Vicksburg National Military Park | VICKSBURG NATIONAL CEMETERY

Vicksburg National Cemetery

Vicksburg National Cemetery

VICKSBURG BATTLEFIELD TOUR STOP 8: VICKSBURG NATIONAL CEMETERY

Vicksburg National Cemetery has the greatest concentration of Civil War burials of any cemetery in the country. National Cemeteries were originally for Union soldiers only, so all of the 17,000 Civil War soldiers at the cemetery are Union soldiers, and about 40% of these are black soldiers. Furthermore, 13,000 are Unknowns. Following the Spanish-American War, the rules for National Cemeteries were changed to allow all veterans to be buried in them, including Confederate veterans who joined the U. S. military after the Civil War. There are around 1,300 graves of military personnel and their spouses up through the Korean War. The cemetery was closed for burials in 1961.

Vicksburg National Cemetery

Vicksburg National Cemetery

The men buried at the cemetery are not all casualties of the fighting at Vicksburg. Prior to the establishment of the National Cemeteries, soldiers who died in the war were buried at hospitals, on the battlefield, and just about anywhere else they were found dead. With the creation of Vicksburg National Cemetery in 1866, the remains of all Union soldiers found south of the Arkansas state line and north of Grand Gulf, Mississippi, which is just south of Vicksburg, were reburied here. Confederate soldiers who died at Vicksburg are buried at the nearby Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Unlike most National Cemeteries that I have been to, the Vicksburg National Cemetery is not very car-friendly. Places to pull over so you can walk around are rare to find. Thus, a visit to the cemetery is best on foot. The easy .8-mile loop road that runs through the cemetery can be walked in less than an hour, giving time to visit the graves and to take photos. Park at the USS Cairo Exhibit and walk through the entrance gates. A house that stands just inside the gates is a private residence and not part of the cemetery, so don’t drive in and try to park there.

A .8 mile road circles through Vicksburg National Cemetery

A .8 mile road circles through Vicksburg National Cemetery

Unlike a private cemetery with ornate tombstones, a military cemetery is full of plain, government issued ones. Standard tombstones mark identified soldiers, while small, square stones with a number on top mark unknown graves. A few government issued stones have been replaced by the families of some individuals.

I have often wondered how so many men could be “unidentified.” It would seem that somebody had to know them. What I learned is that one common reason for the unknown status is that while a man may have been known when he was originally buried (unless mangled beyond recognition), many hastily dug graves were marked with wooden crosses with names scratched in them—if that—and by the time the bodies were dug up for burial at a National Cemetery, many of these wooden markers were no longer there, thus the names were forgotten. Mass graves were also commonly used on the battlefield when time did not allow for individual burials, and of course these men would not be identifiable years later.

Graves of identified Union soldiers at Vicksburg National Cemetery

Graves of identified Union soldiers at Vicksburg National Cemetery

Graves of unidentified Union soldiers at Vicksburg National Cemetery

Graves of unidentified Union soldiers at Vicksburg National Cemetery

A non-government issued tombstone at Vicksburg National Cemetery

A non-government issued tombstone at Vicksburg National Cemetery

Another thing about Vicksburg National Cemtery is that it is not conducive to walking among the tombstones, for the cemetery is terraced. Many sections of graves are either above or below the road, making it a chore to get to them. My photos that appear to be at “tombstone level” were not taken by stooping down, but by taking photos of the tombstones on an upper terrace along the road that was even with my eyesight. Since the tombstones are mainly government issued stones and not very interesting to begin with, wide shots of the sections make better photos than close ups of the stones anyway.

Terraced sections at Vicksburg National Cemetery

Terraced sections at Vicksburg National Cemetery

Tombstones at Vicksburg National Cemetery on an eye-level terrace

Tombstones at Vicksburg National Cemetery on an eye-level terrace

I heard rumors that some of these terraces were actually Indian mounds, but when I asked a park Ranger about this she said that it was not true, that the terraces were constructed when the cemetery was built to control the water after a heavy rain, otherwise the graves would get washed away. There is a mound-looking hill with a gazebo on top that is called the “Indian Mound,” but this is just an eroded hill, not a real Indian mound. Of course I’ve read that skulls were found when the hill was being shaped for use, but excavations were done on it in the 1960s and no Indian artifacts were found. Regardless, the National Park Service’s stance is “no Indian mounds” in Vicksburg National Cemetery.

You will also notice signs along the road with lines from a poem. These lines are from the Bivouac of the Dead, a poem written by Theodore O’Hara in 1847 in honor of the men killed during the Mexican War at the Battle of Buena Vista. The poem is used in many cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D. C.

Lines from "Bivouac of the Dead"

Lines from “Bivouac of the Dead”


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Last updated on January 19, 2022
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