The story of this little cemetery is interesting, even if its name is misleading. (Spoiler: there’s a “Federalist” buried there, too.) The highlights of the booklet are the vintage postcards and photographs, but it would have been nice to see the graves of the soldiers individually, especially since there are only 19 of them. I liked reading the biographies of the few soldiers whose names are known.
It’s unfortunate that the author couldn’t find any photos of the Ladies Auxiliary who tended the graves over the years. It’s also a shame that no one spellchecked the text. My edition is copyright 1999, so maybe those things have been corrected over the years.
If you are local — or passing by — the booklet is worth checking out. They are cheap on Amazon.
Maple Hill’s gate, photographed by Billie Sue Mosiman.
by Billie Sue Mosiman
We lived in Helena, Arkansas and I was thirteen. In the summer, I’d make a sack lunch, take a book, hop on my bike, and ride off across the hills and ravines to the Civil War cemetery that draped across a hill. The old tombstones rose step by step up into thick woods. It was a well-kept place, with the pathways smooth dirt. The grassy areas where the graves resided were the green of emerald deep water.
Black cast-iron gates opened at the bottom of the hill and I would push my bike, lunch sack in the basket, up the path. I’d turn off into the smaller paths leading between the graves. I relished the pure peace emanating from this place. I’d been taught in school about the Civil War and here lay many of that war’s dead. Yet it wasn’t a sad place. I felt no unhappy spirits lingering. It felt more like a lovely park for imaginative children than a haunted arena of long-lost souls.
Later I discovered there had been a tremendous battle in Helena, with the Union in massive warships coming in their determined way down the Mississippi River to raid and conquer and the Confederates defending the city. Hundreds of tombstones lay on this long hill, testifying to the outcome.
I’d put aside my bike and walk slowly, softly, among the tombstones, curiously reading the names and dates of death. No one ever seemed to visit this historical cemetery. I was always alone and preferred it that way. I never felt threatened, worried, or afraid some male stranger might come by to whisk me into oblivion. It never crossed my mind, the way it would today.
I found peace in this ancient cemetery. I contemplated the battle these soldiers had fought, the pure bravery, misery, and insanity of it all. I’d run my hand over the rough, pitted stone of the angels and statues. After visiting with the dead, I’d return to my bike and get the book and the lunch. I’d find a shaded spot on the amazing grass and lean my back against a tombstone. Hours would pass as the sun skimmed over the surrounding forest: the tombstone shadows leaning, upright, then leaning again down toward twilight.
I went to this cemetery day after day, many times throughout that summer. No one came to intrude. I was not lonely or sad or afraid. It was peace I sought and peace I found. Birds sang and that’s all. No person traversed this place.
Through the summer, I began to feel it was my special, secret place, the only place I could find quiet and harmony. Every noon I’d eat my meager lunch: baloney sandwich and sometimes an apple or banana. I’d grow sleepy and doze a bit sitting up.
One day, a friend who lived down the street asked me where I went every day on my bike. “You don’t come back until almost dark,” she said.
I told her I’d take her there, my place, and show her. The next morning, we both rode off on our bikes. When I turned into the black gates with the toothy stones sticking up row after row on the hillside, my friend stopped abruptly at the gate. “This is a cemetery,” she said.
I told her I knew that, come on in, it wasn’t scary at all. She came slowly, following behind me. I showed her the marvelous pathways, the soft grass, the names and sayings and dates on the markers. None of the tombstones leaned. It was all as pristine and perfect as cookies laid out on a slanting platter.
“But what do you do here? It’s so empty.”
No, it was filled, I told her, absolutely crammed with people, but they were silent now and left me alone.
Her eyebrows rose. I knew then, if not before, that I might be an eccentric child. Today thirteen-year-old girls wear makeup and short tops and dance to music I don’t understand. In my thirteenth year, I was a child, a real child, a little girl. Yes, I was on the cusp of becoming woman, but not yet.
We nibbled on our lunches while I went on about how marvelous this place was. How silent and peaceful. How welcoming. I urged my friend to listen to the birdsong. I pointed to where the shadows grew and withdrew. I told her to listen, just listen, and wasn’t it the best silence she’d ever heard? No adults talking, no car horns, no radio music. It was pure here and clean and peace lay over it all. When here, I walked carefully not to step on a grave. I tried not to rustle my paper sack too loudly or scrape the rocks on the path with my bike tires. If there was serenity anywhere in Helena, Arkansas, it was here and only here and I’d luckily discovered it, my secret hideout.
We left early and I don’t remember that girl being much of a friend anymore. I understand the reasoning for that now, but it was a little hurtful at thirteen. What had I done so wrong? Was it weird to like to spend time reading and dozing in a cemetery with the war dead?
I wasn’t going to change or pretend I was not interested and happy in the Civil War cemetery. I still rose early, slipped out of the house with my lunch sack and book, and ran off on my bike every day I could.
It’s possible that’s the place where I learned to concentrate. I learned so well that when grown and working as a novelist, I could hold a thought in my head, leave it to get my children water or food, come back and pick up with the very next word in the middle of a sentence.
