The nation’s largest burial ground for Black soldiers is gradually being torn apart by the forces of nature in Vicksburg’s National Cemetery, uprooting gravesites and some of the bodies as the erosion grows.
The Vicksburg National Cemetery is the nation’s largest Civil War cemetery, and the 7,240 United States Colored Troops (USCT) among the 17,500 graves there constitute the largest number of Black soldiers buried anywhere in the United States.
Erosion in the cemetery over the last two years has affected 96 burial sites in a sector containing 295 graves. A number of invasive trees and other plants have been left in place in order to stabilize the earth surrounding the affected graves. If the wild growth is removed, rain and the other elements will most likely accelerate the damage, the project archaeologist said.
National Park officials meeting with representative stakeholders from Vicksburg and Warren County on October 14 said they are hoping that a “partnership” between the Park Service and the local community will be able to stop the erosion and return the cemetery to its intended purpose. The Burial and Stabilization Project is expected to get underway in early 2023, according to Vicksburg National Park Superintendent Carrie Mardorf.
Gen. Robert Crear (U.S. Army retired) pointed to the crumpled blocks of asphalt that had once been part of a road running through the expansive field of gravestones and explained the situation to the other 17 visitors carefully standing away from the sharp edges and sinkholes near the heavy debris.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Crear said. “Just a little while ago, this road ran all the way around and circled out of the park. But it is no longer there. It had sloughed down and off. It was just an amazing thing to see. But the trees and weeds have grown up around it now. It was just unbelievable.”
Representing a relatively new organization called the Friends of the Vicksburg National Park, Crear said it was necessary for an advocacy group like his to step in because the Park Service staff is not allowed to lobby Congress for its needs.
Crear, the former commander of the U. S. Corps of Engineers, said he and an associate had been able to draw U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s attention to the problem and that set in motion the wheels for getting money for restoration of the hillsides, gravesites and roads.
“That started the process of getting support and funding from the Congress,” he said. “That’s how the Friends get involved. A federal agency like the Park Service cannot lobby for itself.”
PIECES IN PLACE
Park Superintendent Mardorf says the burial recovery process will begin in 2023.
It is clearly understood by everyone involved in the plan for retrieval and reburial that this federal project is under federal mandate by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior.
“We’re going to stabilize the land and put those terraces back in,” Mardorf said.
The Army Corps of Engineers will provide the wall needed to prop up the new ground. Everything will be re-graded and the disinterred gravesites will be reinterred. PaleoWest Archaeology of Phoenix, reputed to be the best archaeological company in the U. S., is the main contractor, she said.
“We have about a $1 million contract with PaleoWest. They’ve done all the background research and they have a solid plan of action,” Mardorf said.
“We’re just making sure that we have every contingency plan in place and that everyone’s on board and all of these conversations have happened ahead of time. There are 9 federally recognized Native American tribes that we have to legally consult with. So, there are a lot of people having these conversations, and a lot of moving parts and pieces.
“We don’t want to handle the remains any more than we have to,” she said. “We’re assuming that these are very fragile human remains, so we don’t want to handle them any more than we have to. We’re going to be gently removing them, gently cleaning and then housing the archival material in boxes. And the thought is that once they’re in those boxes, that will be their forever home. And we don’t want to remove them and put them in another box or coffin. Once they’re in the archival box, then that box will go right back into the ground.”
Archaeologist John Schweikart explained that only soldiers who served under the flag of the United States are buried in national cemeteries, and in some cases with their spouses. Although two Confederates were buried by mistake in the National Cemetery in the 1860s, he said, there are no graves allowed for Confederates or their servants in the National cemeteries.
Some of the community representatives signed on to a Memorandum of Understanding about the plan.
“It is really important for the Park to get your perspectives,” Schweikart said. “We can’t set the direction. We need to make sure we’re open to the direction that this needs to go, to meet the needs of our local community and people nationwide. I really think that this project has a great potential to really highlight Vicksburg’s importance. In my mind, this cemetery is equal in every aspect to the honor that’s due to those individuals that are buried at Arlington.
“Now is the time for us to have that open conversation and to think in terms of co-stewardship. And how do we need to do that? What sort of things do we need to do to honor these men? And honor all the vested interests that are out there? They’re United States soldiers. They’re United States veterans. We can’t disregard that. They are African Americans who literally changed the face of this country by their sacrifice. We cannot forget that.
“Success will only come with co-stewardship,” Schweikart said. “The key element in this will be the park’s connection to the local community.”
Warren County Supervisor Shawn Jackson broached the topic of the deliberate separation of Black Civil War troops from their white Union comrades, saying, “We do have to have [a] real conversation in Vicksburg about the exclusion and the organizational behavior that leads to that mentality, because it’s real.
“Because nearly half of the troops buried in this cemetery are African Americans,” she said, “that means this story isn’t owned by others, it’s owned by us as well.”
“I know that we have overlooked stuff for many years and for this project, it is very important that we put on our ear muffs and try to do what is right. And if there is a directive from on high that the National Military Park doubles down on inclusiveness in telling the whole story, then we should really take it by the horns and do so. I don’t care what the naysayers say.”
The Black burial ground, covering a very large section of the northwest quadrant of the cemetery’s 116 acres, was for many years one of Mississippi’s – and the nation’s – best kept secrets. Nearly every Black native of Vicksburg over 50 years of age today says they were never told of the cemetery’s importance in their early life. In fact, they were told the contrary, that their parents and grandparents had played no role in the Civil War at Vicksburg, not to mention the silence about the 7,240 USCT souls buried in the National Cemetery.
The local supporters of the Confederate “Lost Cause” were tolerant of the annual Memorial Day celebration, but hardly conceded any positive support for the event or its mostly Black participants. The National Park staff and officials mostly ingratiated themselves to the local white community while keeping Black people at a prescribed distance and thoroughly ignorant of the vital role Black troops had played in the Siege of Vicksburg and the winning of the Civil War.
Informed discussion of the large number of Black burials in Vicksburg’s National Cemetery has only come to the fore since the mid-1990s. Before then, only silence on Black involvement in the Civil War at Vicksburg. Late Old Courthouse Museum curator Gordon Cotton repeatedly said there were no Black soldiers involved with the siege, unless they were in Confederate uniforms. Park Historians Ed Bearss and his protégé and successor Terrence Winschel played along with the local pro-Confederate ideologues and denied Black troops their actual presence in the Civil War, let alone their proper dignity and respect.
The list of stakeholders at the October 14 meeting in Vicksburg were: Gen. Robert Crear (US Army retired); Warren County Supervisor Shawn Jackson; Ernest Galloway, manager of Beulah Cemetery; Ty Pinkins, veteran; Pastor General Bryant, Travelers Rest Baptist Church; Sgt. Major Clarence Jones (U.S. Army retired); Linda Fondren, Friends of the National Park; Karen Frederick, community advocate; Charles Pendleton, curator of Vicksburg Civil War Museum; Oretha Horton, community advocate; James Clay, veteran. And Brendan Wilson, National Park Chief of Interpretation, also contributed to the discussion.