Friday, May 24, 2019


by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

There’s an urban legend that attempts to explain why tombstones for Confederate soldiers come to a point at the top rather than being curved like those used for Union soldiers. The story goes something along the line of ‘not wanting Union soldiers to sit on their gravestones, the top of Confederate headstones come to a center point.’
Confederate tombstones, Woodlawn National Cemetery
It makes a great story, but after various searches and even asking questions of Woodlawn National Cemetery staff, the most confirmation I could get is a non-committal shrug.
Union tombstones, Woodlawn National Cemetery

Taking classes from Fassett Elementary School on recent tours through Woodlawn Cemetery, adjacent to Woodlawn National Cemetery, we looked at gravesites for a few prominent local people. We visited stones for Alexander Diven and his family, for Samuel Clemens and his family, a vault for the Arnot family, and the Firefighters memorial area. While some of the students recognized schools, streets and buildings named after these people, most of their curiosity and questions focused on the physical features of the cemetery. We compared noticeable differences between individual headstones, family markers, and vaults.
Woodlawn Cemetery, May 2019
Chartered by the state and established as a cemetery in 1858, Woodlawn covers 184 acres. In October 2004, it was added to the National Registry of Historic places. While the two cemeteries were once one, Woodlawn National Cemetery was separated off in response to a federal decree in the mid-1800s, that burial places be set aside to recognize Civil War battle dead. This included soldiers that died in battle, prison camps, and hospitals. Today, Woodlawn National Cemetery stands in stark visual contrast to Woodlawn Cemetery. The markers are in tight rows, and almost identical. Here too, only eligible military are laid to rest. The cemetery is part of the National Cemetery system run by the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, National Cemetery Administration. While Woodlawn National Cemetery doesn’t accept burials anymore, if anyone who qualifies wants to be interred, that’s still possible. There are 136 National Cemeteries in the nation. Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C. was established in 1865 and remains one of the most well-known.

Notable in Woodlawn National Cemetery are the Confederate soldiers’ graves, those headstones that come to a point at the top. There are almost 3,000 of these in military formation. The majority of these soldiers died at the nearby Elmira Prison Camp during 1864-1865, due to disease, poor hygiene, inadequate food, bad care or insufficient clothing. They were buried by John W. Jones, a man who took such good records that after the war, when it came time to identify the buried soldiers, his notes provided accurate names and dates.
John W. Jones, 1817 - 1900
Losing the war and legally defeating slavery, the Nation still chose to respect all fallen soldiers despite their allegiance. 150 years later, the pointed and curved headstones blur together in the cemetery. The rows of mainly white headstones stand at silent attention, and as one young student observed, they’re lined up like soldiers. 

Memorial Day is a day to remember those that died in service to their country. In 1971, Memorial Day was officially sanctioned by Congress as a national holiday observed on the last Monday of every May. It was thought to be connected to Decoration Day. This was a day, established three years after the Civil War, set aside to decorate the graves of war dead with spring flowers. Waterloo, New York, less than two hours from the museum, has been recognized as having one of the first formal Memorial Day ceremonies in 1866, when local businesses closed to observe a day of remembrance.  

It is predicted that over the Memorial Day weekend, more than 135,000 people will visit Arlington National Cemetery near our nation’s capital, and tradition dictates the United States President or Vice President will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

1 comment:

  1. Susan I'm go glad you were able to take students to the cemetery. There is so much history to learn. Hopefully they will go back to school and share all they have seen and inspire other students to visit and explore.