Friday, May 7, 2010

All the Dead Soldiers, Neatly Lined in a Row

Hampton National Cemetery - 38, 2008

For years, decades actually, I’ve been driving past the Hampton National Cemetery in Hampton, Virginia. It’s one of a number of national cemeteries operated by the US. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The cemetery was opened in the early 1860s. Although within the Confederate state of Virginia, this particular stretch, which includes Fort Monroe, whose grounds the cemetery nearly abuts, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. The famous maritime battle between the Monitor and Merrimac took place just off shore here, probably within sight of the cemetery.

The cemetery accepted more than a thousand soldiers killed in the Civil War. A 65’ tall granite obelisk dedicated to the memory of Union soldiers was erected through the efforts of Dorothea Dix, superintendent of women nurses in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Two small granite blocks inscribed “To Our Confederate Dead” are all that marks the burial location of several hundred Confederate soldiers.

Hampton National Cemetery Panorama - 2, 2008

Cemeteries can be such misleading places. On the surface they’re all neat rows of carefully tended stones, each inscribed with the same basic information—nothing more or less—giving the impression that the men buried just below them lived lives similarly neat and concise. That can’t be true, of course. These are all people who died in war. Each one must have had his own good story.

You’d need to know several languages to understand all the stories in the Hampton National Cemetery. It is one of thirteen national cemeteries in which WWII prisoners of war are buried, including fifty-five German and five Italian POWs and an additional twenty-eight German sailors, the entire crew, who died when their U-Boat was sunk off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in the spring of 1942.

From the Interstate highway, the Hampton National Cemetery is a verdant oasis in an otherwise messy modern landscape. For years I’d intended to go there and take pictures. I didn’t actually get around to doing it until the late spring of 2008.

Hampton National Cemetery - 16, 2008

I’m sure that with a little more thought I could come up with something more interesting. I was surprised to find that just about any background I was messy and distracting. So at least for that first visit I kept the camera looking low and my horizons high as my eyes were drawn to the orderly patterns of the worn white stones against the green lawn.

Hampton National Cemetery - 36, 2008

1 comment:

  1. Those photos are wonderful, Chris. Fascinating that the other nationalities are buried there, too. I didn't know that. The miles and miles of stones always have such impact for me. Very moving.