By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY — “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
— Text on an iron plaque at the New Albany National Cemetery inscribed with President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Well-ordered rows of white headstones stretch across the consecrated land of the New Albany National Cemetery. Just off Ekin Avenue, more than 5,000 people have been laid to rest in these five-and-a-half acres. Some gave the ultimate sacrifice for America in battle. Others survived war but wanted to be interred in this sacred ground after their long lives ended. Even today, groups honor their service by placing wreaths on their tombs, a testament to the enduring thankfulness of their country.
During the Civil War, the U.S. government first began to establish national cemeteries for the burial of Union soldiers. According to author Kelly Merrifield’s essay “From Necessity to Honor: The Evolution of National Cemeteries in the United States,” prior to this time, those who died in the American Revolution or the War of 1812 were interred in church yards and family cemeteries. The huge number of Civil War deaths — more than 600,000 in all — made it impossible to continue this tradition.
“The nation needed new burial practices to deal with the changing realities of war,” Merrifield said. “Weapon accuracy and fighting techniques led to more casualties than in previous wars; railroads and steamships carried soldiers to battles farther and farther from their homes; disease caused a high percentage of the deaths on battlefields, in prisoner-of-war camps and in hospitals.”
In 1862, Congress passed legislation that enabled the president to purchase land for the burial of Union Soldiers. President Abraham Lincoln then established 14 national cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery and the one here in New Albany.
Supporting several military hospitals and a troop training center, the river town was an obvious choice for a military burial ground. Dr. Thomas Fry, a surgeon who served in the local military hospitals, purchased the site. By 1870, more than 2,600 soldiers had been buried on the land, 698 which remain unidentified. Men from the US Colored Troops were also laid to rest in the cemetery, but due to the racial bias at the time were placed in a segregated section.
Other veterans have returned here to be buried among their comrades after their own final battles. In addition to the Civil War, soldiers from the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam also have been entombed.
Much like their precursor, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs now manages the New Albany National Cemetery. No staff is present on site, but the administrative offices are located at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville. According to Patricia Hock, cemetery representative, the New Albany Cemetery is now closed to new burials except for cremated remains and subsequent burials of spouses and dependent children of those already interred.
From sunrise to sunset, the cemetery is open daily to visitors. For more information or directions, visit the Department of Veterans Affairs’ website at www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/newalbany.asp.