22 February 2013

Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg

My middle son wanted to visit some more Civil War sites before we leave central Virginia, so we went to Lynchburg last week.  Since it's the opposite direction of DC and we probably won't get down to that part of Virginia again.

I'd forgotten some of what I knew about Lynchburg, like the fact that it's Jerry Falwell Land, but I was immediately reminded when we drove in to town on the Jerry Falwell Highway.  And when we saw Liberty University.

We saw forts and earthworks and the older part of town.  The last stop was the Old City Cemetery.  We were going there because it has a Confederate section.  The brief description of the cemetery indicated there was a small museum, but I really wasn't expecting much more than your typical cemetery.  I was completely wrong.

It turned out to be the most interesting cemetery I've ever been to, and I've been to a lot of cemeteries.  We drove in and parked on the side of the road near the entrance and immediately noticed many small plaques telling about various people who are buried there.  It was so interesting to be able to read those, especially since they weren't just about the famous people there, but about all kinds of people.

We walked up to the entrance where they had a lot of brochures about the cemetery- maps and a calendar of events were included.  They have all sorts of events, like maple tapping next Saturday (people planted many sugar maples in the cemetery in the late 1800s), garden events (there are many old roses in the cemetery that they've identified and preserved, along with creating other garden areas), and candlelight tours in the fall. 

As we wandered down to the Confederate cemetery, we continued reading all the plaques.  The cemetery is estimated to have at least 20,000 burials, most of which aren't marked.  It was the original cemetery in Lynchburg, established on land donated by the son of John Lynch (that's obviously where the name of the city comes from).  The oldest section is on the right at the entrance and had many interesting burials, none of which we would have known about without the plaques.  I not only learned a lot about the people there, but also Lynchburg history.  The cemetery was the public cemetery in town, and as time went on, other private cemeteries were established.  But anyone could be buried at the Old City Cemetery, which means that a large percentage of the burials are African-American, and that's who most of the history was about.

The Confederate section was in the lower part of the cemetery, and looked very different from the rest with its straight rows of markers.  During the war, Lynchburg took care of a large number of wounded soldiers in its tobacco warehouses and homes, and there was a pest house right next to the cemetery.  I believe that most of the Confederate soldiers buried there died of smallpox in the pest house, and that there are around 2000.

There also were about 200 Union soldiers buried there who had died in the pest house while prisoners of war, but their remains were moved to Norfolk shortly after the war.  It was interesting and worthwhile to read about that from the perspective of the Lynchburg press.  I'm not a southerner, but it always bothers me to see how insensitive the north was after the war in so many ways.  Not every way, and not everyone, but it's so easy to the victors to want to rub it in the conquered's faces all the time.

We also went down to the museum that talked about mourning in particular, and had a lot of books about gardening and the cemetery.  There also was a knowledgeable woman working there who could answer questions and tell us new things about the cemetery.  

I've been to other cemeteries that could really benefit from running things like this cemetery does.  The plaques in particular were amazing.  I've gotten packets of information at some cemeteries, but that's nowhere near as convenient as the plaques, and the cemetery office had to be open, and I usually don't visit cemeteries from 9-5 during the week.  I also loved the idea of emphasizing the garden aspect of the cemetery and being creative about getting the community to the cemetery for all sort of events.

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