It’s the place that taught me not to fear the dead and their brethren. After so many years, they’d departed those grassy graves or they lay quietly waiting. They had no truck with the living world, having done their best and moved on.
Odd places like cemeteries can be a place of not just solitude, but of learning, and of acceptance of one’s own strangeness. We will all go there, those who desire burial, into the earth. Having spent a summer in a graveyard was an adventure, a revelation, and one of the best summers I remember.
I don’t know how the cemetery fares today, but being a national one, I expect it to be the same: Gray stones rising up and up and up until the woods halt the advance. Acres of the dead reminding us of what civil strife can cause, of what we can head toward if we begin to hate one another because of race or discontent. Once we load the musket, bring it to the shoulder to aim, and let loose Death against another man, woman, or child, then we at least might meet the dark grave and grow at last cold and silent. It’s even possible a little girl walks the paths above us, reading her books and dreaming easily of days past and future.
Billie Sue Mosiman was born in Alabama and lives now in Texas on a small ranch. Author of more than 60 books on Amazon, Mosiman is a thriller, suspense, and horror novelist, a short fiction writer, and a lover of words. Her books have been published since 1984 and two of them received an Edgar Award Nomination for best novel and a Bram Stoker Award Nomination for most superior novel. She’s the editor of Fright Mare: Women Write Horror, to be published in February 2016. Please check out her books on Amazon.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
Vintage postcard of the monument to Jefferson Davis
412 South Cherry Street
Richmond, Virginia 23330
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Founded: 1847 Size: 130 acres Number of interments: approximately 80,000 Open: Daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On the bluffs above the James River stands Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery. It was named for the holly trees that grew on the property, which belonged to Colonel Harvie, whose family plot lies under a stand of trees on the property.
Hollywood has the distinction of being one of only three graveyards where two presidents are buried. The others are Arlington National Cemetery and Quincy, Massachusetts, where the Adamses lie at rest.
When he died in 1831, America’s fifth president, James Monroe, was originally buried in New York. In the 1850s, a movement arose to bring all the Virginian presidents home. In 1858, Monroe was exhumed and accompanied home by an honor guard. The ship bearing his body ran aground in the James River and a grandson of Alexander Hamilton was drowned. The Monroe memorial was designed by Albert Lybrock. Through the mullions, you can see the marble sarcophagus covering his remains. James E. DuPriest Jr.’s Hollywood Cemetery: a Tour said that Monroe’s ornate tomb attracts thousands of visitors to the cemetery each year.
Also buried in the President’s Circle is John Tyler, the 10th president, who took office after William Henry Harrison died from the pneumonia he caught at his own inauguration. During his presidency, Tyler opposed secession, but after the Civil War broke out, he served in the Confederate Congress. He died in Richmond in January 1862 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery. No exhumations for him. It took until October 1915 for the United States government to forgive him enough to erect the tall square pillar, crowned with a shrouded urn, that marks his grave now. This was the first monument paid for by the US government erected to anyone who had joined the Confederacy.
Elsewhere in the graveyard is buried Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy. He was originally buried in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, but Virginia petitioned to bring his body home. He was reburied here on Memorial Day 1893. He is buried near his children. Daughter Winnie, known as the Angel of the Confederacy, died of grief after her father forbade her to marry the grandson of a Northern abolitionist. Davis’s son Joseph died after falling 15 feet from the porch of the Confederate Capitol. The boy’s grave is marked by a broken column.
Also in the graveyard stands a granite pyramid that marks the graves of 12,000 Confederate soldiers. Many of them were moved from the battlefield at Gettysburg, where their bodies had been left where they’d fallen, even after all the Union bodies were gathered together and reburied in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
At first, the Confederate graves were laid out side by side, marked with wooden boards. These were the days before dog tags, so many of the bodies could not be identified. In 1869, the women of Richmond raised $26,000 to build a rough 90-foot-tall pyramid of undressed James River granite. In 1910, the pyramid was covered with English ivy and Virginia creeper. Now the rock is bare and is dedicated to the 18,000 Confederate soldiers buried in Hollywood Cemetery.
Vintage postcard of the Confederate monument, postmarked 1910
Also buried in the cemetery are six Virginia governors, many of the founding fathers of Richmond, and 25 Confederate generals, more than any other cemetery in America. Among those are J.E.B. Stuart, who died in a battle called Yellow Tavern, and George Pickett, who ordered the suicidal charge on Cemetery Hill at the battle of Gettysburg.
Finally, William Burke, who taught Edgar Allan Poe, is also buried here.
The cemetery office is open 8:30 to 4:30 during the week to sell books and maps. They also sell the books and walking tour guides on their website. The cemetery offers daily walking tours from April to October at 10 a.m. from Monday through Saturday.
Hollywood Cemetery’s homepage, which has a great slideshow
A history of Hollywood Cemetery from the National Park Service
Visitor info for Hollywood Cemetery & other Richmond attractions
Some photos of the graveyard & a list of famous burials
Wikipedia recommends two histories of the cemetery: John O. Peters’ Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery (2010) and Mary H. Mitchell’s Hollywood Cemetery (1999). I haven’t read either, so I can’t provide any pointers. Let me know if you develop a preference.
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