Apr 112016

Being somewhat of a nature and wildlife photographer and in the general area, I decided to visit the Point Lookout State Park in Southern Maryland. For those not acquainted, this is a remote location where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It was a clear and windy day, and very peaceful. A very few sightseers were around, but mostly I had the place to myself. I did see a variety of wildlife: bald eagles, brown pelicans, ospreys, great blue herons, swans, and assorted ducks and seagulls. I had come to Point Lookout innocently, unaware of the dark history of the area. But history overtook me.

Point Lookout Marker

Point Lookout Marker

Almost immediately I noticed markers telling that a Civil War prison had been located here. The Union had established it after the Battle of Gettysburg, and it had housed more than 50,000 Confederate soldiers and Confederate-leaning citizens of Maryland. Some 4,000 had died and were buried here (the number is approximate because no accurate records were kept). There are no individually marked graves of these dead; all are buried in a common mass grave. 

No prisoner of war camp has ever been a happy place. The prison at Point Lookout had no buildings for the prisoners, only military tents. Summers were hot and winters were cold. Water was contaminated and diseases were frequent. Food was scarce and poor in quality. It should be understood that neither the Union or the Confederacy was adequately prepared to handle prisoners of war, and that conditions on both sides were disgraceful. It is believed that 26,000 Confederates died in Union prisons, representing 12% of all captured. And some 15% of Union soldiers died in Confederate prisons. Clearly neither side has anything to be proud of. More information can be found here.

US Cemetery Monument

US Cemetery Monument

A cemetery for these Confederate dead is maintained at Point Lookout by the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although called a cemetery, it is actually just a mass grave location; there are no tombstones or individually marked graves. The site is marked by an impressive 80-foot-tall monument with bronze tablets containing the names of those known to be buried here. There are 3,382 names.

The American flag flies here, although none of the soldiers buried here fought under this flag. The soldiers buried here (all of the Union soldiers' remains were moved to Arlington Memorial cemetery) fought against that flag. So the business of flags at Point Lookout is something of a paradox.

None of this history was in my head when I first noticed the other memorial.  The other memorial also honors the Confederate dead and proudly flies their battle flag. I slowed the car and did a double-take (also popularly known as a WTF). Driving around in Maryland and Virginia you do notice the occasional Confederate flag displayed in someone's yard or in the back window of a pickup truck. But this was much more than a yard display. This was a large memorial area with the Confederate flag flying uppermost, surrounded by flags of the 13 states of the Confederacy. There is not an American flag in sight. And this is not South Carolina or Mississippi, this is in my own home state of Maryland. 

Confederate Memorial at Point Lookout

Confederate Memorial at Point Lookout

Then I discovered that although some trees separate the areas, the Confederate memorial is located right beside the Government memorial. So, in a sense, we have dueling memorials here. 

The Confederate memorial is on private land and operated by a private group known as the Point Lookout Prisoners-of-War Descendants Organization. The group tried unsuccessfully to have the Confederate flag flown at the adjoining Government memorial. In walking around and reading the plaques, I gathered that as in much of American life these days, the issues of the Civil War still live on. Lincoln famously said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but America still manages to stand even as our divisions seemingly increase. 

The issue of soldier burials in any war is a potent one, but especially so in a civil war. The American civil war began with no plan for soldier buriels on either side. In 1864, a Confederate private from Virginia wrote a letter to his father as follows: "Dear Father. This is my last letter to you. I have been struck by a piece of shell and my right shoulder is horribly mangled and I know death is inevitable. I am very weak but I write to you because I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son. I know death is near, that I will die far from home and friends of my early youth but I have friends here too who are kind to me. My friend Fairfax will write you at my request and give you the particulars of my death. My grave will be marked so that you may visit it if you desire to do so. It is optionary with you whether you let my remains rest here or in Mississippi. I would like to rest in the graveyard with my dear mother and brothers but it's a matter of minor importance. Give my love to all my friends. My strength fails me. My horse and my equipments will be left for you. Again, a long farewell to you. May we meet in heaven. Your dying son, J. R. Montgomery,"

This letter is read in a PBS "American Experience" episode titled "Death and the Civil War." It illustrates the fact that if dead bodies were buried and graves marked, it was done by friends or relatives or fellow soldiers or by volunteers. Private Montgomery had made his own arrangements, but most soldiers could not. After the war, the Union launched an effort to identify the remains and mark the graves of Union soldiers. But although the war had officially ended, the effort did not include Confederate graves. Southerners interpreted this as revenge and retribution, not a promising step toward national reunification. It is estimated that about half of the 750,000 Civil War dead were never identified.

I did not come to Point Lookout to get involved in all of this. It was like walking along and tripping over something you didn't know was there. 

