Grave marker fight gains ally
Officials with the Sons of Confederate Veterans say the current numbered marble blocks at Oakwood Cemetery were put in as a temporary measure.
WESLEY P. HESTER Richmond Times-Dispatch
April 23, 2011
With the arrival of the Civil War's sesquicentennial, the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is fighting an urgent battle to honor more than 17,000 Confederate soldiers buried in eastern Richmond's Oakwood Cemetery.
The group has gained an ally in Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says the current numbered marble blocks — three fallen soldiers to a block — are good enough.
If approved, individual granite headstones would cost the Department of Veterans Affairs about $189.87 apiece, making the total cost for the cemetery about $3.2 million.
"This is total, total discrimination," said F. Lee Hart III of Suffolk, chairman of the SCV Oakwood Restoration Committee. "I don't think they want to see an Arlington of Richmond, with all of the positive media and tourism that this cemetery will draw, this being the largest combat casualty Confederate cemetery."
Jim Rich, a spokesman with the VA's National Cemetery Administration, said "cost was in no way a factor in evaluating this request."
Hart agrees. "It's a Confederate issue," he said.
After years of negotiations with the city and eventual approval from the state's legislature, SCV's Virginia division assumed responsibility for the 10-acre Confederate portion of the cemetery two years ago.
The primary purpose of taking it off the city's hands was to install upright memorial markers — with engraved names — to replace the 6-inch-by-6-inch numbered marble blocks now in place.
But when the SCV placed a trial order for 10 markers last year, it received a rude awakening in the form of a denial letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In the letter, Steve L. Muro, acting undersecretary for memorial affairs, said that the existing markers are appropriate, adding that new markers are provided only to currently unmarked graves.
Muro also said that the upright markers "would have an adverse effect on the historic setting and potentially archeological resources."
Incensed, the SCV filed a letter of disagreement, requesting further justification. They then found support from Webb, who has ancestors on both sides of the Civil War.
Webb recently challenged Muro on the topic at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee meeting, pointing out that Confederate and Union soldiers have the same legal status.
Webb also filed a formal letter of disagreement taking exception with the VA's determination that the current numbered stones constituted a properly "marked" grave.
"Those marble blocks, which were installed in 1901, are not individual markers for specific graves, but rather serve to identify locations where multiple Confederate soldiers are interred," Webb wrote in the letter.
Hart seconded that, noting that The Ladies Memorial Association for the Confederate Dead of Oakwood Cemetery, which originally ran the cemetery, installed upright markers in 1868 for a reason. Unfortunately, they were wooden.
When they began to rot, "people became infuriated," said Hart, and the current stones were put in as a temporary measure.
"The Veterans Administration had put the word out that these numbered markers were the original concept, which is so far from the truth it's not even funny," Hart said. "These markers were put in by the state out of desperation to keep the records straight."
Not only were the current stones not the intent, he said, they're crumbling.
"The stones are all damaged, a lot of them illegible, and some numbers are completely chipped away," Hart said. "It's disgraceful."
In an email, Rich said Friday that the VA considers the graves "adequately marked in a manner customary for the historic period in which they were installed," adding that several national cemeteries use the same style numbered markers.
"Historic records clearly indicate that between 1902 (and) 1912, the Oakwood Memorial Association deliberately marked these graves in a manner the Association considered appropriate and enduring," he said.
"Although the marble markers at Oakwood Cemetery do not identify by name the individuals buried at the location of a particular marker, they contain numeric inscriptions that are used to identify those individuals," he added.
Pending a detailed response from the VA explaining the basis of the denial, the SCV plans to appeal the decision, said Hart.
"You would not believe the people all across the country with ancestors out there who want this done," he said.