Jean Lafitte
Historic Resource Study (Chalmette Unit)
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For more than a century the Chalmette National Cemetery has stood along the Mississippi River on land that today comprises part of the Chalmette Unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. The cemetery contains the dead of several conflicts, including the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Like other features in the park unit, it has changed significantly through the years, impacted by increased urbanization of the country around New Orleans and by efforts to control the Mississippi. Nonetheless, the cemetery remains an integral part of the history of the region and, as such, affords a rich interpretive experience for area visitors.

Chalmette National Cemetery land ownership can be traced back to the 1830s plantation holdings of Louis St. Amand. [1] The acreage contained slave cabins and possibly a sugar house. [2] Upon the death of St. Amand, the land was divided among a number of individuals, and by 1859, the holdings were consolidated in those of J. G. Bienvenue when these lots were purchased by Charles Rixner. On November 11, 1861, ownership of these lots was transferred to the city of New Orleans for a purchase price of $11,520.00. [3] In May, 1864, the City of New Orleans ceded approximately thirteen and one-half acres to the U. S. Government for use as a cemetery. [4] The ground was clear, low and flat, and was protected from inundation by a levee on the Mississippi. During the Civil War the area served as a bivouac ground for Confederate and Union troops and later was used as a refugee camp for slaves freed by the advancing Union forces. [5] During this period it became a burial ground for former slaves, black hospital patients, and Union and Confederate troops. [6]

Upon acquisition of the property in 1864, Captain Nathaniel S. Constable commenced work on landscaping the grounds. This included leveling part of the Confederate fortifications, demolishing buildings on the land, and laying out the cemetery. Initial burials in the cemetery composed the dead from local hospitals up until 1866. During 1867 and 1868 some 7,000 interments were made from cemeteries at Cypress Grove No. 2, Camp Parapet, Algiers, and Metairie Ridge, Louisiana, as well as from Ship Island, Mississippi. [7] By 1867 the cemetery was divided into 107 squares; it had a well-drained central avenue and cross drains located between the squares. Rosebushes were planted to border the squares. The central avenue was surfaced with shells, but the crosswalks dividing these squares were not dressed in any way. The drains diverted water into swamps northeast of the site. The cemetery formed a rectangle 250 feet wide by 2375 feet long with its south end fronting the river. A 6- to 8-foot-high picket fence enclosed an older portion of eight acres, while a more recent acquisition of five acres next to the river was not enclosed. [8] The grounds were described as "beautifully laid out" and appropriately situated.

The associations and memories connected with this spot render it the most fitting location that could have been selected in the vicinity of New Orleans for a national cemetery; the ashes of our gallant dead, who fell in the late rebellion, mingling with those of the brave defenders of 1815; the same ground thus becoming the receptacle of the dust of two generations of heroes. [9]

Captain Charles W. Folsom in an 1867 inspection of the cemetery recommended that more shrubs and trees be obtained, a flagstaff be erected, and that the internment of civilians on the cemetery ground cease. He discovered that among the 12,500 interments were a number of civilian burials and he feared that Chalmette National Cemetery would become a pauper's graveyard. [10] Captain Charles Barnard, in charge of operations at Chalmette, sought to implement Folsom's recommendations. As part of these efforts, Christopher J. Larigan, in charge of landscaping at Chalmette, requested permission to purchase the following trees and shrubs:

12Tallow Trees2Pittosporum
1Magnolia fuscata2Magnolia purpusa
2Olea fragrant2Laurus mundi
2Deodara (in pots)24Assorted Roses (in pots)
2 Hibiscus (1 single-1 double). [11]

Larigan hoped that this purchase would "relieve the barren and monotonous appearance of the ground." [12] Shell was obtained to complete the surfacing of the walkways, and a building in front of the cemetery was torn down. The practice of permitting civilian burials terminated after May, 1867. [13] Also during the year, brick-lined drains were constructed on each side of the main shell road. Heavy rains had collapsed the sides of the original drains, necessitating the change. [14]

The city of New Orleans formally donated the cemetery land to the United States on May 26, 1868. [15] That same year Captain Barnard summarized the appearance and condition of the cemetery thusly:

