-grandfather and the thousands of soldiers who lie around him in Poplar Grove will finally be granted that respect.

After years of decline, the cemetery will be rededicated following a comprehensive rehab. Officials concede that no other National Park Service cemetery has required this level of work.

But it was a long time coming.

How the cemetery fell into disrepair

Poplar Grove’s plight was the result, at least in part, of misguided good intentions and lack of resources.

In 1933, the care of the cemetery was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service, which had little experience in managing cemeteries.

To save on grass cutting costs and to create a more parklike appearance in the cemetery, officials decided during the Great Depression to alter the headstones. Some 2,300 upright markers were made into flat stones, and about 3,400 blocks for the unknown were sunk into the ground, increasing the risk of damage and wear. In some instances, multiple soldiers are buried in one plot.

For the upright headstones to be converted to flat ones, the bases of the stones had to be cut off. Hundreds of those bases were sold to a nearby resident, who used them on the exterior of his home and to pave a small sidewalk.

In the following decades, no significant upgrades were performed at the cemetery, which is maintained by Petersburg National Battlefield.

The headstones had weathered, many becoming indecipherable and broken; the recessed federal shield filled with grime. After rainfall, water would pool occasionally on graves.

The cemetery’s wall lost bricks. Its flagpole collected rust. Its lodge looked tired.

“The appearance of a cemetery must be excellent, said Sara A. Leach, senior historian with the National Cemetery Administration, an agency of the Department of Veterans Affairs that advised the park service. “The headstones are clean, no debris around. The grass is green and the sod is even.”

Dawn Caruso, of Succasunna, New Jersey, first visited in 2012 to see the grave of her ancestor, Pvt. James M. Leonard, who was killed in 1864 at age 19. “We were absolutely horrified with the cemetery, how it was not cared for,” she said.

Still, though there was no money for a thorough overhaul, park staff did what they could to maintain the grounds.

Park ranger Betsy Dinger first began working at the Petersburg National Battlefield nearly 20 years ago, and she built a rapport with descendants of soldiers. Each Christmas until the cemetery closed for repairs, Dinger placed a wreath on Pvt. Leonard’s gave.

The dead buried here reflect a diverse nation

Thousands who gave the last full measure of the devotion, to borrow the words of President Abraham Lincoln, had found themselves in a degraded final resting place at Poplar Grove.

All but a few dozen of the 6,100 graves in the cemetery belong to Union soldiers. A few Confederates and veterans from the Spanish-American and both world wars also rest at the cemetery.

Among the Civil War fallen are Native Americans, 331 African-Americans and two Medal of Honor recipients. About one-third of them are known.

Besides grass cutting and an annual placement of flags, for a long time there wasn’t much programming or attention given to Poplar Grove, Dinger said. There are opportunities to talk about the diversity of those interred at the cemetery.

Hull’s great-great-grandfather, Pvt. James Manassa Dixon, was killed in August 1864 during the prolonged Federal siege of Petersburg. The 21-year-old soldier with the Maryland 4th Regiment Infantry left behind a wife and young daughter.

Hull, from Hagerstown, Maryland, said the family for years didn’t speak much about the Civil War; members fought for both sides. “You can imagine that it was a sore subject,” he said.

For some time, the family wasn’t sure whether Dixon was buried in North Carolina or Virginia. Hull’s father finally learned Pvt. Dixon’s resting place in the 1990s.

Since then, 21 members of the family have come to visit his grave, Hull said.

A full rehabilitation

For generations, visitors to the cemetery and descendants of those buried there have complained, calling congressmen and writing letters. Why wasn’t this sacred ground getting sacred treatment?

There was no extra money for an overhaul. One plan fell through in the 1970s; park officials several years later began a new push, finally getting preliminary approval in 2002. Several studies had to be undertaken, and extra money had to be found in a cash-strapped agency.

While many national cemetery projects are done piecemeal, the decision was made to do a complete $5.3 million rehabilitation, the first for the NPS’ 14 cemeteries.

And there was one clear aim. “There was this widespread acknowledgment that the condition was dishonoring to the veterans. This is an effort to rehonor those people,” said John Auwaerter, a State University of New York research scientist who helped prepare a report on Poplar Grove for the National Park Service.

In November 2015, the cemetery was closed for rehabilitation. Nearly 5,700 markers were replaced, and improvements were made throughout the property.

Contractors ground up all but a few of the old stones so that they couldn’t be used inappropriately. Graves of the known dead got new upright stones; graves of the unknown got square markers above ground, mirroring the cemetery’s original configuration.

The holes for the new stones were dug by hand and foot. An archaeologist was present in case any human remains were disturbed — though in the end, no new remains were found.

Descendants are grateful for the respect and care taken by the battlefield staff and contractors. “To actually see the loving care individually given to each person represented there gave me a new hope that they haven’t forgotten about these men,” Hull said.

Officials believe, at long last, a wrong — however unintentional — has been righted and the war dead are now getting the respect they richly deserve. Petersburg Superintendent Lewis Rogers’ predecessor got the ball rolling. Rogers and his staff kept it moving and across the finish line.

“To me,” said Rogers, “it is like taking care of my parents.”

‘I feel like they are my boys’

Dinger, a steadfast advocate for the cemetery overhaul, is shepherding a group of nearly 70 descendants of soldiers who are coming to the park this weekend for the rededication.

The ranger also helps visitors locate graves and conducts research.

“She wants to do the best for families,” said Dawn Caruso.

On Saturday, at Poplar Grove, speeches will be made and a brass quintet from the Army’s Fort Lee will perform.

Fred Carlson of suburban Pittsburgh will read and donate a four-page letter written by his great-great-great-grandfather, Cpl. Levi Hilton, just a week before he was killed early in the battle for Petersburg.

The soldier with the 2nd Michigan Infantry enlisted at age 37; he’s believed to be among the ranks of the unknown at Poplar Grove.

In the letter, the widower consoles his children, writes about his comrades, describes being pinned down by Southern snipers, and discusses a popular topic among soldiers — food. The letter is imbued with Christian fidelity and the pain of being separated from his children.

Dinger said Hilton’s haunting words could have been written by any number of soldiers — black, white, Native American — who died at Petersburg.

How many mothers, she asks, got a letter notifying them of their son’s death and never had the opportunity to visit the grave. “I feel like they are my boys and I got to look over them because their family could not,” said Dinger.

Hull and eight others in her family have made the pilgrimage to Petersburg.

The fallen are now getting the dignity they deserve, Hull said.

“The very word I think of is justice. I think these men will finally get justice.”