Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Encountering the Gettysburg Address at Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville, Louisiana

Alexandria National Cemetery in Pineville, Arkansas
National Cemeteries are simple and quiet reminders of the human cost of war. They are east to recognize.    In older ones, white gravestones line up in formation and for the  more recent established,  the Christian Cross,  Star of David and Crescent Moon of Islam  indicate religions of the lost ones.   Simple inscriptions on the marble reveal name, rank, branch of service, and sometimes even the unit.  World War II veterans may lie near a Civil War casualty with an Unknown soldier in between.  Mass graves are still a part of some of the original National Cemeteries and well tended grass surrounds the graves of all.  

On a recent visit to Pineville, Louisiana we stopped at the small Alexandria National Cemetery -  established in 1867 and  one of the earlier cemeteries built for burial of Union Civil War soldiers who died in the region.  Despite occasional wars and skirmishes after the establishment of the United States, no need for mass burials arose until the horrible losses in the  Civil War.  In 1862, Congress recognized the numbers of dead just from the North were so large that sites needed to be dedicated to individual and group burials.  The  Act gave Congress the ability to buy sufficient land to bury those who died “in the service of their country.”


One of several graves of Unknown Soldiers in
Alexandria National Cemetery
For war history buffs, national cemeteries are a travel destination. They reflect the growth of the U.S. and hold valuable information. The Alexandria National Cemetery is no exception.  As irritating as it must have been to locals, the 8.2 acres for the cemetery were appropriated by the national government.  The government was later ordered to pay $1200 for the land.  Once established, union soldiers  buried in surrounding towns were reinterred here.  Nearby Ft. Jesup was established to protect the western border of the U.S. with Texas.  After 1846, this was no longer necessary although some modern day Louisiana residents might think otherwise. The fort closed and 25 unknown soldiers’ remains were transferred to Alexandria.  

The last soldier killed in the Civil War was William J. Williams, who is buried at Alexandria.  The battle of Palmito Ranch took place at the border of Texas and Mexico one month after the official end of the war.  Mr. Williams’s 34th Indiana regiment  fought unsuccessfully with two Buffalo Soldier regiments against the remaining Confederate soldiers.  When Fort Brown, near Brownsville, Texas, was closed in 1909, the remains of Mr. Williams and 1537 other Union soldiers were reinterred at the Alexandria Cemetery.  He once again joined the ranks of 57 Buffalo Soldiers also buried here. 


North Africa American Cemetery, Tunis, Tunisia
Each national cemetery has its own stories.  In Arlington National Cemetery, graves of  famous politicians attract the biggest crowds.    I have often passed  by the beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico National Cemetery on the edge of its downtown without realizing that Indian Scouts were buried there with veterans from all our wars.  In Tunis, Tunisia, I visited the North Africa American Cemetery, filled in the same symmetrical style with  graves of 2,581 WWII soldiers who died in the Africa campaign of Morroco, Algeria and Tunisia.  Honor is also given to the 3700 missing whose names are inscribed on a wall.  It was sobering to witness the reach of our soldiers in World War II and the price they paid.  


Gettysburg Address in Alexandria National Cemetery - Part of Campaign to
Put the Address in all National Cemeteries
Abraham Lincoln  acknowledged that price  in Gettysburg on November 19, 2013, 150 years ago this month,  dedicating part of  the Gettysburg battleground to a cemetery.  His three minute Gettysburg Address, delivered after two hours of speaking by Edward Everett, called the  battlefield a final resting place for those who had consecrated the land by the loss of their lives. It was no surprise then that the full Gettysburg Address was engraved on a black and silver, five foot tall cast iron tablet in the center of the Alexandria Cemetery - part of a campaign to have the famous words in all American National Cemeteries. After reading the address  amongst those who had died “that our nation might live”, I lowered  my head in appreciation even as I was saddened by the need for such losses.  National cemeteries are our sobering memorials, filled with stories, reflecting our history, insuring we will never forget. 

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