Graveyards in Virginia

Thompson Family Graveyard (Fairfax County)
Thompson Family Graveyard (Fairfax County)

Graves are "special places." People bury their dead with ceremony and ritual. Modern religions offer different ways to interpret death. The beliefs of the original Native American inhabitants are poorly understood, but the valuable "grave goods" left at prehistoric burials makes clear that graves had significance as far back as the Archaic Period. If archeologists ever find and excavate a Paleo-Indian gravesite, odds are they will simply extend that conclusion further back in time.

The first colonists at Jamestown were buried secretly in 1607. That was done to disguise from Powhatan how rapidly the English were losing strength and the capacity to withstand an attack. The graves of those early colonists have been excavated as part of the Jamestown Rediscovery project.

There may be earlier graves of Europeans in Virginia, but no such graves prior to 1607 have been identified yet. It is possible that bodies of sailors who were buried at sea later washed ashore, and Native Americans may have examined the corpses and then placed bones in the ground. Eight Spanish Jesuits were executed at Ajacan (near modern-day Yorktown) in 1571, but there is no oral history to indicate if they were left to decay on the surface or if someone later collected and buried their bones.

Some sailors who died while on ships exploring the coastline and Chesapeake Bay in the 1500's could be buried on a Virginia beach. Swimmers going into the water may be walking on top of such graves, due to sea level rise over the last 500 years.

Graveyards that were expected to be everlasting resting places are affected by later land use changes. In some cases, especially for gravesites of slaves, local memories of the graveyards have disappeared and construction has disturbed the sites.

Local opposition to the construction of the dam that created Smith Mountain Lake in the 1960's was mitigated by the decision of the Appalachian Power Company to find family cemeteries and move 1,135 graves from the future lake bottom.1

Graveyards are significant to more than just families. A gravesite in some, such as Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, helps to define a family's social status in a community.

Other graveyards are associated with support for the Union or the Confederacy during the Civil War. President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery, in which just Union soldiers were supposed to be buried. The remains of 3,200 Confederate soldiers were shipped south after the end of the Civil War to be interred near their homes, or in memorials to the Confederate cause such as at Hollywood Cemetery.2

the Confederate war dead were honored in 1869 by a 90-foot high monument of local granite in Hollywood Cemetery
the Confederate war dead were honored in 1869 by a 90-foot high monument of local granite in Hollywood Cemetery
Source: Library of Congress, Monument at Richmond erected to Confederate soldiers by the ladies of that place

decorating the graves of the Confederate war dead at Hollywood Cemetery became an annual community event for the white community in Richmond
decorating the graves of the Confederate war dead at Hollywood Cemetery became an annual community event for the white community in Richmond
Source: Library of Congress, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia - decorating the graves of the rebel soldiers, May 31, 1867

bodies of soldiers killed in the Civil War, such as this Confederate at Fort Mahone, had to be buried
bodies of soldiers killed in the Civil War, such as this Confederate at Fort Mahone, had to be buried
Source: Smithsonian Institution, Stereograph of two deceased Confederate soldiers in a trench

In Alexandria, deaths during the 1860's led to the creation of three graveyards that illustrate social divisions of the time. 34 Confederate prisoners of war were buried on the grounds of Christ Church. Union soldiers were buried at the Alexandria National Cemetery, while former slaves were interred at a third site which became known as the Freedman's Cemetery.3

The first black soldiers who died at Alexandria were buried in the Freedman's Cemetery, not with the white soldiers at the Alexandria National Cemetery. Other black soldiers objected to the discrimination. The army reacted to their complaints, disinterred the black soldiers, and reburied them at the Alexandria National Cemetery.

The Christ Church and Alexandria National Cemetery graveyards were protected from disturbance. The Freedman's Cemetery was not. It was used for burials just between 1864-1869. Though the site was known in the community, it was not protected. In 1955, a gas station was built on top of the graveyard, and later an office building was constructed there. Building I-95 may have destroyed a portion of the cemetery.

In 2007, after the city public recognized the existence of the Freedman's Cemetery, the gas station and office building were removed and the site re-dedicated as a burial ground. A statue was installed in 2014 to honor the graveyard, 150 years after the first freed slaves were buried there.4

the garden of Westover Plantation, on the banks of the James River in Charles City County, is the special and final resting place for William Byrd II, founder of Richmond
the garden of Westover Plantation, on the banks of the James River in Charles City County, is the special and final resting place for William Byrd II, founder of Richmond

St. John's Episcopal Church in Columbia (Fluvanna County)
St. John's Episcopal Church in Columbia (Fluvanna County)

Confederate grave at St. John's Episcopal Church in Columbia (Fluvanna County)
Confederate grave at St. John's Episcopal Church in Columbia (Fluvanna County)

graveyard at Forks of Willis Church (Cumberland County)
graveyard at Forks of Willis Church (Cumberland County)

gravestones at Forks of Willis Church include fieldstone and slate
gravestones at Forks of Willis Church include fieldstone and slate

periwinkle grows at the base of a gravestone at Forks of Willis Church
periwinkle grows at the base of a gravestone at Forks of Willis Church

in the mid-1800's, Richmond had graveyards on its northern edge, as well as Hollywood Cemetery on the west, to replace the traditional burying ground at St. John's Church on Church Hill
in the mid-1800's, Richmond had graveyards on its northern edge, as well as Hollywood Cemetery on the west, to replace the traditional burying ground at St. John's Church on Church Hill
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the city of Richmond, Virginia

Prince William Forest Park includes 26 old graveyards
Prince William Forest Park includes 26 old graveyards
Source: National Park Service, Archeology in the Prince William Forest Park

memorial for Confederate soldiers at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suffolk
memorial for Confederate soldiers at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suffolk

memorial at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suffolk claims Confederate soldiers fought for a just cause
memorial at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suffolk claims Confederate soldiers fought for a "just cause"

Veterans Administration cemetery at Quantico
Veterans Administration cemetery at Quantico
Source: Historic Prince William, Quantico National Cemetery - #171

Veterans Administration cemetery at Quantico
Veterans Administration cemetery at Quantico
Source: Historic Prince William, Quantico National Cemetery - #173

Stonewall Memory Gardens was developed as a cemetery before the National Park Service acquired all the surrounding land for Manassas National Battlefield Park
Stonewall Memory Gardens was developed as a cemetery before the National Park Service acquired all the surrounding land for Manassas National Battlefield Park
Source: Historic Prince William, Rt. 29 and Stonewall Memory Gardens - #310

Native American Burial Sites in Virginia

Links

References

1. "Smith Mountain Lake: Jewel of the Blue Ridge," Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, 2016, http://cloud.chambermaster.com/userfiles/UserFiles/chambers/541/File/50th_Anniversary/SMLHistoryWeb.pdf (last checked May 18, 2017)
2. "Gettysburg National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/pennsylvania/gettysburg_national_cemetery.html (last checked December 21, 2017)
3. "The federal occupation of Alexandria in the Civil War changed and spared city," Washington Post, April 7, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/the-federal-occupation-of-alexandria-in-the-civil-war-changed-and-spared-city/2011/04/01/AFaqCAwC_story.html (last checked December 21, 2017)
4. "Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial," City of Alexandria, https://www.alexandriava.gov/FreedmenMemorial (last checked December 21, 2017)


A Sense of Place
Population of Virginia
Virginia Places