Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia is estimated to contain the remains of as many as 17,000 Confederate soldiers making it the second largest Confederate cemetery in America. During the early months of the war, it was determined that a cemetery needed to be established for the burial of the large numbers of military casualties inflicted by the battles around the Confederate capital. On August 12, 1861 the City of Richmond purchased land which would be made available for this solemn purpose. The military cemetery contains approximately 7.5 acres and is commonly referred to as the “Oakwood Confederate Cemetery.”
The Confederates buried in Oakwood were largely the casualties of the major battles fought to defend Richmond from northern invasion beginning in the summer of 1862. These battles included the Seven Days Campaign, Gaines Mill, Cold Harbor, Malvern Hill, Mechanicsville, Savage’s Station, Beaver Dam Creek, and many others. Many were patients that failed to recover in the military hospitals in the Richmond area such as Chimbarazo, Howard’s Grove, and Winder. Although the cemetery lies in Virginia, Virginians do not comprise a majority of the dead. In fact, it is believed that the dead represent every state of the Confederacy.
Many Union soldiers where also originally buried near the Confederates in Oakwood. In 1866 the federal government relocated the bodies of most Union soldiers from Oakwood and buried them in the beautifully maintained Richmond National Cemetery which stands in sharp contrast to the condition of the Confederate section of Oakwood. The graves in Oakwood are marked with a small stone for every three graves with a numerical inscription for each grave plot. Some graves have been marked with individual markers, but by the vast majority of plots have no marker designating the name, unit, or home state of the soldiers. The Sons of Confederate Veterans has been seeking for several years to refine and implement a plan to make Oakwood’s Confederate Section a proper military cemetery which will provide a dignified and comparable resting place for those buried there. These improvements will have the added benefit of attracting numerous tourists to visit the area along with thousands of descendents of those who are interned there.
A Short History of Oakwood:
The Richmond city council established Oakwood Cemetery in 1855, probably to offset crowding at the popular Shockoe Cemetery. When the Civil War began in 1861, it became evident that the number of dying soldiers in the city would require emergency burial measures. The authorities took a few to Shockoe Cemetery; many thousands more ended up in Hollywood Cemetery and Oakwood Cemetery.
The majority of soldiers buried at Oakwood received an individual grave, although during certain periods—probably when the number of corpses overwhelmed the interment crews—they were stacked. Most of the graves with multiple burials contain only two men. There are a very few known instances of three, four, or even five men in one grave. The practice of placing several men in one grave received unfavorable press and it is likely that the burial crews only resorted to that practice during emergencies.
Nearly all of the Confederate dead buried at Oakwood during the war came from the hospitals and camps at the eastern end of Richmond. Men who died at Chimborazo and Howard’s Grove hospitals almost always went to Oakwood. So, too, did the soldiers who died in the smaller hospitals that dotted that side of the city. There does not appear to have been any special dividing point that dictated whether a body went to Oakwood or Hollywood. But in a general sense that unofficial line appears to have been at about 18th Street. Men who died in hospitals west of there usually went to Hollywood instead of Oakwood.
A South Carolina soldier witnessed the burial process at Oakwood in 1862 and took the time to write about it. “The hearse comes along with its load of corpses and on the brink of each grave it deposited a coffin on which is placarded the name, company and regiment of the soldier whose remains it contained. No vault was dug, the coffin was lowered into this ditch-like grave and without ceremony the dirt was shoved in, and a small board bearing the number of the grave was placed at the head....”
By September 1, 1862, after just one year of use, the Confederate section of Oakwood contained 5483 burials. The pace of interments slowed thereafter. That same year a Richmond newspaperman predicted a positive future for “This new and beautiful ‘city of the dead.’” “In future...it will become the Mecca of all visitors, because when the names of the honored dead are spread on the monumental tablet, there is hardly any resident of the Confederate States who will not be able to recognize among them one whom they have known in happier, if not better, days.” “Nobody could wish a more delightful resting place,” concluded the writer.
