A tale of two cemeteries

By Carol / May 16, 2014 /
Wilmington National Cemetery

Wilmington National Cemetery

Every grave holds a story. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to cemeteries. So many lives. So many stories. Yet we know so little. Only tiny bits of information. Names that may suggest country of origin. Dates that attest to a life long-lived or to one cut short by a childhood disease or war. A line may suggest relationships: husband, father. We’re left to guess at all the rest.

In Wilmington, NC, we found two cemeteries that told larger stories of people as a whole. As we drove down Market Street, we spotted the pristine white stones and regimental layout of a national cemetery. Equally interesting was an historical marker pointing toward a Confederate cemetery.

At the Wilmington National Cemetery, we were fortunate to meet the cemetery superintendent, a former member of the marine corps. He shared that the cemetery was established to hold the remains of Union soldiers from the Civil War. Of the 2,039 Civil War soldiers interred, 698 are known and 1,341 are unknown.

The stones of black soldiers who fought in the war are marked “U.S.C.T” – United States Colored Troops. The officers who led these colored troops were white. Their stones also say U.S.T.C. You can tell they were white men because their stones also include an officer rank. Black men were never officers.

The cemetery also includes the remains of a group of Puerto Rican laborers who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Stones tell the stories of men and women who served in subsequent wars: Korea, Vietnam, World War I and World War II.

The cemetery is full or almost so. Family members may still be interred in the same graves as their service men and women.

Oakdale Cemetery

Oakdale Cemetery

We moved on to the Oakdale Cemetery, thinking it was a comparable space for those who fought on the side of the Confederacy. It was that and so much more.

When we drove through the cemetery gates, we realized we’d come upon a much different land – a cemetery unlike any either of us had ever seen before.

Driveways curved through trees hung with Spanish moss. Cement stair steps bearing family names led up to raised grave areas. Canopies over freshly dug graves told us this cemetery is still active.

Unlike the military-straight lines of the National Cemetery, Oakdale graves have been laid out following the curve of the land. The tropical climate of the area encourages lush vegetation to over-grow the stones and black moss to make even newer stones appear ancient. The apparent haphazard layout of the graves and stones makes mowing by machine impossible.

Oakdale is designed in a Victorian mode. Sections were planned as a maze of curved avenues winding through the hilly terrain. Native and landscape vegetation interspersed by iron fences and garden furniture contribute to a garden look. In the mid-nineteenth century, people used cemeteries as parks where people strolled, picnicked and socialized.

As we drove through the cemetery, we did not think about this garden aspect. The gray skies and rain contributed to an over-riding sense of foreboding. We agreed the site would be the perfect place for a very scary movie.

While Oakdale does contain the Confederate Memorial Monument (which I realize as I write we didn’t see), the 100+ acres include much more. Within the cemetery are the graves of 400 who died to a yellow fever epidemic, a Hebrew section, Masonic and Odd Fellows sections, and the graves of political, business and social leaders. Notable among those buried at Oakdale are: a female Confederate spy, North Carolina’s first governor, and broadcaster David Brinkley.

Every grave told a story. These cemeteries did, too.

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  1. Patti Hall on May 17, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    Carol, I enjoyed this article very much. I’m a family history buff, and have explored cemeteries here in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve always been fascinated and awed by the stories, told and untold, in our cemeteries. While I have no black ancestors that I know of, I’ve researched ancestors who fought on both sides during the Civil War. I remember running across info about black officers, so I hope you don’t mind me adding a link from the National Archives here.
    “By the end of the war, there were at least eighty-seven African American officers in the Union army.” (Of the approx 185,000 USCT).
    Thanks for this enlightening article.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 17, 2014 at 8:05 pm

      Patti, Thanks for sharing the link and adding information about the African American officers in the Civil War. I wish I had a way to share that with the man who was telling us about the cemetery. I have a great grand uncle who served in the Civil War. The records of the troop movements in the Iowa State Historical Museum are extensive. I look forward to digging into that bit of history some day.

  2. Jill Swenson, Ph.D. on May 20, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    When I read this a few days ago, I bookmarked it so I could come back and read it again, Carol. Well written and interesting, this essay caught my eye for the photographs of the cemeteries. You pulled me into a much larger story.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 20, 2014 at 2:55 pm

      Thanks for coming back, Jill. Each of these cemeteries was uniquely beautiful; the contrast between the two made the story even better. My friend and I returned over the weekend for a guided tour of Oakdale Cemetery. So many fascinating stories. I’ll share more of those stories and more pictures.

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