Memorial Day at Woodlawn National Cemetery

Part of my Memorial Day weekend this year was spent in Elmira, New York.  Sure, I was hunting down historical markers, but my focus was on the infamous prison camp that operated in the town.  And one stop on that tour was Woodlawn National Cemetery, where I found several surprises.

For those unfamiliar with the site, Elmira was one of many prisoner of war camps operating across the North, but was dubbed “Hellmira” by some due to the camp’s poor conditions.  Early in the war, rail lines brought troops mustering into service to Elmira.  At a camp along the Chemung River, the new units formed, drilled, and marched off to war.  Facing an increase of prisoners due to the “no exchange” stance, Federals opened a prison at that camp in June 1864.

Conditions were, as with most Civil War prison camps, horrible.  But Elmira was by many measures the worst of the lot.  Unsanitary conditions brought disease.  Sleeping in tents and receiving only basic rations, the prisoners suffered from exposure and malnutrition.   While the camp operated, over 12,000 Confederates were held in Elmira.  And nearly 3,000 of them died.  By comparison, 45,000 Federals spent time at Andersonville, Georgia, and over 12,000 died.  In Chicago’s Camp Douglas, 6,000 of 26,000 Confederates died.  In statistical terms, Elmira had the highest death rate.  (NOTE:  I don’t think of this as a North vs. South issue.  There were no clean and healthy prison camps in the Civil War, on either side.)

The Confederate dead from the prison were buried in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.  The cemetery’s sexton, John W. Jones, buried the Confederates, meticulously recording the names.   When Woodlawn became a national cemetery in the 1870s, Jones’ records facilitated easy identification of most of those buried.  Very few unknowns lie within the Confederate section of the cemetery. If you clicked on the link above, you know Jones was an escaped slave.  He supported the Underground Railroad.  And… was originally from a plantation just outside Leesburg, Virginia.  (So look for a follow up post after I spend some time locating local cemeteries here in Loudoun County.)

As I entered Woodlawn, appropriately for Memorial Day weekend, all the graves near the entrance, all U.S. veterans, displayed a small American flag.  I figured this would make my task of locating the Confederate burials easier.  I was in for a surprise.

Confederate Memorial at Woodlawn

Yes those are peaked Confederate headstones, with US flags at each grave.  And this was not just for one portion of the Confederate cemetery.  All had small US flags.

Confederate Cemetery at Woodlawn

Every single Confederate grave had a US flag.

James Mayo, Co. D, 5th Virginia Cavalry

And some of the graves were clearly not soldiers.

Jno. J. Powell, Citizen

No indication on the stone why Powell (or any of the others) was detained.  So there’s a thread I’ll have to follow and see where it leads.  But I think it significant Powell is identified as a “citizen” and not “civilian” or other term.  And of course also received veterans’ honors with a flag on Memorial Day.

I do know that a Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter has placed Confederate flags on the graves in the past.   From what I can tell that was for Confederate Remembrance Day.  I don’t know if the US flags placed this Memorial Day were simply the result of an over zealous team placing flags that week, or if the US flags were knowingly placed to form a message.

And I can say, and you can see in the pictures, the ground was not undulating.  So nobody was rolling in their graves!


One thought on “Memorial Day at Woodlawn National Cemetery

  1. Interesting story Craig. While I am glad that the Confederate graves were not passed over when flags were being placed, I hope that the fact that they are US flags, as opposed to Confederate flags, is not the result of the efforts to remove the Confederate flag from everywhere. Memorial Day is a time when the sacrifices of all soldiers should be remembered and honored, and not a time to make political statements.

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