Saturday, May 14, 2011

Civil War P.O.W. Cemetery

Confederate burial trenches
Rest on embalmed and sainted dead
Dear as the blood ye gave
No impious footstep here shall tread
The herbage of your grave 

from "Bivouac of the Dead", by Theodore O’Hara (1820-1867)

Military cemeteries have never held my interest, photographically. Call it a flaw in my personality. Sure the tombstones create interesting patterns being all the same size, shape, and color (white marble, typically), spaced equally apart, but I’m more about entropy. And statuary. I’ve tried to photograph military stones, but the images just look clich├ęd. So imagine my surprise when I came upon “Finn’s Point National Cemetery” – certainly the strangest military cemetery around.

I was actually headed for Salem, New Jersey, driving south on Route 49 from the Delaware Memorial Bridge last fall. There’s a quaint churchyard cemetery in Salem, New Jersey where I hoped to make some fall foliage photos. A few miles from the center of town, I saw the sign for “Finn’s Point National Cemetery,” within Fort Mott State Park. What the heck, I had the time, and maybe being right on the bay, the place is all picturesque, who knows? So I headed down the road toward Fort Mott.

I drove miles through the rural farmland (which is actually in Pennsville, Salem County) until I almost gave up. No signs, nothing. Couldn’t even see the Delaware Bay. The woods and fields were beautiful, though, with their changing colors. One of the few times I actually pulled the car over to get out and make some photographs, another car slowed down, checked me out, and pulled off the road about 100 yards ahead. A guy with one leg got out of the driver’s side, went to the trunk, opened it, and took out some sort of election sign on a wooden stick and proceeded to hammer it into the ground. As I drove by, I glanced at the fellow in the passenger seat, and he was dressed in a white suit, sitting there all satisfied with himself like Boss Hogg from the old Dukes of Hazzard TV show! Small town politics.

And this area surely is small town America. Or has been since the early 1900s when the fishing industry collapsed. Throughout the 1800’s, oysters, sturgeon (for caviar), and blue claw crabs were overfished and as a result, entire industries disappeared. Now the sparsely populated coastal bay area subsists mainly on retail and farming, that is, until you get further south to Cape May where beach tourism takes over. I made the photo above in a small churchyard cemetery in Pennsville, NJ.

So the cemetery is smack dab in the middle of all this. You drive through the little Jersey towns of the Delaware Bay area and you’d swear John Prine had it in mind when he wrote the song, Paradise: "it’s a backwards old town that is often remembered, so many times that my memories are worn." This, to me, describes Salem perfectly – a place that’s been in existence since 1730 and whose main claim to fame is that it was on the steps of the Salem courthouse in 1820, that Colonel Robert Johnson proved the edibility of the tomato. Before 1820, Americans often assumed tomatoes were poisonous (ref.).

P.O.W. Cemetery on the Delaware Bay

As I drove through Fort Mott State Park (nature preserve) to get to the cemetery, even this jaded photographer was taken by nature’s charms. A forest of brightly colored trees lined the road to the right, while dense foliage almost hid an old canal to the left. When I arrived at the cemetery, I was surprised that it was so small (less than 5 acres). The area is all swamps and marshland, with retaining walls on two sides – very enchanting, yet desolate. There was a parking lot for about 5 cars, in which a solitary empty pickup sat. A groundskeeping crew of a few men were cutting grass around the old office building. Everything was locked up, even though this was the middle of a weekday. Obviously not a popular tourist destination. Look at the photos on the Fort Delaware website and you can see how remote this place is.

  Fort Delaware, built in 1817 on Pea Patch Island in the bay opposite Finn's Point, and was used as a prison camp during the Civil War (1861 - 1865). Both Confederate and Union dead who had died at the prison were buried here at Finn's Point. The fact that it’s a Prisoner of War (P.O.W.) cemetery distinguishes Finn’s Point from other military cemeteries. As I read the informational signage overlooking the bay, I found that 2,436 Confederate POWs are buried here, along with 135 Union soldiers. The fact that both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried within the same cemetery makes it quite unique. In a small separate section of the cemetery (shown below), you'll also find the graves of Russian and German P.O.W.s from WWII. Very odd indeed. The Germans and Russians had died while prisoners at Fort Dix, NJ.