The precise number of wartime burials is not known. Although published figures vary widely (between 12,000 and 18,000), there is good evidence that the lower number is closer to the truth. Mr. John Redford, who served as the cemetery’s caretaker/custodian from its 1855 creation until well after the Civil War, said in 1868 that there were about 10,000 identified men and between 2000 and 3000 unidentified Confederate soldiers in Oakwood.
Union Dead at Oakwood
The Union graves at Oakwood “are generally
an observer in April 1865. The following month the city’s
express office was crowded with coffins of exhumed Federalists
from Oakwood. “They
are now being disinterred in great numbers,” presumably
by Northern kinsmen who took advantage of the sudden access
to the former Confederate
capital city. By the spring of 1866, all of the remaining
marked Union dead at Oakwood had been removed to the newly
created Richmond National
Cemetery on the Williamsburg Road. At least 200 identified
dead and 162 unidentified dead were transferred. If any
remained behind at Oakwood,
it was accidental.
Despite the claims of beauty in 1862, Oakwood bore a seedy and dishevelled appearance by war’s end. Visitors “found the plots most unsightly. Many of the graves had settled badly; handmade, wooden headboards were missing or damaged [and] names obliterated....” To address this, a large number of women from the various churches on nearby Church Hill gathered on April 19, 1866, at the Third Presbyterian Church. They emerged from their meeting as part of a new organization: “The Ladies Memorial Association for the Confederate Dead of Oakwood Cemetery.” The association’s several hundred members created a constitution that articulated precise goals. They wanted to see the Confederate section “well enclosed and each grave turfed and marked by a neat head-piece, properly inscribed. This accomplished, ever afterwards to keep the grounds in proper condition.”
“ Armed with shovels, rakes, and other gardening implements,” the women worked to tidy the cemetery. On the first Confederate Memorial Day, May 10, 1866, ex-major general Raleigh E. Colston delivered a brief speech to an assembled crowd, and the ever-popular Reverend Moses D. Hoge prayed in an “eloquent + feeling strain.”
The women aggressively and successfully raised money to pay for the headboards they hoped to erect. The first 1000 probably went into the ground in July 1866. Three months later they contracted for another 2000 and by the summer of 1867 all of the Confederate graves were “marked with name, regiment, and State.” A May 1870 visitor to the cemetery wrote that at each grave “is a mound....and at the head of each grave, a thick plank of wood stands, painted white, rounded in the head, with name and regiment of each soldier in black letters.”
The ladies next turned their attention to the erection of a marble monument to commemorate all of the Confederate dead in the cemetery. State legislatures around the South contributed to that cause ($1000 each from North Carolina and Georgia, to name only two). For a period of more than five years the association weighed its options, accepted bids, and raised money. Eventually “Mr. Burt” received the contract to create a granite shaft, at the cost of $1300. The cornerstone was laid before “an immense crowd” in May 1871, and the monument itself probably followed within the next year or two.
Tradition always has stated that Confederate battlefield dead were brought into Richmond’s cemeteries after the end of the war. If that happened at Oakwood in any substantial numbers, no written record of it has been found. In May 1869 the ladies arranged for “a number of dead” from Malvern Hill to be transferred to Oakwood, but available sources suggest that no more than five bodies were involved in that episode.
By 1887 the wooden headboards erected in 1866 and 1867 had rotted to such an extent that the “City Council Committee on Cemeteries” asked permission to remove all the headboards. The Oakwood Association resisted that suggestion for a few months, but finally consented in the autumn of 1887, “as there was no means of having them renewed and it was an inevitable fact that they could not remain in their decayed condition.” The city promised to replace the wooden headboards with more permanent markers, but apparently did not do so. For approximately 15 years the Confederate graves at Oakwood remained unmarked.
