With my school definitely closed for the next two weeks, and perhaps for longer, and on line learning activities not set to start until later this week, I took a trip today to New York City’s only National Cemetery, Cypress Hills. With the original National Cemetery within the private Cypress Hills Cemetery, and an additional land grant being added to the original cemetery later, it was actually a trip to two separate cemeteries. My hope was in finding members of the 1st United States Chasseurs, or 65th NY Volunteers, interred there.
Knowing that the over 3000 graves there overwhelmingly do not note the unit of the buried soldier, I went in with realistic goals. With thousands of Union victims of disease from NY City hospitals buried there, I figured I was likely going to be walking by a Chasseur grave, even if I didn’t know it. And there was always the chance that one or more of the graves would in fact make note of the soldier’s status as a member of the 65th NY Volunteer Infantry. Besides, I was free for the day, yet mindful of the need for social distancing as a way of countering the spread of the Coronavirus. Past experience told me that, with the exception of Arlington, a visit to a national cemetery would not find me encountering a large crowd of people. Sure enough, though there were a few other visitors to the private section of Cypress Hills Cemetery, and I saw one other visitor to the Cypress Hills National Cemetery section, all in all I was on my own.
Five miles of walking along the rows of thousands of graves brought some fatigue, but also some moments of contemplation and reflection. As bad as things seem now for Americans struggling with the bizarre reality of confronting the spread of Coronavirus, a walk amongst thousands of graves of veterans of America’s wars does tend to bring some perspective about whatever challenges we face today.
Moreover, I not only got to visit the grave of Jackie Robinson, whose epitaph is an inspiration for all, especially all who teach, but I also stumbled upon the grave of John Martin (Giovanni Martini), the very lucky bugler who took General George Armstrong Custer’s last message from Custer’s immediate command (destined to be wiped out to a man by the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who they were attacking) to the rest of the Federal command. And, after a lot of searching, I did find two bona fide members of the Chasseur regiment! One, Private Charles W. Norton, a member of the 67th NY Volunteers (or 1st Long Island), which merged with the 65th NY Volunteers on August 31, 1864, only served 10 days before being discharged. But another, Sergeant Henry W. Brown, whose grave denoted his service, was a member of the regiment for the duration of the war. Brown, having enlisted in Providence, Rhode Island, had been captured on May 10, 1864 at Spotsylvania, near the Bloody Angle. Later paroled, he rejoined the regiment and served to the end of the war.
One of the notable things about the Cypress Hills National Cemetery is the fact that it contains over 300 graves of Confederates. They were mostly prisoners in New York City who died in Union hands. Until today I did not know that Confederate graves in national cemeteries are denoted by a uniquely designed headstone, which is not rounded at the top but has a gentle peak. Seeing the Confederate graves mixed in and honored in a national cemetery is different than the many other national cemeteries which I have visited. And I have to say I very much liked the fact that some of these Confederates ended up buried next to African American soldiers who served in the Union army, in the United States Colored regiments. Buried side by side, they reached equality in death.