Cemetery holds city's Civil War history
The Stars and Bars flutters at the grave of Confederate soldier Corp. T.S. Cowsert of Company I, of the 35th Mississippi Infantry in the Civil War veterans plot in Section 33 of Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville.
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There was air of expectancy at Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville during the week leading to Memorial Day.
The cemetery's Gothic-style gate on Butler Street was draped with red, white and blue bunting. Groundskeepers were busy cutting grass, cleaning off a large fountain and planting scarlet sage and other summer annuals by the boxload.
Students from St. Raphael Catholic School in the city's East End and Mother of Sorrows Catholic School in Murrysville decorated more than 1,300 veterans' graves with American flags.
But in the Soldiers Memorial Plot, where more than 250 Civil War soldiers and veterans are buried, it wasn't only American flags that fluttered slightly in the humid air on a recent afternoon. At the headstones of eight graves, there were both American and Confederate flags.
Therein lies one of many tales that make the old Allegheny Cemetery an ideal place to begin a search for Pittsburgh's Civil War roots during this 150th anniversary of the conflict.
The graves of the Confederate soldiers lie alongside the graves of Union soldiers and veterans in a section of the cemetery that was turned over for use by the U.S. government in July 1862. By the 1870s, custody of the plot was placed in the hands of the Grand Army of the Republic, a powerful fraternal organization of Union veterans.
Historian Arthur Fox, a leading authority on Pittsburgh during the Civil War, has concluded that the Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery were either prisoners of war or soldiers "in the process of being exchanged (paroled), traveling by rail through Pennsylvania to camps in the East or West."
Confederate prisoners of war were hardly a rare sight in Pittsburgh, especially during the last two years of the war. Some were held at Western Penitentiary, on the North Side.
The graves of the Confederate soldiers date from 1863 and 1864, presumably when the U.S. government controlled the plot.
Separated as they were in life from their white Union comrades, about 132 black Civil War veterans -- members of the United States Colored Troops -- also are buried in the cemetery. Their graves are about 30 yards away from the cluster of Union and Confederate graves. Sadly, the inscriptions on the flat headstones that mark their graves have largely worn away.
These men were a tiny fraction of the nearly 200,000 black soldiers who served in the Union ranks during the war.
It was late into the war, despite the pleas of such black leaders as Frederick Douglass and northern politicians such as Charles Sumner, before the Lincoln government agreed to enroll black troops.
Even after they were accepted into the northern ranks, they at first were paid lower wages than their white counterparts. Northern newspapers, particularly those hostile to the Lincoln administration, doubted their courage and valor. Only grudgingly would their fighting abilities come to be respected.
In another corner of the cemetery is the burial plot for 45 workers, mostly young women, who were killed when three explosions blew apart two laboratory buildings at the Allegheny Arsenal in September 1862. In all, around 80 people were killed.
In the 19th century, the arsenal was only a short distance down Butler Street from the cemetery gate.
In the aftermath of the explosion, cemetery officials provided land for the burial of those victims whose bodies were destroyed beyond recognition.
A monument dedicated in May 1928 replaced an older monument erected in the year following the accident. The new monument was built under the auspices of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the organization's Ladies Auxiliary.
A plaque on the monument enjoins visitors to "tread softly [for] this is consecrated dust. Forty five pure patriotic victims lie here."
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 2, 2011) The name of Charles Sumner, a 19th-century Massachusetts senator, was misspelled in a story Monday about Allegheny Cemetery.
First Published May 30, 2011 12:00 am