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Perpetual care and interpretation: at Andersonville National Cemetery.

An August afternoon in the Andersonville National Cemetery is defined by layers of humidity, gnats, and heat amid thousands of headstones. A network of avenues divides the burial sections into four quadrants, and the graves of Civil War prisoners of war, nearly 13,000, are found in all four sections. On days like these, most park visitors experience the cemetery from the climate-controlled comfort of their cars, perhaps getting out briefly to visit a specific grave or get a closer look at a monument. An observant visitor may note that the flag is at half-staff, and that the avenue leading to the rostrum is closed--in the distance, under the shelter of the rostrum, 50 people are gathered to celebrate the life of a World War II veteran. Surrounding the urn are flowers, photographs, and a soldier's uniform jacket. After the priest speaks, an Army honor guard plays "Taps" and folds the American flag before presenting it to the widow on behalf of a grateful nation. Present at this service, and all committal services at the cemetery, is a park ranger.


On this particular day, I was the ranger present at the service, and I personally carried the cremated remains of the veteran from the rostrum to his final resting place, ensuring that the grave was covered by a maintenance worker and the temporary marker placed before assisting the widow to the site. Before I returned to the museum I also assisted another visitor in locating the grave of a friend and answered the questions of others.

Located in southwest Georgia, a quarter mile from the site of the Confederate Military prison located here for 14 months at the end of the Civil War, the Andersonville National Cemetery is an integral part of the Andersonville National Historic Site. The cemetery is one of 14 administered by the National Park Service, and one of only two still classified as active. An active cemetery has gravesites available for first interments. In recent years park staff at Andersonville have conducted more than 150 burials a year. Cemetery operations are a critical part of the park's day-to-day operation; as a measure of this, the only cemetery administrator employed by the National Park Service is a member of the Division of Interpretation and Education.

Visitors from outside the local area are often surprised that the cemetery still conducts burials. Of the national cemeteries found in other Civil War national parks, all but Andersonville are classified as closed; while these other cemeteries are all solemn places, the age of the graves presents a defining characteristic. At Andersonville, contacts with visitors afford an opportunity to discuss a variety of operational questions as well as reinforce behavior expectations. During a several-hour period around each funeral, the flag is brought to half-staff, and the road leading to the rostrum is closed to traffic. School tours, groups, and individuals are told if a funeral is scheduled to occur during their visit. School tour planning information and other interpretive products stress cemetery regulations.

The seemingly endless rows of trench burials, where the dead were placed shoulder-to-shoulder, are marked by low granite headstones tightly arranged. These graves are the reason the national cemetery was established during an Army expedition in the summer of 1865. Accompanying the expedition was Clara Barton, representing her Missing Soldiers Office, and former prisoner Dorence Atwater, whose copy of the Andersonville death register was instrumental in properly identifying the dead. In an age before dog tags, drivers licenses, and DNA, keeping track of individual identity was a complex thing. Through the efforts of Dorence Atwater, then a mere 20 years old, only 460 headstones bear the inscription, "Unknown U.S. Soldier." This translates to an unknown rate of less than four percent, when most national cemeteries contain 40 to 60 percent unknown burials. Many visitors come seeking ancestors' graves, and through that process we are often able to illuminate the individual lives of prisoners. And yet, of the nearly 13,000 prisoner graves, general interest focuses on fewer than a dozen graves that have been a part of the traditional prison narrative.


However, the cemetery is more than simply a Civil War site. Active now for nearly 150 years, a myriad of stories demand to be told. A small section of segregated graves from the 1940s and '50s give silent testament to the pernicious power of the Jim Crow era.. Elsewhere the graves of men killed in Vietnam have lain nearly forgotten for almost 50 years. In several parts of the cemetery, the distance between the Civil War graves and those of servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 is as little as 100 yards. Their stories of sacrifice are separated by more than 100 years in the history books, but at Andersonville their stories areseparated by only a few hundred paces.

As interpreters, we often speak of fostering intellectual and emotional connections to our resources. The act of burying a loved one in Andersonville National Cemetery transcends these connections, as the next of kin leave their own blood in the soil. The power of these connections can be humbling. At the end of a committal service several years ago, I stood with the adult children at their parents' gravesite. Looking around this part of the cemetery, one of them spotted the tall column of the Maine monument. Topped by the statue of a soldier at parade rest, and dedicated in 1904, the Maine monument is intended to honor the soldiers from Maine who were held at Andersonville as well as those who perished there. Looking from their parents' grave to the Maine monument, and back again, one of them stated, "Mom and Dad always had a vacation home in Maine. I think they'd like that the monument is looking over them." That connection could simply not have been conceived by those who placed the monument there in 1904, but it gave grieving children a measure of solace. All of the staff who have had the honor to observe or assist in committal services can share similar stories.


It's precisely this mixture of the past and the present that makes the cemetery a powerful place. It is a living place as well, since a number of programs and events occur here throughout the year. The Memorial Day weekend is the apex of the calendar each year, culminating in the placement of 20,000 flags, one for every grave. Central to that process is the assistance of hundreds of youth, mostly Boy and Girl Scouts. Other events include a variety of seasonal ceremonies, the avenue of flags, Echotaps, and Wreaths Across America. These events bring visitors of all ages. This past summer, we resumed cemetery tours on the weekends, assisting visitors in better understanding the wealth of history located here.

In 1907, Andersonville survivor Robert H. Kellogg spoke at the dedication of the Connecticut monument in the Andersonville National Cemetery; he closed his remarks with this reflection: "Andersonville becomes an object lesson in patriotism. To this retired and beautiful spot will thousands resort in the long years to come, to learn again and again lessons of heroic sacrifice made by those who so quietly sleep in these long rows of graves."

Kellogg was speaking strictly of the Civil War graves when he made those remarks, but today his sentiment has a broader meaning. Two centuries of service, honor, and sacrifice are plainly visible at Andersonville, and as burials continue into the future, the cemetery will change along with the nation. Working with next of kin, visitors, and students, the park has a unique opportunity to meet the needs of the present generation, while ensuring the legacy of the National Cemetery for the future.

An interpretive park ranger at six national parks since 1995, Eric Leonard is currently serving as chief of interpretation and education at Andersonville National Historic Site.
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Author:Leonard, Eric
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1U5GA
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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