Petersburg National Battlefield | POPLAR GROVE NATIONAL CEMETERY

Polar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia

Polar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia

WESTERN FRONT DRIVING TOUR

STOP 2:  Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Allow 10-30 minutes for a visit

The second stop on a tour of the Western Front unit of Petersburg National Battlefield is Poplar Grove National Cemetery, one of 14 national cemeteries that are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (there are 155 national cemeteries overall with 73 located in the South). Except for Andersonville National Cemetery, all National Park Service-affiliated cemeteries are full and closed to future burials other than spouses of veterans already buried and veterans who were preassigned a spot. Poplar Grove closed for burials in 1957, though there has been an interesting exception—three new burials in 2003. These were actually Union soldiers who died at Petersburg but whose remains were only recently found.

Prior to the establishment of national cemeteries, unless claimed by family members or local citizens, soldiers who died in battle were buried at hospitals, on the battlefield, and just about anywhere else they were found dead. Since most of the fighting took place in the South, there weren’t many Union soldiers whose bodies were claimed by family members, and local citizens, if they buried anyone, typically only took care of the Confederate dead. Realizing that the inability to provide dignified burials for Union soldiers was a problem, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill on July 17, 1862, that established a National Cemetery system, with the first one being Alexandria National Cemetery in Virginia.

Poplar Grove National Cemetery wasn’t established until after the war in 1866. The land purchased for the cemetery was the campsite of the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers during the Siege of Petersburg. The regiment built a log cabin church at this location called Poplar Grove, which is where the cemetery’s name came from.

Polar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia

Polar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia

Once the cemetery was established, the task of finding and identifying the Union dead who had been buried at nearly 100 spots around Petersburg began. For three years, a burial corps of 100 men stood yards apart and systematically swept the entire battlefield for remains. During this time 6,718 bodies were found, of which only 2,139 could be identified. Of these, 6,178 were buried at Poplar Grove (add the three buried in 2003 for a total of 6,181). Some of the identified remains were taken back home for burial by family members.

Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia

Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia

Military cemeteries are typically full of plain, government issued markers. Standard tombstones with veteran names on them mark identified soldiers, while small, square stones with a number on top mark unknown graves. There are a few instances at Poplar Grove National Cemetery where the government tombstones have been replaced with decorative ones by family members or by members of the man’s regiment who held him in high esteem.

Grave of an identified Union soldier who died at Petersburg, Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Grave of an identified Union soldier who died at Petersburg, Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Grave of an unknown soldier at Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Grave of an unknown soldier at Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Fancy tombstone at Poplar Grove National Cemetery for John C. Murphy that was erected by his comrades

Fancy tombstone at Poplar Grove National Cemetery for John C. Murphy that was erected by his comrades

Unlike most national cemeteries that have as many or more graves of post-Civil War veterans than Civil War veterans, nearly everyone at Poplar Grove died during the fighting at Petersburg. There are only 60 graves of veterans who fought in other wars or who fought in the Civil War but died much later.

Graves of soldiers who fought in the Spanish American War in 1898, Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Graves of soldiers who fought in the Spanish American War in 1898, Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Grave of a World War I veteran buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Grave of a World War I veteran buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Common features at national cemeteries are upright cannon barrels with a stack of cannon balls at the base. These are the original wayside exhibits of the cemeteries. In the photo below, the plaque on the cannon details the number of burials of known and unknown soldiers at Poplar Grove.

Upright cannon provides information about Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Upright cannon provides information about Poplar Grove National Cemetery

The building with the green mansard roof is now the Western Front Visitor Contact Station, but it was originally the cemetery superintendent’s house. It was built in 1871 in the Second Empire architectural style and is one of 17 such houses still standing in a Civil War-era national cemetery. The building is only open seasonally, but for those wanting to locate a particular grave, on the porch is a Find a Grave interactive map that gives the grave location of every identified soldier in the cemetery. The Find a Grave map is always available. Restrooms are located outside the building and are also available year-round.

Former cemetery superintendent's house at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, now the Western Front Visitor Contact Station at Petersburg National Battlefield

Former cemetery superintendent’s house at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, now the Western Front Visitor Contact Station at Petersburg National Battlefield

Find a Grave computer tablet at Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Find a Grave computer tablet at Poplar Grove National Cemetery


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Last updated on March 30, 2023
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