Richmond National Cemetery opened in 1867 on Williamsburg Road, just east of town and only two miles from the state capitol. It was one of many new national cemeteries created by the federal government following the Civil War, including six others in central Virginia, intended for the respectful burial of the Union dead. Others in the region were located a bit further away from the city, at Cold Harbor National Cemetery, Fort Harrison National Cemetery, Glendale National Cemetery, and Seven Pines National Cemetery. Two additional national cemeteries, City Point and Poplar Grove, were founded to the south near Petersburg.
The site for Richmond National was first acquired from local merchant William Slater, and it was, in the words of the ensuing deed, “entered upon, and appropriated by the United States of America for a National Cemetery,” although Slater did receive compensation for the land. Soon it was expanded to eight acres, where nearly 6,278 Union dead were reinterred from original burial sites scattered across local battlefields, p.o.w. camps, hospital graveyards, and cemeteries. The vast majority of those reburials, at least 5,706, were categorized as “unknown,” with their individual names lost to history. Its total number of reinterments made it the largest national cemetery in central Virginia by far.
Richmond National was arranged as a grid with four quadrants, and shade trees were planted throughout. The orderly rows of identical graves surrounded a central, elevated flagpole and gazebo. Four cast-iron artillery pieces were set vertically into the ground as monuments encircling the flagstaff. Gravel drives bisected the cemetery in each direction to allow for closer inspections of the graves’ headboards.
In 1870, a superintendent’s lodge was built on the property, following the designs specified by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs. Discharged infantry sergeant Patrick Hart served as the initial superintendent, responsible for maintaining a register of burials, giving information to visitors, keeping the grave markers and avenues in good order, and guarding the cemetery. A wooden fence enclosed the cemetery, with visitors passing through a gateway with the cemetery’s name overhead. That fence would be replaced by a stout stone wall and impressive gateway by the early twentieth century.
This was a controversial project in the eyes of ex-Confederate Richmonders, whose dead were excluded from the grounds. In contrast, Richmond’s African-American community demonstrated an early reverence for the site. In 1877, the national periodical Scribners Monthly found that “the graves of this cemetery, a very handsome one, are now chiefly decorated by the colored people of Richmond, and the ceremony takes place on the 30th of May.” An octagonal rostrum was built in the cemetery in 1888 to enhance these ceremonial occasions.
In 1904, following the Spanish-American War, a parcel of nearly two acres was added to the rear of the cemetery, providing fresh burial space for new generations of military veterans for whom the Secretary of War had recently opened the national cemeteries. After World War I, Congress broadened access to veterans from any war. Today, visitors at Richmond National Cemetery can find the remains of veterans of the Spanish-American War, the first and second world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and more recent conflicts. By 2008, at least 9,337 interments had been made in the mostly full grounds, including some of the veterans’ spouses. In recent years, the Wreaths Across America organization has been active in decorating all veterans graves in the region’s national cemeteries, including this one.
Podcast for Joseph Baar Jr. (naval fireman on board the ill-fated U.S.S. Scorpion), 1947-1968, by Bijan Hosseini and Carlos C. Martinez:
Podcast for Amos Monroe (African-American veteran of the Spanish-American War), 1857?-1931, by Sam Gary and Chris Haggard:
For more information, see:
Richmond National Cemetery, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
JoAnn Meaker, Stories Beneath the Stones: Richmond National Cemetery (American History Press, 2017)
Therese T. Sammartino, “NRHP Report for Richmond National Cemetery,” 1995, Virginia Department of Historic Resources
“Exploring Photo of Soldiers’ Graves at Rebel Prison in Richmond,” February 7, 2016, John Banks’ Civil War blog