Category: Richmond National Cemetery

Knowing the Unknown

Richmond National Cemetery—methodical, uniformed, subdued. Puzzling. Identity seems fickle in this federal burying ground. Along the single road leading into the cemetery, two headstones, side-by-side, form the start (or the end?) of one of the many rigid rows. Both are designated for unknown soldiers. However, there are surprising stylistic differences to these two unknown burials where one expects none.

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The first has the designation nestled within an indented shield—proclaiming the soldiers’ allegiance, or perhaps eternal belonging, to the army. In a sense, the shield consumes the soldiers’ identities—even in death, they belong within the shield and within the walls of a soldier’s cemetery. The material of the headstone is consistent with the others, except for its pronounced striations. The pattern elicits a visual sense of weathering, the kind experienced in war. Immediately upon view, this tombstone conditions the minds of the passerby to envision the arduous experience of battle and the continuous struggle for recognition.

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The next tombstone reads, “Three Unknown U.S. Soldiers.” The combination of the additional attribute of United States and the corresponding cross on top is no accident—after all, “God bless the U.S.A.” The United States, as a nation, is necessarily entwined with religion despite the rise of secularity. This tombstone, then, pronounces these three American soldiers’ ultimate affiliation with God. The marble used to construct this stone is more pristine, more homogenous, more united.

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These two headstones are temporally and spatially close to each other, yet they deliver divergent messages. Nonetheless, they have a known final place despite being “unknown.” In the Richmond National Cemetery, anonymity prevails (without the reference records, even the named stones seem nameless.) In spite of that, each stone commands a known plot in a nationally recognized space.

Representing the Union

From a distance the Richmond National Cemetery consists of rows upon rows of perfection. All the identical white headstones are lined up, making differences difficult to spot. However those small differences that can be seen upon close inspection should be considered significantly more important. Within the same row of graves there are contrasts between inscriptions on graves. While it is evident that American perception of death changes gradually, the difference between the graves of John Burns and Henry Frank must be in regard to something different than changes in time.

Both Frank and Burns and were buried in 1864, approximately one month apart. Both their graves are made of white marble, the slabs are about four inches thick, 10 inches wide and less than two feet above the ground. Both men have the same depressed shield with their burial date right under it. It is only with the information inside the shields that the graves differ. Frank’s slab only has his name, Henry Frank, in simple block lettering. John Burns shield is inscribed with the abbreviations, one on top of the other; Co D (Company D), 1 REGT (First Regiment), and KY INF (Kentucky Infantry) in block lettering.

These men were originally buried on Belle Isle and then reburied in Richmond National Cemetery. During the Civil War, Belle Isle was a Civil War Prison that held many Union Soldiers. It is difficult to understand why there were great records kept on Burns while Frank is identified by his name, which forms a simple semi-circle.

The government tried to recognize Frank as best they could with the only information of his they had. Frank’s grave consists of many of the same aspects that John Burns has, he is recognized as a vital part of the Union’s fight against slavery. Rather than focus on his specific rank he is devoid of rank, he is a representation of all soldiers fighting on the Union fronts. The simplicity of Frank’s grave makes his contribution even greater. Rather than pin him to a specific infantry or regiment he transcends these boundaries. Instead of being tied to specific battles and groups his modest grave elevates him as a symbol of all Union soldiers.

The government tried to recognize Frank as best they could with the only information they had. Frank’s grave consists of many of the same aspects that John Burns has, he is recognized as a vital part of the Union’s fight against slavery just as Frank is. Rather than focus on his specific titles he is devoid of rank, he is a representation of all soldiers fighting on the Union fronts. The simplicity of Frank’s grave makes his contribution seem that much greater. Rather than pinning him to a specific infantry or regiment he transcends these boundaries. Instead of being tied to specific battles and groups his modest grave elevates him as a symbol of all Union soldiers.

 

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From Unknown to Known

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The Richmond National Cemetery is unlike any experience we have had thus far in our course. Upon entering the grounds, one can spin in circles and have a similar view in all 360 degrees. White headstone upon white headstone span out in rows in every direction. This structure gives off an oddly ambiguous ambiance as the sense of honor for the soldiers permeates the air. Each stone demonstrates a culture of respect towards those at rest by standing identically as if they are men of service in uniform. However, the atmosphere is almost unnaturally formal. During our visit last week, I experienced an eerie feeling of impersonality while I inspected the cemetery around me. While I am no expert on the proper manner of honoring soldiers that have been laid to rest, I felt empty and as if I made no connection with the neutral, indifferent graves around me.

While moving from row to row, examining each headstone, one in particular sparked my curiosity. Among a handful of graves marked “Unknown Soldier,” there existed one unlike those surrounding it. The grave had a name on it facing the direction of all of the others: “Lorenzo Barney.” However, the reverse side stated “Three Unknown Soldiers.” This brought many questions to mind about how those that run the cemetery choose to bury the soldiers and if they edit existing graves. My speculation is that one of the three was later identified, his name was added to the stone, and it was reinstalled facing the other direction. This shows how much the soldiers are honored and held in high esteem if work continues to be done to identify the large quantity of unknown soldiers. Nonetheless, the family with the newly identified soldier cannot even personalize the grave with more than an inscription. While permission to be buried in this cemetery, this appears to me to be very cold.

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