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Mar 032014

When my mother died in 1970, my father purchased burial spaces in the Grandview Cemetery of Maryville, Tennessee. Maryville was our home town, and the location of Maryville College, where my father and mother had met as students, and where Dad returned to spend most of his life teaching.

slide02Grandview Cemetery is well named. The “grand view” is its view of the Appalachian mountain range, locally bounded by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Out town has changed a lot over the years, but the grand view of the Smokies does not change. If you want your body buried in a cemetery, this is a good place.

Besides Mother and Dad, our family included myself and two brothers. My oldest brother is buried in France in a U.S. Military Cemetery. My other brother is buried in Grandview, as is Mother. My father’s ashes were interred in Mother’s grave when he died.

The last time I was in Maryville, I visited Grandview and tried to find these graves. I thought I could do this, but much has been added to the cemetery in recent years, and I never wrote down any locations. I tried to find someone in the cemetery office who could help me, but found no one.

What I did find the other day, while looking for something else, was the original purchase document for these cemetery lots. Included was a map and location information. Dad had paid $1,142 for 6 spaces in Grandview. He had made a down payment of $342 and agreed to make two payments of $400 each over the next six months.

As I glanced over the remainder of this old document, one of the “purchaser agrees to the following” statements stood out. I was stunned. The following was a legal and binding condition of the cemetery lot purchase:

“He, She or They are of the White and/or Caucasian Race and will make no attempt to obtain internment and/or internment rights for any other than of that Race in or on said plot and/or in or on the cemetery.”

I know, of course, that I could break this agreement now and no harm would come to me. I know that likely by this time there have been non-white burials in Grandview Cemetery. I assume that new purchasers of grave sites in this cemetery no longer sign such a statement. So is this just a relic of the past? We are now a multicultural society, and prejudice and discrimination are behind us, right?

Not so fast.

What of Arizona and the other states that today are passing laws allowing businesses to refuse their services to same-sex couples. Is discrimination based on sexual preference any better or worse than basing it on race? How much better is a law allowing a cemetery business to refuse burial sites to same-sex couples than one that does so based on skin color? And this is in 2014, not 1970.

Of course, the discrimination needs to be on “religious grounds” under terms of these laws. The business refusing the service must profess that gayness offends its religious beliefs. (This raises the question of how a business has a religious belief, and whose religious belief it needs to be, but no matter.) In passing these laws, the states say they are upholding the principle of religious liberty, which, they say, is under attack today. Thus do the victimizers portray themselves as the victims.

I can tell you from my personal experience growing up in Maryville that religion was the rationale behind segregated cemetery lots. It was the rational behind separate toilets and signs reading “Colored to the rear” on the White Star Line busses. Preachers preached about the Old Testament “curse of Ham” and used it to justify all types of discrimination against persons of color. They preached that god made black birds and blue birds and red birds, and that these do not inter-breed. They observed that god placed people of different races on different continents and obviously meant for them not to mix.

The days of that preaching is largely gone. But the idea that a business serving the public can discriminate against people based on religion is obviously not.

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Gregory’s Cave

 Posted by at 5:44 am  No Responses »
Jun 082013

When I was a high school student in Maryville, Tennessee, I knew three things about the name "Gregory." I knew that my girlfriend/later wife's relatives were named Gregory and were buried in Cades Cove in the Primitive Baptist Church cemetery. I knew that Gregory's Bald was named for them. I had climbed it and camped there numerous times. And I knew that somewhere in Cades Cove there was a cave by the name of Gregory. So one weekend Charlie and David and I set out to find this cave.

I don't recall just how we learned about the area we searched, but I well recall our discovery of the cave entrance. It was inconspicuous and grown up, down underneath a ridge near a barn and an abandoned house. This was in the 1950's in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The cave was unmarked and unsecured. We found there was hay in the nearby barn, and that seemed an ideal place to unroll our sleeping bags and spend the night.

Over the weekend we explored every foot of Gregory's Cave. The cave was largely one long channel with a series of connected rooms and a few short offshoots. Despite our looking we found no weapons, skeletons, gold coins, or other items of interest.  The cave was mostly empty except for some wood lying around. 

On one of our trips into the cave, we decided to gather up wood and make a fire. The wood was dry, of course, and the fire was started easily. We settled down around the fire and were taking it easy. But after awhile, we began to notice something peculiar. The ceiling of the cave had disappeared. The ceiling was now like the sky on a cloudy day. Then we noticed that the ceiling was getting lower and lower. Our smoke had been rising up and the ceiling was lowering down. 

There was no water to put out the fire. We soon became alarmed and decided we must beat it. By the time we reached the entrance to the cave we were almost crawling to keep our heads beneath the smoke. But we did escape.

According to an article in smokies.com the cave was actually a commercial operation of the Gregory family in the 1920's with a charge of 50 cents for tours. And during the cold war it was stocked with food and equipped as a fallout shelter. Also, it is said that the Missionary Baptist Church once held services in the main room of the cave. 

The national park has never chosen to make an attraction of the cave, or to advertise its location. I believe it is now boarded up and inaccessible. 

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