[It is] laid out in the shape of a rectangle, or right angles parallelogram, having a frontage of 250 feet on the Mississippi River, and is 2.317 feet in depth. An avenue 16 feet wide and 2.317 feet long, with six (6) circles forty (40) feet in diameter at regular intervals, divides the Cemetery into two equal parts. This avenue is shelled and is perfectly smooth and hard; a neat brick drain running the entire length of the Cemetery has been built on each side. The ground is laid out in squares and walks, the latter are four (4) feet wide and are shelled; the squares are each 54-1/2 by 48 feet and are made to contain 96 graves. In the centre of the Cemetery and within the third circle from the entrance a terraced mound has been raised and a handsome flag staff erected. The graves are all marked with suitable headboards properly numbered. Young Cedar, Arbor vitae, and Magnolia trees have been planted on each side the main avenue for half its length; a weeping willow will be placed on each side the entrance. Considerable difficulty was experienced in obtaining a sufficient supply of trees and shrubs, but it is hoped that enough can be procured to form a continuous row on each side the avenue for the entire length, if this can be accomplished it will present a beautiful vista. If practicable the whole Cemetery will be surrounded with trees, a space of six (6) feet having been set off between the outermost row of graves and the line of the fence, for that purpose.

At the Entrance of the Cemetery a plot of ground has been set apart as a flower garden it is handsomely laid out in walks and beds and planted with ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers of choice variety, which blossom luxuriantly and present a most beautiful and pleasing appearance. At the second Circle of the main avenue another flower garden of similar design and equal beauty extends across the entire width of the grounds; rose trees are also planted at intervals on each side of the main avenue for a portion of the distance. [16]

As of 1868 the cemetery contained the remains of 11,309 United States soldiers; meantime, the bodies of nearly 7,000 civilians were exhumed and reinterred in the Freedmens cemetery adjoining the site. [17] Also, construction began on a new "receiving tomb" for the bodies of officers awaiting transportation to northern cities. Plans got underway to build a permanent lodge for the superintendent because the temporary one was in poor condition. [18] In addition, a flagstaff had been erected and two thirds of the graves had received wooden headboards painted with black lettering. The remaining graves were marked only by numbered wooden stakes. [19] Also in 1868 the Ladies Benevolent Association of New Orleans received permission to have the remains of all Confederate soldiers removed from the cemetery. [20]

Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas completed an inspection tour of Chalmette National Cemetery on December 12, 1868, and reported the following details:

Sufficient space has been reserved in the rear of the [cemetery] ground for future interments from the garrison of New Orleans. A permanent lodge of brick has been erected near the front gate, and a place secured for ornamentation. The old fences around three sides of the ground have been replaced by a strong paling fence, and a neat iron railing with gate, on the front line, was in course of construction. In the spaces on the front within the gate are mounds on which small cannon are mounted, and balls arranged around them giving a very pleasing effect. One-third of the walks are covered with shells; shells for the remainder can readily be obtained, and I judge at no great cost. The graves are all sodded.... At first the drainage was indifferent, but by leveling the old line of fortification, and using the earth, the ground in the rear has been raised considerably, and the water is drained off to the east in the swamp. In ordinary stages of water in the Mississippi River, the graves are perfectly dry. The grounds are greatly beautified with an abundance of flowers and shrubbery. [21]

The brick lodge noted by Thomas was likely built to replace an old frame structure near that location. On February 1, 1869, the Deputy Quartermaster General notified Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Tompkins that "the old building recently occupied by the Super of the National Cemetery at Chalmette" would be sold at public auction. And in April "the old frame building in front of the National Cemetery" was turned over to one Abraham Boster for the sum of sixty dollars. [22]

Another inspection of the cemetery in February, 1871, revealed its deteriorating condition along with several changes:

Head-boards, or stakes, have been placed at all the graves, but most of them are in very bad condition. Many have rotted off and fallen down. The stakes were never dressed or painted, and most of the head-boards are now free from paint and look badly.