In 1901 Virginia allotted $100 to begin installing “marble blocks” at the graves. Two years later the General Assembly provided a further $200 “for headstones.” The process of installing those stones apparently took many years. In 1930 the General Assembly appropriated a further $30,000 to mark the remainder of the graves with marble blocks, and instructed the city of Richmond to provide care of the plots.
Sometime between 1900 and 1922 the gazebo/speaker’s stand was erected, probably displacing or even covering some of the soldier graves in the process.
By 1954, just one decade before the Oakwood Memorial Association faded into oblivion, its promotional pamphlet claimed that the cemetery contained 17,000 burials.
Prior Movements to Improve Oakwood:
During the War, John Redford, the city overseer at Oakwood and others attempted to maintain some record of who was buried in the cemetery. Some records stated the names of who was buried in Oakwood, but not necessarily where. Other records have many misspellings and other errors. The graves at Oakwood were originally marked with crude wooden planks for head markers. Unfortunately, times where difficult at the conclusion of the war and some unscrupulous people stole many of the planks for use as firewood. This left later attempts to accurately record the burials from the rotting head markers incomplete.
The numerous dead at Oakwood remained in the hearts of the thousands of loved ones left too impoverished to remove the bodies for reburial at home or to provide a proper grave marker where they lay. In fact the first known Memorial Day service occurred on May 10, 1866 at Oakwood. The Ladies Memorial Association for the Confederate Dead in Oakwood which had formed just weeks before on April 13th sponsored the event. The Association had gone so far as to request Robert E. Lee to speak at the service which he was unable to attend. However Lee wrote in response to the request that “the graves of the Confederate dead will always be green in my memory, and their deeds be hallowed in my recollection.” Reporting on the event, The Richmond Dispatch noted the disgraceful condition of the cemetery by stating "All was bright, beauteous, and lovely, except the graves of the poor Confederate soldiers; and they, sinking out of sight, with shattered headboards, overgrown by weeds and rank grasses, showed too plainly the extent of that paralysis of mind and soul from which our people are now awakening."
The association, commonly referred to as the Oakwood Memorial Association, began efforts to improve the dilapidated condition of Oakwood through funds they could raise and a small annual amount from the state. The Association began the process of replacing the rotting wooden markers with the small marble numerical markers that exist today. Unfortunately, these markers only delineate the location of the graves and provide no information on who is buried in the various plots.
In 1930, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed an act to place the graves of Oakwood into perpetual care at the prompting of the Oakwood Memorial Association. The state provided $30,000 for the purpose of implementing immediate repairs and to fund the perpetual care. The funds were directed to the owner of the cemetery being the City of Richmond. Curiously enough the act required the Governor to annually visit Oakwood to review the care given to the cemetery by the city. As the later portion of the 20th century began, the state of Oakwood had severely deteriorated. Many of the small makers where damaged or had been pushed out of place by improper mowing operations, brush had overtaken parts of the cemetery, mowing was sporadic, and the ravages of time were taking their toll.
Recent Conflicts and Efforts:
In 1995, the City of Richmond considered selling the cemetery to a private company, but was barred from doing such by the General Assembly. In 1996 the General Assembly considered having the Commonwealth assume maintenance of Oakwood’s Confederate graves, but that measure was undermined by the Governor‘s office. About this same time the Sons of Confederate Veterans began debating how to restore the Confederate Section and install grave markers. In 1997, the Sons of Confederate Veterans - Oakwood Committee received a sum of $30,000 from the Commonwealth along with an annual appropriation of approximately $11,470 for ongoing maintenance and improvement of the Confederate Section [see 1997 Acts of Assembly CHAP0811].
