The Alexandria National Cemetery, originally called the Soldiers Cemetery, has over 4300 burials, including the graves of 249 United States Color Troops (U.S.C.T) who served in the Civil War. The cemetery is one of the first Federal cemeteries where white and black soldiers are buried together per a military order of 1864.
The Alexandria National Cemetery is the second oldest national cemetery in the federal government system, the first being the Soldiers Home Cemetery, established in 1861 in Washington, DC, after The First Battle of Bull Run (Battle of First Manassas).
When the Soldiers Cemetery reached capacity in 1864, the US Government started a cemetery on the grounds of Arlington Plantation, which had been seized from the Lee family during the war for nonpayment of taxes. That cemetery is now the 639-acre Arlington National Cemetery.
Established during the Civil War
Virginia’s ordinance of secession was ratified in a referendum held on May 23, 1861, by a vote of 132,201 to 37,451. The next day, federal troops seized Alexandria and Alexandria County (now known as Arlington County) due to its proximity to the nation’s capital.
Alexandria was quickly transformed into a logistical center for the North. The railroads were seized along with homes and large buildings that were confiscated to be used as Union military hospitals. In 1862, Congress passed an act authorizing the President to purchase grounds to start a Soldier’s Cemetery near existing church cemeteries at the end of Wilkes Street.
Lewis Bissell, a Union Soldier originally from Company A, Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery, described the cemetery. 1The author’s great-great-grandfather was Private Frederick A. Olroyd, a Company D, 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery Regiment member. He enlisted in Bridgeport, Connecticut on September 5, 1864, and mustered out on July 7, 1865, at Ft. Ethan Allen, Virginia (4348 Old Glebe Road, Arlington, Virginia). in a letter dated October 12-18, 1862 as having:
“a very neat picket fence around it. Mr. Cables counted 350 graves. There are three rows–one hundred in each row.
The soldiers are buried in a good pine coffin. A detachment of eight men with a corporal march, with arms, reversed, in front of the coffin, which is followed by comrades of the deceased. They march with slow steps to the mournful music of the drums and fife. When a minister can be had a prayer is made at the grave. After the coffin is lowered three volleys are fired over the grave. Each grave has a white pine board with an iron around the top to keep it from splitting. The name, regiment, company, state, and age are on it so that friends can find them without trouble.
The graveyard is south of the city. Each grave is smoothed off…..” 2Mark Olcott with David Lear. The Civil War Letter of Lewis Bissell A Curriculum. The Field School Educational Foundation Press. Washington, D.C. 1981. Pg. 17
Throughout the war, over 3500 Union soldiers, including 249 members of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.), were laid to rest in the cemetery.
Memorial to the Black Diamond Disaster
A memorial boulder stone with a remembrance plaque that honors four men killed in the Black Diamond Disaster is just to the left of the central entrance flag pole.
The civilians were killed while pursuing Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. They drowned in the Potomac River. 3Many accounts of this incident mistakenly report that it occurred on the Rappahannock River. Those accounts are incorrect. on April 23, 1865, their barge, the Black Diamond, was hit by the 308-ton sidewheel steamer Massachusetts (also known as the JWD Pent) traveling between Alexandria and City Point, Virginia.
The boulder stone and plaque were dedicated on July 7, 1922, which, coincidentally, was exactly 57 years to the day when four Lincoln conspirators, including David Herold, were hung at the Washington Arsenal after being found guilty by a military commission of conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln. You can read more about the incident at the link Four Civilian Employees of the United States Quartermaster Department who drowned in the Potomac the night of April 23-24, 1865, during the pursuit of J. Wilkes Booth.
Alexandria National Cemetery in the 21st Century
Today, the Alexandria National Cemetery consists of 5.5 acres in a quiet, serene setting open for visitors from sunrise to sunset. Expanded after the war, it officially closed to new interments in 1967. The administration office for the cemetery is at The Quantico National Cemetery in Triangle, Virginia.
The Superintendent’s former house is the oldest building on-site. It was constructed in 1870 out of Seneca Creek Sandstone, the same stone used to build the historic Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Castle, along with some portions of the United States Capitol.
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 609 Russell Mitchel
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 609 Russell Mitchel uses the former superintendent’s home as their meeting site on the second Saturday of each month.
Each December, they host the annual Wreaths Across America event, where the public is invited to place Christmas Wreaths at graves in the national cemetery.
Post 609 hosts Flag-In Day on the Saturday before Memorial Day, when American flags are placed at each grave. The Memorial Day Flowers Foundation also places flowers at each grave.
In addition to hosting Flag-In Day and Wreaths across America each year, the very active VFW Post also hosts annual ceremonies on Memorial Day and Veteran Days and participates in other off-site events.
For more information on VFW Post 609, please contact Commander Gerald P. “Jerry” Krueger.
Sources of Information
Barber, James G. Alexandria in the Civil War; The Virginia Civil War Battles and Leadership Series. H.E Howard, Inc. Lynchburg, Virginia, 1988.
Steers, Jr., Edward. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. University Press of Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky. 2005.
Patton, Julie Ball and Holtz, Rita Williams. Historic Photos of Alexandria. Turner Publishing Company. Nashville, Tennessee. 2008
Swanson, James L. Manhunt: The 12-Day Hunt for Lincoln’s Killer. Mariner Books. Boston, Massachusetts. 2008.
See the official website of Southern Maryland, This is Living Magazine for an excellent article on the Black Diamond Disaster.
- 1The author’s great-great-grandfather was Private Frederick A. Olroyd, a Company D, 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery Regiment member. He enlisted in Bridgeport, Connecticut on September 5, 1864, and mustered out on July 7, 1865, at Ft. Ethan Allen, Virginia (4348 Old Glebe Road, Arlington, Virginia).
- 2Mark Olcott with David Lear. The Civil War Letter of Lewis Bissell A Curriculum. The Field School Educational Foundation Press. Washington, D.C. 1981. Pg. 17
- 3Many accounts of this incident mistakenly report that it occurred on the Rappahannock River. Those accounts are incorrect.