The whole number of burials is 12,262, as follows:


The lot is inclosed by an iron fence in front and rear, and by a wooden picket fence on the sides, in good order. An Osage-orange hedge was planted last fall just inside the fence. The mock-orange of the South (Lauro cerasus) would have been better in this locality, I think.

The drive is bordered on each side by a row of trees, arbor vitae and magnolia (Grandiflora) alternating. Two handsome flower-gardens, one on each side of the drive and opposite each other, divide the lot into two parts. These gardens were formerly the front of the cemetery, before it was enlarged.

A flag-staff stands on a small mound near the center of the old part, the drive dividing and passing around it. Formerly there were three other similar mounds, but they have been removed, though the circular drives around them remain unchanged.

The lodge is a new brick structure containing three rooms, having projecting roof and piazza all around. There is a cistern attached to it. The privy and out-houses are arranged with better taste than usual at the cemeteries. The stable is outside of the fence, in front of the southeast corner of the cemetery.

There are some handsome ornamental plats about the lodge, and evince great care and good taste by those in charge.

Four guns are planted vertically on their bases, in handsome masonry, at equal distances along the front, a few feet inside the fence. At the opposite (west) end is a tomb, or vault, for receiving the remains of such as it may be desirable to bury elsewhere.

The drive divides and passes around this tomb.

Three laborers are employed all the time, at 840 [dollars] per month. Two mules and two carts are also employed constantly. [23]

In 1872 New Orleans surveyor, W.H. Bell drew a plan of the cemetery showing a powder magazine situated approximately 600 feet back from the Mississippi River and just west of the cemetery. Three hundred feet behind this structure was the freedmen's cemetery. South of the freedmen's cemetery was the national cemetery occupying an area of 250 feet by approximately 2,400 feet. [24] By 1873 the freedmen's cemetery had been abandoned. [25] Nature continued to reclaim this graveyard, and in 1876 the area was purchased by the Louisiana State Agricultural and Mechanical College. College officials requested that the government remove the remains of all Union soldiers and freedmen from the abandoned cemetery. [26] The Quartermaster General sent Second Lieutenant Isaac O. Shelby to investigate the matter. Shelby concluded that the vast majority of graves were those of freedmen. "There may be some Union soldiers buried there, and there probably are, but there is nothing to indicate [which are] their graves and it would be impossible to find them in the large mass of graves." [27] The federal government took no further action on the matter.

In Superintendent P. P. Carroll's annual report for 1873 he mentioned that the superintendent's lodge consisted of three rooms of equal size. At each end of this structure was built ground galleys six feet wide and twenty feet long with balustrades placed around them. The back part of the lodge was enclosed with a six-and-one-half-foot-high lattice fence. Also during the year lightning struck the flagstaff, necessitating its replacement. [28] The major construction project comprised enclosing the cemetery with two brick walls on the sides and with iron fences and gates at the front and back. A contract was let to Edward H. Burton and William Seymour on August 26, 1873, for completing this work at a cost of $3.35 per linear foot. [29] Civil Engineer James Gall staked out the line of the brick wall in September and Burton and Seymour began construction work. [30] The brick walls were completed in December, but the Chalmette superintendent complained that the iron gate did not meet government specifications. [31] The contract was finally approved in May, 1874. [32]

The 1874 report on the Chalmette National Cemetery commented:

It is inclosed by a new brick wall on the sides and by a light iron fence on the ends.

The main entrance is in the center of the river front. A drive 16 feet wide extends from it to the center of the opposite end, where there is a gate-way, but no outlet. A receiving-vault is placed in the roadway at this end, and the return drive passes around it. This drive is covered with shells, and has a good ditch on each side, revetted with brick set in cement. The drive is also bordered by a row of trees on each side. The new flag-staff stands on a very small mound in front of the main entrance. Formerly the flag-staff stood on a small circular mound in the central avenue, and there were also three other similar mounds in this drive, but they have all been leveled, though the circular plats remain, the drive dividing and inclosing them. Formerly the front of the cemetery was about two hundred yards in the rear of the present front, and the flower-gardens then established still remain, and divide the cemetery into two parts, the portion between these gardens and the river being the addition.

