As a native New Yorker who has lived in the Big Apple for more than sixty years, I am always amazed to discover how many of my fellow New Yorkers have no idea that there is a National Cemetery within the city limits. It is named Cypress Hills National Cemetery and it straddles the county line between Brooklyn and Queens. Cypress Hills National Cemetery is divided into an old and new section. The old, the subject of this study, is located within a privately owned cemetery also known as Cypress Hills Cemetery. A detailed map of Brooklyn and Queens shows a belt of cemeteries, many of which are more than one hundred and fifty years old, in the same area as Cypress Hills. In the early 1840's New York State passed the Rural Cemeteries Act which supported the creation of cemeteries in areas removed from city centers. New York City, following up on this Act in 1847, passed an Ordnance stating that no new cemeteries could be created on Manhattan Island. Aware that the passage of this ordinance would in no way stop NewYorkers from dying, enterprising businessmen sought out areas far enough away from New York City (which, at that time, was only Manhattan Island) to be in the country and yet close enough to be within easy travelling distance. There are now almost two dozen cemeteries that fit this definition. Once reached by stage lines leading from ferry slips along the East River, all of them are now within the borders of New York City and are reachable by mass transportation.
In the summer of 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, the Federal Government created National Cemeteries at various locations in the country. New York City, being a hub through which thousands of men passed going to and from the war and a city with a sizeable permanent military garrison as well as numerous military hospitals and camps, was chosen as one of many places where a National Cemetery would be established. A pleasantly hilly section of Cypress Hills Cemetery was purchased and transferred to the Federal Government and named Cypress Hills National Cemetery.
While all of this may be known by some of New York City's residents, the fact that more than five hundred Confederate soldiers are buried there is even less well known. Where did they come from? How did they manage to be buried so far from their homes? Who were they? These are all questions I attempted to answer more than five years ago as I became intrigued by the fact that so many southerners were buried here in the north.
Genealogy and history, primarily Civil War History, began as an interest with me while a high school student. It grew to a passion that turned it from a hobby to an avocation to an occupation as a professional genealogist and historical researcher. So busy had I become in researching Civil War units and details of the careers of individual soldiers that it took the purchase of a book to make me find time to research a subject in my own backyard. The book in question was the 1984 reprint of the Register of Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Who Died in Federal Prisons and Military Hospitals in the North, compiled in 1912 by the War Department's Commissioner for marking Confederate graves. The reprint bears the much more manageable title of Confederate P.O.W's and was published by Ericson Books of Nacogdoches, Texas. The book contains the names of cemeteries from Elmira, New York, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with dozens of locations between. On page 33 a section begins: “List of Confederate Soldiers who, while prisoners of war, died at David's Island, Hart's Island, Fort Columbus, Willett's Point, Fort Lafayette, Fort Wood, in the State of New York, and at Portsmouth Grove, in the State of Rhode Island, but subsequently removed, either to Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn, N. Y. or elsewhere” The next ten pages contain a six column list providing the Name, Rank, Company, Regiment, Date of Death. and Number and Locality of Grave of the men buried there.. The first entry on the list reads William R. D. Abernathy, a Private in Company “H” of the Thirty-Seventh North Carolina Infantry who died on June 18, 1862 at Fort Columbus, and whose grave number is unknown, It ends more than 500 names later with George Zweigler, Private, Company E, Tenth Louisiana Infantry, who died on August 12, 1863, and is buried in grave number 775. The rank of the overwhelming number of the men is Private. They came from every ex-Confederate state except Arkansas, Missouri and Kentucky, including one man, Billy Willis, identified as a Choctaw Indian who served in Company “C” of Deneal's Regiment from the Indian Territory. There are five listed as Unknown, three of whom have a death date and a grave number recorded. The other two Unknowns have only a grave number. A dozen are listed under their last names only.
Not long after buying the book I visited Cypress Hills National Cemetery. Finding the graves of the Confederate dead proved simple enough. There are more than three thousand Federal soldiers buried on the slope of two hills and, across a small road, in a slight valley and back up the slope of a smaller hill. Intermingled among the graves of their former northern foes, the slightly pointed Confederate markers stand out from the rounded tops of the Federal stones. Each tombstone contains the name of the individual buried there and, in most cases, his regiment or the state he was from. I next visited the office of Cypress Hills Cemetery and attempted to learn if they had any additional records besides what I already knew. They had none; in fact, I was told, all of the records of Cypress Hills were kept at the larger, newer National Cemetery at Calverton, in Suffolk County, on the eastern end of Long Island. A phone call there revealed that their records contained less information than the 1912 list. Clearly, if I wanted to know more about these men, I would have to research them myself.
I began my research by identifying each of the places named as where the men died. The first place named is David's Island, or, as it is correctly spelled, Davids Island. This small island, a long narrow stretch of land, with an area of eight acres in site, is located in Long Island Sound, the body of water north of Long Island, that separates Long Island from Connecticut and the southeast corner of mainland New York State. The island lies off New Rochelle, New York. An Army hospital, named DeCamp General Hospital, was created there soon after the start of the Civil War and a military hospital was continuously maintained on the island through the Second World War. After it was closed, the buildings stood abandoned and neglected until most were destroyed by a fire in the early 1970's. The island is still U. S. Government property and it cannot be visited without its permission.