In 1999, officers of the Virginia SCV and others formed the Oakwood Confederate Cemetery Trust, Inc. The Oakwood Trust made representations to the SCV that it would carryout the improvements and maintenance at Oakwood Cemetery which the SCV desired. Given these representations, the Virginia Division SCV voted to transfer the funds received from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the Oakwood Trust. Thus, the Code of Virginia was amended in 2001 to replace the Sons of Confederate Veterans as the recipient of state funds for Oakwood to the Oakwood Confederate Cemetery Trust, Inc. [see S10.1-2211, 2001 Acts of Assembly CHAP0279]
There was extensive debate within the SCV as to whether or not the Oakwood Trust would be able to carry out the SCV vision for Oakwood. After several years, the Sons of Confederate Veterans determined that the Oakwood Trust has not lived up to the SCV’s expectations. In 2005, the Virginia Division SCV moved to reassume its prior rights concerning Oakwood and to immediately take action to restore the Confederate Section to include the installation of new grave markers. The 2006 Session of the General Assembly adopted SB401 which restored the Virginia Division SCV as the recipient of state funding through the Department of Historic Resources for the maintenance and restoration of the Confederate graves in Oakwood.
SCV RESTORATION PLAN:
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, as descendents of many of the men buried at Oakwood, desire that each grave in the Confederate Section have an individual grave marker designating the name(s) of the soldier, rank, unit, and home state. It is only fitting that the men who gave their lives in service to their state and country be afforded this small token of dignity and provide a serene atmosphere for their descendents. We further desire that the Confederate Section of Oakwood be maintained and beautified to higher standards befitting a national military cemetery.
The Virginia Division has taken great efforts to put into affect plans to make our goals a reality. We have approached the proper authorities and parties of interest to attempt to gain approval for the Sons of Confederate Veterans - Virginia Division to take over maintenance of the cemetery as well as to install the grave markers at our expense.
The Virginia Division SCV is the designated recipient for state funds for the maintenance and improvement of Oakwood’s Confederate graves which will provide $12,470 annually. The Virginia Division SCV raised its membership dues in 2005 to cover the cost of regular maintenance of Oakwood’s Confederate Section as well as to provide additional funds for the installation of the proposed grave markers. The combination of SCV and state funds will provide approximately $24,000 per year. In addition, we are holding a $50,000 grant from our national organization for this project. The total funds in the Oakwood Restoration Fund as of June 20, 2007 is approximately $84,000. [an additional $12,470 is due from the state July 01, 2007 and the SCV’s annual appropriation will be added shortly which will result in a fund balance near $109,000]
An early 20th century postcard showing “Stonewall Cemetery” in Winchester with its more than 3000 Confederate graves and uniform upright grave markers.
Once the full restoration plan is initiated, the SCV will engage in additional fund raising activities. Fund raising will allow for additional improvements that can be made beyond the base plan for maintenance and installing such as the installation of authentically reproduced iron fencing around the soldier’s obelisk and the entire perimeter of the Confederate section.
2) Government Agencies
The three governing bodies that the SCV is specifically working with to implement this plan are the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR), the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Richmond, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Our goal is to provide upright grave markers in a manner as least intrusive to the historical nature of the cemetery as possible.
The Dept. of Veterans Affairs has tentatively agreed to supply gravestones to the SCV for installation at Oakwood in bi-weekly shipments of 50 or 100 stones. These gravestones will contain the appropriate information for each grave and will be provided at no cost.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has worked closely with the SCV to ensure that our planned activities are in accordance with maintaining the historic nature of the cemetery. The DHR is also the state agency which is providing a portion of the projects funding.
We have presented a partnership agreement to the City of Richmond which remains under review at this time. The agreement would effectively give the SCV operational control of the Confederate Section in exchange for the alleviating the city from the burden and expense of regular maintenance which the city estimates at over $30,000 annually.
A great deal of the work to install the grave markers will be done through the volunteer efforts of SCV members who are qualified to conduct or supervise such activities. The SCV Oakwood Committee is chaired by F. Lee Hart, III who is widely recognized for his work in restoring cemeteries and monuments in southeastern Virginia. We have an Advisory Committee with historians such as Robert E. Lee Krick, Steve Comier, and John Kindred who have compiled and are refining vast amounts of information documenting the soldiers buried in Oakwood.