The lodge is situated near the main entrance. It is a one-story brick building, 51 by 21 feet, containing three rooms, with a piazza on the east and west sides, the roof projecting over the piazzas. The lodge is not convenient nor ornamental, and is rendered more unsightly by having a kitchen partitioned off on the back piazza. One of the new style of lodges would be much more appropriate here. There are some handsome flower-beds about the lodge; also four gun-monuments set in masonry.

More trees and shrubbery are needed in this cemetery. The magnolias have mostly died. The evergreens (cedars and arbor-vitae) are doing very well. The Osage-orange hedge is poor.

The front fence is place[d] several feet inside the Government boundary and formerly a stable was placed outside, almost in front of the lodge; but it was burnt down accidentally. A new one has been erected inside the inclosure; and it and the wood yard and out-buildings are screened from the drive by a lattice-fence, which is to be covered with honeysuckle. This is a great improvement.

The grounds are so badly proportioned that they cannot be laid out with any variety of forms. Most of the ground on each side of the drive is divided into uniform rectangular plats, 54 by 48 feet, by paths 4 feet wide. [33]

In February, 1874, a committee from the Joseph A. Mower Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) in New Orleans requested permission from the army to erect a monument at the cemetery to honor Union soldiers buried there. [34] Permission was granted and the post began fund raising efforts. Superintendent Carroll of Chalmette National Cemetery described the design of the monument in the following terms:

The column or shaft of the monument now erected in the Cemetery is eight feet six inches high (or long), and three feet six inches in diameter. It is N[ew] H[ampshire] granite, fine grain and dark gray. This shaft rests on a piece of the same material, six inches thick, and three feet ten inches in diameter. The projection of this latter piece is not sufficient, so it is to be taken out and replaced by one to give a projection of six or eight inches, so that it will hold a row of shot. The base or foundation is made of artificial stone work and raises [sic] three feet above the level of the drive so that the whole stands twelve feet above the level of the drive. The column or shaft is to be surmounted with a drum presenting the sticks crossed and held in the cords denoting silence, with the snares loosen [sic] as a sign that it has finished its last tatoo. The surroundings at base of the shaft is in the form of a triangle (equilateral). Each point of the angle stands out 10 feet from the shaft. The triangle is formed of coping made of artificial stone and stands about twelve inches above the drive. From the top of this coping [to] the base of the shaft the space is filled in, graded and sodded, with an octagon shaped cap of artificial stone surrounding the base of the granite. Resting on the points of the angles and pointing out from the column will be located twelve pound cannon, which will be spiked and muzzled, with a shot resting on each side. All the artificial stonework is to be removed and replaced with granite. The column is to be raised up six feet above the level of the drive, and the foundation made of brick and cement. [35]

Construction of the monument was delayed because of fraud perpetrated by the contractor and because the G. A. R. post lacked sufficient funds to build it until 1882. The monument then became a focal point for G. A. R. ceremonies each Memorial Day. [36]

In 1874 Superintendent Carroll complained that the superintendent's lodge was damp and unfit for habitation. [37] Secretary of War William Worth Belknap concurred and ordered a new lodge constructed. [38] However, the contract for the work was not awarded until August, 1880, with construction to take place between September and December of that year. [39] The superintendent's lodge was specifically designed to meet climatic conditions of the Mississippi delta area. [40] Specifications for the lodge included the following general description: [41]

The building, 52 feet 1 inch long by 20 feet 7 inches wide, to be of brick, two stories in height; each story to be subdivided into two rooms and a central hall, and each to be 11 feet 7 inches clear in height; the whole to be surrounded by a porch 10 feet wide and one story in height.