German and Russian P.O.W. graves

Finn’s Point National Cemetery resides within Fort Mott State Park. Fort Mott was part of a three-fort defense system designed to protect the ports of Philadelphia following the Civil War. The other two forts in the system were Fort Delaware and Fort DuPont in Delaware City, Delaware. According to Wikipedia:

Originally purchased by the federal government to build a battery to protect the port of Philadelphia, the land became a cemetery by 1863 for Confederate prisoners of war who died while in captivity at Fort Delaware. One hundred and thirty five Union soldiers who died while serving as guards at the prison camp are also buried here. The death toll among prisoners of war and the guards was high, especially in the latter part of 1863 and throughout 1864. By July 1863, there were 12,595 prisoners on the island at nearby Fort Delaware which was only about 75 acres in size. Disease was rampant and nearly 2,700 prisoners died from malnutrition or neglect. Confederate prisoner interred at the cemetery totaled 2,436 and all are in general unmarked graves. - Wikipedia

You read dry statistics like that, and you're distanced from the actual pain and suffering. Think about that – 2,436 soldiers died while in prison. In addition to captured Confederate soldiers and sailors, convicted federal soldiers (Company Q), and local Southern sympathizers, most of the Confederates captured at Gettysburg were imprisoned here. R. Hugh Simmons, a member of the Fort Delaware Society adds a touch of humanity to the story:
The prison was built to house 10,000 POWs, and the barracks were divided to hold about 2,000 officers and civilians in one compound and about 8,000 privates and enlisted men in the other. "So you had 3,800 (Confederate) prisoners suddenly appear on the doorsteps," he says. "These guys were sick as dogs. They were badly treated en route, and the Union officers have testified to that. When they arrived here, they started dropping like flies." With little space on the island, Soldiers Burial Ground at Finns Point was pressed into service. There are 2,436 Confederates buried in seven parallel pits at Finns Point that run east to west, Simmons explains. They were buried in wooden coffins stacked three deep. Names plates were put on each coffin and covered in leather for future identification. But no records were kept, and it was impossible to identify anyone after the war. In 1875, the year the ground was designated a national cemetery, the Corps of Engineers exhumed the remains of 135 Union soldiers and 187 Confederates on Pea Patch Island and reburied them at Finns Point.

Confederate Monument
Within the cemetery are two monuments an 85-foot high obelisk (at left) dedicated to the Confederate dead, and a smaller memorial dedicated to the Union soldiers buried there (below). During my visit, the tall obelisk was encased in scaffolding, so I used a photo of it from The names of the 2,436 Confederate military prisoners who were interred in the mass burial trenches and pits at Finns Point appear on the 12 bronze memorial tablets placed around the base of the monument.

Union Monument (
Another interesting memorial is the series of seven metal plaques overlooking the end of the Confederate burial trenches (which you can clearly see in my photo at the top of this article – kind of chilling, isn't it?). On each plaque is engraved a quatrain from Theodore O'Hara's poem Bivouac of the Dead, the first of which is quoted at the beginning of this article. (If you go to Sheena Chi's Flick'r Photostream, you'll see individual photos of the plaques as well as many other fine photos from her well-documented visit to Finn's Point.) 

Reading this poetry as you walk quietly along the trenches, you assume its been solemn and peaceful like this since 1864: "No impious footstep here shall tread, the herbage of your grave." Almost as a mockery to O'Hara's poem, spree killer Andrew Cunanan committed one of his murders here on May 9, 1997, killing cemetery caretaker William Reese and stealing his truck. Cunanan had murdered at least five people, including fashion designer Gianni Versace, during a three-month period in 1997. If I had known this at the time I visited the cemetery, I probably wouldn't have even gotten out of my car.

Up until the end of 2009, Finn's Point National Cemetery had been allowing burials of U.S. military veterans from all wars after the Civil War. Over the past several years, the marshy ground has become an issue due to the high water table, so all burials, caskets as well as cremains, have ceased.  

For Further Reading:

Fort Delaware website
Fort Delaware Society/Finn's Point National Cemetery
An interesting history of Finn's point Cemetery
Pea Patch Island Documentary
Bivouac of the Dead article and poem
Fort Delaware Video Tour
Delaware River Forts