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Who should care for a cemetery's nearly forgotten Civil War dead? 

Burial Grounds

To many, Richmond's Oakwood Cemetery is the land of the Civil War's lost. And now it's the subject of another battle — this one between two groups of Southerners intent on honoring the almost-forgotten dead.

Oakwood has long held mysteries. More than 17,000 Confederate soldiers are buried in its 7 acres, but only about half are identified. No one knows how many Union soldiers, black and white, are there. In 1866, the federal government moved the remains of many of the white Union dead to the Richmond National Cemetery. But historians believe that many black Union soldiers were left behind.

For years, the cemetery was cared for by Richmond women. But as the neighborhoods around it declined, Oakwood suffered. Many grave markers were stolen for firewood during economic hard times.

Then, during the Allen administration, a push was made to restore the cemetery. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Southern-heritage group, persuaded the General Assembly to allocate $30,000 to refurbish the cemetery. For the past three years, the effort has been funded annually with an additional $11,470 of state money, for a total of nearly $65,000.

The SCV formed a 22-member committee to oversee spending of the state money, but internal disagreements erupted. Some wanted Oakwood restored in the style in which it was originally designed. Others wanted marble or granite markers provided free by the Veterans Administration, like the markers at Richmond National Cemetery.

Then in March, to the shock of some on the SCV committee, the General Assembly stripped the committee of the authority to care for Oakwood. The committee was disbanded, and the Oakwood Confederate Cemetery Trust Inc. was established as a nonprofit organization to oversee Oakwood's upkeep. (The trust includes members of the SCV and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.)

Del. William K. Barlow, D-Smithfield, sponsored the bill that transferred the money to the Oakwood Trust. Barlow says he thought House Bill 2278 was a "housekeeping matter." He knew nothing about any controversy.

"This bill was to correct earlier legislation that said the money was to go to the SCV committee," Barlow says. "But technically there was no committee."

To the contrary, say some of the committee's former members. And three of them are upset at the way they were taken off the job and at the work being done on the cemetery.

"The Virginia General Assembly of 1861 ordered these men into battle," says John Crouch, a member of the SCV committee and a World War II veteran. "The state owes it to them now to do something about the condition of these graves."

Some observers, however, say the nonprofit trust has done a fine job since it has taken over the cemetery project.

The cemetery's gazebo, a former site of Memorial Day services, has a new roof. Rows of concrete posts — each marking the graves of three soldiers with a letter and numbers — have been reset into the ground.

The state Department of Historic Resources, which has overseen the project, approves of what has been done, says director Kathleen Kilpatrick.

The trust, she says, came up with a plan that "provides for restoration in keeping with the historic character."

"Over half of the markers have been reset. The gazebo has been restored," she observes. "There are great plans under way, and all of the work has been conducted in an appropriate manner."

But some former SCV committee members say the state money has been squandered.

Why, they ask, put a new roof on a gazebo that has a crumbling foundation? What good is a little gravel in soft ground? And why erect posts that don't even bear the soldiers' names?

"The only other place, to my knowledge, that veterans are buried by number is Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and there they are criminals," says ex-committee member M.H. "Hank" Morris, a retired brigadier general. "All we want is for every soldier who gave his life for his nation to have a decent headstone."

Agrees fellow committee member Bill Mountjoy, a retired history teacher: "Any man, in any war, who gives his life for his country, or his state, or his county, should be recognized with a stone with his name on it, not just a stupid number."

So far, the trust has spent about $40,000 on the cleanup, but only about half the Confederate section of the cemetery is complete. Markers could be installed for about $10 each, trust opponents say.

Thousands of soldiers from battles around Richmond are interred at Oakwood. Men from every Southern state, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia, rest there.

"This cemetery could be the Arlington of the South," Morris says. "If they would decide to restore it the way it should be restored, we could get the participation of every Southern state."

Collin G. Pulley Jr., a past SCV division commander, oversees the Oakwood trust and orchestrated the cemetery cleanup. He says his group plans to march on.

He wants to see the remaining markers reset. There are plans to replace a hedge along the edge of the cemetery. A chain-link fence will be replaced, he said. There are even plans to erect a kind of memorial wall, similar to the Vietnam Wall in Washington.

"We don't have unlimited funds, but we're making an honest effort to use the money provided by the state in the best way possible," Pulley
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