More changes in the cemetery occurred during the late 1870s. In 1875 all the wooden grave markers were replaced with marble ones. Also in that year planning began on replacing the remaining portions of the wooden fence with brick and stone. [42] In November of 1878 the Quartermaster Department completed drawings for a rostrum to be constructed at Chalmette National Military Cemetery. The contract for the work was awarded on February 4, 1879, to Charles Hense, who agreed to have the work completed by May of that year. The structure measured thirty feet by twenty feet and had a stairway located on either side. The main floor was elevated five feet above the ground surface. The foundation was constructed of hard red bricks set with lime-and-sand mortar. Steps were of cutstone. The raised platform floor was enclosed by a 2-foot-8-inch-high railing with eight-foot-tall ionic columns placed every ten feet. The whole was topped by a latticework roof of a pergola appearance. [43]

By 1882 a brick wall enclosed the cemetery on the east and west sides; fences stood on the north and south sides. The main entrance to the cemetery was from the river road. The road in the cemetery grounds was a shell covered drive sixteen feet wide with deep brick gutters on the sides. The shell covering ended in the center of the cemetery with the remainder of the north portion of the road covered with sod. The road looped around the G. A. R. monument which was then on a circular mound in the center of the cemetery. Near the north entrance the drive circled the red brick receiving vault which had four iron guns placed in front of it. Between these two circles was a third about 200 feet from the main entrance, on which stood the flagstaff. Near the second entrance to the cemetery stood a cluster of buildings, including the lodge. In addition,

a few feet north of this lodge is a brick building containing dining room and kitchen. Outside of the kitchen is a wooden water tank. These buildings are in good order except slight repairs are needed on windows of the lodge.

East of the kitchen is a wooden building containing stables, tool house and shed. A wooden tank is near this shed. These tanks receive the drainage of the roofs.

A latticework fence runs from the kitchen to the stable, cutting off the view of the stable yard.

Some distance north of the stable and east of the avenue is a rostrum of the usual pattern. The vines growing over it are looking well. [44]

Construction appropriations for 1883 included funding for a 132-foot-long wharf. A cluster of piles were driven near it to afford protection from floating debris. Total cost of this project was $1,000. [45] The next year Major James W. Scully, inspecting the cemetery, found that driftwood being washed against the wharf was threatening the structure. He suggested that the problem be alleviated by driving a series of piles from the head of the wharf to the levee in the form of a triangle, thus preventing the debris from damaging the dock. [46]

In his report, Major Scully noted that the cemetery had a lodge, brick kitchen, brick privy, frame privy, a frame storage and stable building, and two wooden cisterns. He found that 350 graves still had wooden stakes instead of headstones and recommended that the stakes be replaced as soon as possible. [47] During 1884 the remains of 134 Confederate soldiers were removed from the cemetery to be reintered at Cypress Grove. [48] A representative of the Department of the Gulf of the Grand Army of the Republic wrote a letter to the Quartermaster General informing him that a railroad spur line was opened to Lake Borgne and that the railroad company would grade a route to the cemetery provided the government constructed a more ornate north entrance. [49] Quartermaster General Samuel B. Holabird replied that the army did not intend to change the entrance to the cemetery. He stated his belief that the Mississippi River and levee road would remain the main points of access to the cemetery. [50]

Nonetheless, some road improvements were made during the 1880s. In 1885 a bill was introduced in Congress to construct a shell road between Jackson Barracks and Chalmette National Cemetery. Reportedly, the existing road was in such poor condition that it discouraged visitation:

Visitors who, because of relationship or a desire to pay a tribute of respect to the Union dead who now lie sleeping in that cemetery, are deterred from so doing because of the condition of the road leading thereto. Then, too, the soldiers who die at the United States barracks are deprived of the usual and dignified solemnity attendant on military funerals. Instead of marching with orderly and measured tread, the soldiers of the escort are to be seen, Indian file, jumping over the bogs, ruts, and holes in the road. [51]

Congress approved the roadway and on November 6, 1886, an agreement was entered into between contractor Robert McNamara and the United States Army for the construction of a shell wagon road between Jackson Barracks and Chalmette National Cemetery. [52] The roadway, completed in 1887, was used until 1905. During the latter year the New Orleans Terminal Company sought to close the river road as they planned to extensively develop the river bank area. The army agreed to the road closure on condition that a fifty-foot extension be made to the rear of the cemetery grounds, extending to the right of way boundary of the Louisiana Southern Railway. A thirty-foot corridor was also to be built to provide access to the cemetery via a new shell road behind the railroad. Once these conditions were met, the river road was abandoned. The land transfer occurred in 1910. [53]

