As a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee, I am not partial to Confederate idolatry. Until the other day, I had never visited Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, where many notable rebels are buried. But with some time to fill before I spoke to the Richmond Civil War Round Table about Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, I decided to visit the dead.
I’m glad I did.
Hollywood is a classic nineteenth-century cemetery, laid out on a hilly terrain with some incredible views over the James River to Belle Island (once the site of a Civil War prison). It provides the final resting place for many Southern notables, including two U.S. presidents (James Monroe and John Tyler) and all the presidents of the Confederacy. (Admittedly, that’s only one guy.) There are also 22 Confederate generals and around 18,000 ordinary soldiers.
So, on a beautiful October afternoon, I parked my car by the entrance, grabbed my cemetery map, and began to explore. I stopped first at the gravesite of Jeb Stuart, mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern in 1864 after years spent bedeviling the Army of the Potomac with his cavalry. Jeb now lies beneath a tall obelisk atop one of the cemetery’s hills.
My next stop was the grave of Henry A. Wise, the former governor of Virginia, and George Gordon Meade’s brother-in-law. (Wise’s first wife was the sister of Meade’s wife.) Throughout the war, Meade kept his wife up to date with information he had gleaned about Wise and his family, and he finally encountered his brother-in-law at Appomattox Court House. Wise now rests beneath a heavy slab, surrounded by other members of the Wise family.
Presidents Monroe and Tyler are buried adjacent to each other in Presidents’ Circle. Monroe’s tomb is undergoing some kind of restoration, and the sarcophagus inside its iron casing–which reminded me of an old-fashioned elevator–was covered with a blue blanket, as though someone had just conducted some kind of arcane ceremony. (Incidentally, it was Governor Wise who spearheaded the effort to get President Monroe reinterred here.) Tyler, who became the 10th U.S. president following the death of William Henry Harrison, headed a peace convention that tried to head off Civil War in 1861. Theodore Lyman, Meade’s aide, wrote about passing by Tyler’s Virginia birthplace at the Army of the Potomac made its way to the James River on the way to Petersburg in 1864. Lyman referred to Tyler as “him of the big nose and small political principles.” One of those traits, at least, is visible in the bust that adorns Tyler’s tomb.
I found Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon in some prime real estate, a family plot with a sweeping view of the rocky waters of the James. Continuing on, I reached the grave of Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the Confederate States of America. He lies beneath a statue of himself at the cemetery’s far reaches. Nearby is the statue of an angel that crouches over the grave of Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, the “daughter of the Confederacy,” who was born during the Civil War. Just past Davis’s grave is the last resting place of Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. and a Virginia governor after the war.
Walking back to the entrance, I passed the graves of even more notables: John Pegram, killed at Hatcher’s Run in 1865; James Archer, captured during the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg; Douglass Southall Freeman, the biographer of Robert E. Lee.
I got back into my car and made the short drive over to the 90-foot stone pyramid that was erected here in 1869 as a memorial to the Confederate dead. It was designed by Charles Henry Dimmock, the same engineer who laid out the “Dimmock Line” of defensive fortifications around Petersburg. Just beyond, backed up against the cemetery fence, was the tomb of George Pickett, the general for whom the final, doomed charge at Gettysburg was named. His wife, Sallie, who did so much to burnish her husband’s reputation, lies nearby. Her stone provides this bit of detail: “Pen and Stage Name ‘LaSalle.’” Also nearby is a plot reserved for the dead of Gettysburg, many of whom, no doubt, fell during that futile attack against Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863.
Seeing the graves of all these dead Confederates, I thought about words from Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, about Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly,” Grant wrote, “ and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
I like historic cemeteries. They help drive home the point that the names we read in history books once belonged to real, flesh-and-blood people. Even though they have long since turned to dust.