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National Cemeteries in the Mountain State
January 9, 2012 - Jodi Burnsworth
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Close to home and very historic, the Grafton National Cemetery is one of two national cemeteries in West Virginia, both located in the Grafton area.
In 1867, United States Department of War directed Major R.C. Bates to find a location to bury remains of Union casualties of the Civil War throughout West Virginia. Bates found a site adjacent to the town of Grafton’s Maple Avenue Cemetery, where many soldiers were already buried. The terrain was also relatively level, which is unusual for the mountainous region. The 39th Congress appropriated a three-acre site that same year. In 1868, the first Governor of West Virginia, Arthur Boreman, who was significant in the two-year campaign for a cemetery in the state, dedicated the cemetery.
The first interments were held in the lower two terraces; 1,252 Union soldiers were buried, of which 613 were unknown. Remains from temporary graves in Clarksburg, Fayette County, Grant County, Kanawha County, Marion County, Rich Mountain battlefield and Wheeling, as well as several Union dead from Kentucky were moved to the cemetery. Additionally, some Confederate soldiers were buried.
Grafton National Cemetery contains the burial site of Thornsberry Bailey Brown, who was the first Union casualty of the Civil War. On May 22, 1861, Brown and fellow Grafton Guards member Lieutenant Daniel Wilson were returning from a rally to recruit men for the Union army in Pruntytown. Upon return, they encountered three members of a Virginia militia company, the Letcher Guards, who would later become a company with the 25th Virginia Infantry Regiment, on picket duty at the Fetterman Bridge at the crossing of the Northwestern Turnpike and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks.
The guards, George E. Glenn, Daniel W.S. Knight, and William Reese, ordered Wilson and Brown to halt; Brown responded by firing his pistol. The shot injured Knight’s ear. Knight then fired at Brown and killed him. Brown initially was buried in a family plot but in June 1903, his body was moved to the Grafton National Cemetery. A 12-foot-high obelisk (shown at right) commemorating Private Brown as the first Union casualty of the war was placed on his grave in 1928 by the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
The three-acre cemetery sits along Walnut Street and is surrounded by a stone wall with entrance gates on three sides, with walkways and stairways running throughout the cemetery. A large flag pole sites in the middle of the central terrace, along with a plaque containing wording from an 1875 act of Congress regarding preservation of the cemetery. Two more plaques on the lower terrace contain the wording of Theodore O’Hara’s poem, Bivouac of the Dead. Along the edges of the cemetery are five additional memorial sites dedicated to cenotaphs for service men whose bodies weren’t recovered, either from sea or elsewhere. The grave markers on the two upper levels are uniform small, white, rectangular stones with arched tops, while the bottom level contains private, individual markers.
By the 1960s, the Grafton National Cemetery had limited free space for burials. West Virginia veterans groups began lobbying for a new national cemetery after a 1975 study determined the limited remaining space at Grafton was too steep or costly to use. The West Virginia United Veterans National Cemetery Committee was established and sought to pressure the governor and federal government representatives to seek a new national cemetery. After extensive negotiations between the Veterans Administration and the state, a 58-acre tract that had been part of the West Virginia Industrial School for Boys (now the Pruntytown Correctional Center) was selected for use as a new cemetery. The land was transferred, but construction was delayed due to inclement weather. The West Virginia National Cemetery was dedicated September 27, 1987, and although construction was incomplete, opened for interments the following day.
In 1992, a granite memorial monument was dedicated at the Grafton cemetery in memory of residents of the West Virginia Industrial School for Boys, who were buried there between 1890 and 1939. It’s closed to most new interments; however, the cemetery offers interment for veterans or eligible family members of existing gravesites.
Grafton National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 2, 1982.
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Obelisk for Private Thornsberry Bailey Brown, first Union casualty of the Civil War