An inspection of the cemetery was completed by William H. Owen in 1886. Owen found the grave markers to be in generally good condition. [54] Little besides maintenance work was conducted at the cemetery over the next several years. In 1888 it was designated a post cemetery for the convenience of local garrisons. [55] Next year inspector Major James Gilliss found that the rostrum required rehabilitation as it was in a decayed state. He further recommended that the existing frame stable and tool house be replaced by a brick building. [56] This work was apparently undertaken in 1890, when the rostrum was given a metal roof, its brick foundation was repaired, and the decayed wooden members were replaced. The frame stable was removed and a brick stable and privy constructed. [57]

An unusual incident occurred in 1890 when trouble broke out between the black and white Grand Army of the Republic posts during Memorial Day ceremonies. National G. A. R. Commander-in-Chief Wheelock G. Veazly created a commission to study the problem and provide a solution. It was decided to allow each post to have use of the cemetery ceremony for one half day to conduct Memorial Day activities. [58]

In 1892 the enclosing walls of the cemetery were extended to the new roadway and the old front iron fence removed and reset, the latter at a cost of forty-five dollars. [59] The Corps of Engineers constructed a new levee between the Mississippi and the cemetery entrance in 1893. [60] On Memorial Day, 1893, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Grand Army of the Republic jointly held ceremonies at the gravesite of Joseph Lawlor during which a granite obelisk was dedicated in his memory. United States Commissioner William Wright paid for the Lawlor monument. [61] The following year members of the United States Mexican War Veterans and the General Andrew Jackson Garrison Post 35, Army and Navy Union, requested Commissioner Wright to have a monument dedicated to Colonel William Wallace Smith Blass, along with Blass's remains, brought from the Girod Cemetery to the Chalmette National Cemetery. The veteran groups hoped to better protect the monument by having it, and Blass's remains, relocated in the national cemetery. [62]

Little further construction took place during the late 1890s and early 1900s. In June, 1896, the government awarded a contract for the erection of a brick outbuilding to serve as a stable, toolroom, carriage house, and water closet. The building was one and one-half stories high. It was L-shaped and measured 53 feet by 30 feet and 16 feet by 19 feet. The building was completed in 1897. [63] Over the next few years work at the cemetery consisted of routine maintenance. In 1911 a new gate and a brick wall were constructed around the tract earlier transferred by the New Orleans Terminal Company. Cost of the work was $5,479.20. [64] Four years later the driveway at Chalmette National Cemetery was resurfaced at a cost of $950.00. [65] Repairs made to the superintendent's lodge in 1916 and 1917 cost $744.00. [66]

The cemetery grounds remained essentially the same until the Lake Borgne Basin Levee Board, along with the Mississippi River Commission and the Corps of Engineers, proposed a new levee set-back construction of which would impact approximately two hundred feet of the cemetery property. Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis in 1928 asked Congress to grant a right of way for the levee through Chalmette National Cemetery and to authorize spending $32,000 to remove 572 graves and relocate certain facilities including the caretaker's lodge. Congress approved the measure for completion in fiscal year 1929. Most of the cemetery structures were lost in the resultant construction, and the remains of more than 400 Union dead were relocated in a single mass grave in the southeast part of the cemetery. [67] After the removal of the caretaker's lodge and outbuildings, the present brick lodge (now used as Chalmette Unit administrative headquarters), along with a carriage house (now used as a garage) and a maintenance building, was constructed. A small temporary building erected in the 1950s to contain equipment during work on the Beauregard House is on the cemetery grounds and is used as a "black powder hut" for park interpreters. In 1956 the G. A. R. Monument was moved to the River Terminal Circle at the south end of the cemetery.

Burials in the Chalmette National Cemetery include casualties and veterans and their dependents from other conflicts besides the Civil War. These include the Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Viet Nam. Although officially closed to interments since 1945, occasional exceptions to that policy have permitted burials of veterans and war casualties. Administratively, the cemetery continued under jurisdiction of the War Department until August 10, 1933, when it was transferred to the National Park Service. On August 10, 1939, Chalmette National Cemetery became part of Chalmette National Historical Park.

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Last Updated: 05-Sep-2004