4) Grounds Maintenance
The Sons of Confederate Veterans will contract out regular maintenance of Oakwood including regular mowing and trimming. It is the goal of the SCV to have the grounds of the cemetery well maintained in a manner which will not subject the existing and proposed monuments to further damage and avoid neglect. Preliminary bids have been received which are within the SCV’s financial capabilities.
PHYSICAL SITE PLAN
A physical site survey of Section “G” of the Confederate Section of Oakwood Cemetery has been performed to detail the impact this proposal will have on the entirety of the cemetery. Please refer to the plats, artist and CAD (Computer Aided Design) renderings generated from this survey.
1) Proposed Grave Markers
The Sons of Confederate Veterans intends to install upright granite markers in the “apex” design to be supplied by the Department of Veterans Affairs. These stones are consistent with the design or type of stones that were used in other military cemeteries in the late 19th and early 20th century. Stones of this type are still widely used as they are provided free of charge to qualified veterans. The Sons of Confederate Veterans has chosen the use of granite rather than marble. Marble is more widely used in military cemeteries, but with time its bright white color becomes darkened by pollutants to a light gray color which can give it an appearance not unlike granite. Marble is also a much softer stone requiring much more maintenance and even regular replacement due to its high susceptibility to erosion from the elements which can make the stones illegible or even lead to breakage. Granite stones in the desired design can last many centuries with virtually no maintenance other than the potential for alignment issues due to ground settling. The manner of installation is anticipated to minimize settlement issues by compacting the soils surrounding the markers. There will be three proposed upright markers to each existing “numerical” marker as those markers denote three gravesites. One proposed marker will be placed directly behind the “numerical” marker with one upright proportionally spaced to either side of the existing marker to form parallel rows parallel and adjoining the rows of existing “numerical” markers. The proposed markers will be installed in a 4 inch wide trench in lots of 100. New markers will not be sporadically placed but will be done by row and subsection.
2) Existing “Numerical” Markers
The existing “numerical” markers indicating the section number and location of the gravesites in the Confederate Section of Oakwood will be left in their current state and location and will be used as the lines of reference in installing the proposed upright markers. A few of the existing “numerical” markers have apparently been relocated following the accidental removal by maintenance equipment or for other reasons. Some were not placed back in proper alignment. Those few not in reasonable alignment with the adjacent stones may be adjusted to what would appear to be their correct and proper location.
3) Existing “Personal” Markers
While the vast majority of graves in the Confederate Section of Oakwood have no individuals markers denoting the actual soldier who lies in a particular grave, there are approximately 150 markers with at least the name of a veteran. The majority of these stones are “flat” markers which have been installed at grade level. In addition to the flat markers, there are a lesser number of upright markers. It is the proposal of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to relocate the “flat” markers from the head of their respective graves to the foot of the grave following the installation of the proposed markers. The SCV will bare the cost of producing an additional upright marker for any of the few graves already marked with “flat” markers. Existing upright markers are to be left in their current locations. Uprights may be adjusted slightly in the event of alignment issues, should their design allow for such. Several existing upright markers are broken and lying in pieces at grade level. It is the intention of the SCV to repair these broken “upright” markers if possible or allow them to remain in place at grade over the grave they mark.
4) Multiple Burials and other Obstacles
There are some graves in Oakwood in which more than one soldier was buried. In these instances, only one upright marker will be installed for one of the soldiers in the multiple grave. The additional soldiers in the grave will receive the “flat” design markers which will be placed at the head of the grave adjacent to the upright marker. In other instances where there are “obstacles” over the graves, “flat” markers will be installed at grade as near as possible to the graves around the obstacle. An example of this are the graves located beneath the gazebo where “flat“ markers will be placed around its base.