DeCamp General Hospital grew from one building at the start of the Civil War to a collection of twenty-two wooden buildings divided into various wards and sections. These covered nearly the entire island. Originally Federal sick or injured received treatment there. Later wounded Federal troops arrived. Soon after the battle of Gettysburg wounded Confederates, being sent to prisoner of war camps in the north, also received treatment there. The hospital was designed to accommodate no more than eighteen hundred sick or wounded. Often, however, this number was exceeded and in August, 1864, more than twenty-five hundred were housed in the various wards of DeCamp General Hospital. Since there was no space on the island for a cemetery, most of those who died there, both Federal and Confederate, were buried in Cypress Hills.
Hart Island (almost always incorrectly referred to as Hart's Island) is considerably larger than Davids Island. It, too, is located on Long Island Sound, slightly south of Davids Island, about twenty miles from the southern tip of Manhattan. It was acquired by the DeLancey family from the British Crown in 1774 and was farmed by a number of families until shortly before the Civil War. The owner at that time leased Hart Island to New York State for use as a military rendezvous, depot and training camp. The state turned it over to the Federal government in late 1861. In the summer of 1863 half of the island was designated as a prisoner of war camp and became, in a short time, one of the prison camps with the highest mortality percentage rates of all northern camps. The original camp was a stockade enclosing four acres and both prisoners and guards were housed in tents. Through the use of many of the arriving prisoners as laborers, wooden barracks were erected by March, 1864, not soon enough, however, for the prisoners to avoid the cold winter winds and storms that swept across the Sound. During the month of April, 1865, more than 3,400 prisoners were crammed into barracks, also called wards, in the camp. Each ward contained a hundred men. There were three rows of bunks and two men to a bunk. Since there were only twenty wards, the crowding must have been even worse than officially admitted. From April to July, 1865, 7% of the total prisoner population died. United States Army Medical Inspector George Lyman reported that “the largest portion of deaths occurred from chronic diarrhea brought with them [by the prisoners], and pneumonia, which began to appear a few days after their arrival….The men being poorly clad, the weather wet and cold, and the barracks provided with no other bedding than such as the prisoners brought with them, the pneumonia cases developed rapidly… increased probably, to some extent by the crowded and unventilated condition of the barracks.” A steamboat the “John Romer”, manned by the U. S. Army, made regular trips between Manhattan and Hart Island bringing prisoners to the island. Nothing has been found to show how the bodies of those who died there were moved to Long Island, but it is probable that this same steamer performed this task. The dead would be either landed at one of the piers that then stood in Flushing Bay or, more probably, brought back down the East River to the Brooklyn terminus of the Catherine Street ferry for transport to Cypress Hills.
Hart Island was purchased by New York City in 1869 for use as a potter's field. It is now the largest such burial place in the country, containing the remains of more than three quarters of a million individuals.
Fort Columbus was a stone fort built on Governor's Island in New York Harbor, not far from the southern tip of Manhattan. It had been built in the 1830's and 1840's under the name of Fort Jay. At various times during the War, especially in late 1861 and early 1862, it held small numbers of Confederate prisoners. Willett's Point is a narrow peninsula in the Bronx where the East River flows into Long Island Sound. A pre-Civil War fort, Fort Schuyler, stood there, and it also housed a small number of prisoners of war in 1864. Fort Lafayette was a second, smaller stone fort on Governor's Island. Prisoners in both Forts Schuyler and Lafayette were kept in large damp rooms deep inside them, received no regular exercise, and rarely saw daylight while confined there.
Many of the prisoners housed in Fort Lafayette were moved to Fort Wood during the winter of 1862-1863. This star-shaped stone and brick fort stood on Bedloe's Island,in the middle of New York Harbor, almost halfway between Manhattan and Staten Island. Eventually the fort was used only for prisoners with a history of causing problems, political prisoners, and Federal soldiers serving sentences for severe crimes. Much of the fort is now gone but a part has been renovated for another purpose. Even the island's name has been changed. It is now called Liberty Island, and that part of Fort Wood still standing is part of the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Portsmouth Grove, New Hampshire, was the site of a military hospital. A small number of sick or wounded Confederate prisoners were cared for there and the remains of those who died were transferred to Cypress Hills. Once I learned where all these places which held Confederate P.O.W.'s were, my next task became the most challenging. I would try to bring life to these more than five hundred men on this list by researching their careers as fully as possible.
In the next issue I will outline the steps taken to identify the men buried there and provide brief glimpses on their lives and military careers. Many, I was to learn, are so badly identified in the cemetery records, that it took considerable effort to find their real names. Others had careers which showed them to be heroes; the records of others found them to be far from heroic. Two were executed in New York and are buried in unmarked graves. Sadly, because Confederate military records are incomplete, some will never be fully identified.
The writer, John Walter, founder of the Institute for Civil War Research, is a professional genealogist and research historian. He specializes in military genealogy and New York City records. He is author of the book: “Confederate Dead in Brooklyn.”