5) Other Confederate Cemeteries
Oakwood stands in sharp contrast to many other cemeteries with sections dedicated to Confederate war dead. Many smaller cemeteries have been improved throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries to include individual grave markers for those buried within them. In some instances uniform markers were installed early in the cemeteries existence, such as the “Stonewall” Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia. Other cemeteries have many different styles of markers indicating their installation by individual family members or installation movements at different time periods. Some large Confederate sections of cemeteries such as those in Richmond’s Hollywood cemetery have sporadic and ongoing marker installations by descendents and heritage groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans for many years have desired that the Confederate Section of Oakwood be restored, beautified, and boast upright military style markers befitting the military dead in one of the largest military cemeteries in America. The SCV has a workable plan to make this a reality and has overcome many obstacles. The SCV has gained the cooperation of the Virginia General Assembly, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The final roadblock lies with the City of Richmond. Prior to obtaining state cooperation, the SCV had sought a operating agreement with the city. City approval was not finalized pending state action during which there was a change in city leadership. The SCV has been unable to negotiate or even hold meetings with officials in the mayor’s office concerning Oakwood. The SCV’s understanding is that the city Department of Parks and Recreation recommended adoption of the proposal, but that the mayor’s office has blocked it. The SCV is left to wonder what legitimate reasons or concerns the mayor’s office may have concerning a plan that leaves the city with ownership of the cemetery, yet alleviates nearly $30,000 a year in city tax payer funded maintenance costs.
SB 401 - Confederate cemeteries and graves; Sons of Confederate Veterans
2006 Session of the General Assembly saw the
adoption of SB 401 which was titled -Confederate cemeteries and graves;
Sons of Confederate
Veterans to receive funds for care of. Senator Emmett Hanger, Jr. was
the bills patron. The bill's summary was: Replaces
the Oakwood Confederate Cemetery Trust, Inc. with the Sons of Confederate
Veterans - Virginia
Division, as the organization to receive funds from the Department
of Historic Resources for the care of Confederate graves in Oakwood
Cemetery, located in Richmond, Virginia. The full text of the amendment
can be found at:
EXISTING STATE LAW CONCERNING
OAKWOOD (Code of Virginia)
§ 10.1-2211. Disbursement of funds appropriated for caring for Confederate cemeteries and graves.
A. At the direction of the Director, the Comptroller of the Commonwealth is instructed and empowered to draw annual warrants upon the State Treasurer from any sums that may be provided in the general appropriation act, in favor of the treasurers of the Confederate memorial associations and chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy set forth in subsection B of this section. Such sums shall be expended by the associations and organizations for the routine maintenance of their respective Confederate cemeteries and graves and for the graves of Confederate soldiers and sailors not otherwise cared for in other cemeteries, and in erecting and caring for markers, memorials, and monuments to the memory of such soldiers and sailors. All such associations and organizations, through their proper officers, are required after July 1 of each year to submit to the Director a certified statement that the funds appropriated to the association or organization in the preceding fiscal year were or will be expended for the routine maintenance of cemeteries specified in this section and the graves of Confederate soldiers and sailors and in erecting and caring for markers, memorials and monuments to the memory of such soldiers and sailors. An association or organization failing to comply with any of the requirements of this section shall be prohibited from receiving moneys allocated under this section for all subsequent fiscal years until the association or organization fully complies with the requirements.
B. Allocation of appropriations made pursuant to this section shall be based on the number of graves, monuments and markers as set forth opposite the association's or organization's name, or as documented by each association or organization multiplied by the rate of $5 or the average actual cost of routine maintenance, whichever is greater, for each grave, monument or marker in the care of a Confederate memorial association or chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. For the purposes of this section the "average actual cost of care" shall be determined by the Department in a biennial survey of at least four properly maintained cemeteries, each located in a different geographical region of the Commonwealth.
Sons of Confederate Veterans - Virginia Division ..................... 2294
Appendix “A” (Photos of the current state of Oakwood)
REPRESENTATION BELOW (note:
markers will be placed facing the opposite direction from those
GRAPHICAL REPRESENTATION BELOW (note: markers will be placed facing the opposite direction from those shown below)