Roses for National Cemeteries

I find my trips to the National Archives, especially when I follow my curiosity, almost always rewarded with something new or unexpected. Such was the case on my last visit to the Archives before the pandemic forced the facility to shut down. Having pulled a box of Quartermaster records regarding an unrelated subject, I found a file on the flowers provided by the department for the National Cemeteries overseen by the quartermaster at Fort Monroe.

In February 1873, Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, still commanding the department, sent a letter to the quartermaster at Fort Monroe, who, in addition to his other duties oversaw the military cemeteries in his jurisdiction. Meigs’s letter was not in the file and since I have not been back, I have not had an opportunity to look for his letter elsewhere. However, the response from Bvt. Maj. Theodore Eckerson, at Fort Monroe, gives us the gist of Meigs’s request.

“In compliance with the instructions contained in your letter…, I…enclose herewith, statements of the roses required to be set out at the Cemeteries under my charge, with the prices at which they can be obtained.” Eckerson then noted, “No roses are needed this Spring for the Glendale National Cemetery.”

Major Eckerson, who had entered the service in 1838 and had served through the Civil War as an enlisted man in the infantry, artillery, and at the Ordnance Department, had been commissioned as a captain and assistant quartermaster almost exactly eight years earlier, provided Meigs with a list of the cemeteries under his charge and the cost of the roses requested by each of the superintendents at the cemeteries. Eckerson apparently had responsibility for 12 cemeteries, to include the cemetery at Glendale. Except for Glendale, all the superintendents requested roses, and one may judge the size of each cemetery from the number and cost of the roses required.

Meigs, Eckerson, and the superintendents cited below are referring to rose bushes purchased by the dozen, rather than the stems of roses purchased by the dozen from florists today.

Yorktown needed $20 worth of roses, Richmond $40, Hampton $80, Fredericksburg $105, City Point $25, Cold Harbor $9, and Danville $50 to list a few. Eckerson then added, “It is believed that more roses should be authorized for the Virginia cemeteries.”

Possibly as a means of supporting his request for more roses, Eckerson asked each of the superintendents for their ‘wish list.’ The supervisor at the Richmond cemetery enumerated 67 varieties of roses and asked for three dozen of each. The man advised the “Price of these roses is $4.50 per dozen,” and explained, “they generally ship from the north.” Eckerson sent the list to General Meigs with his recommendation “that the roses named within should be purchased for the Richmond National Cemetery at a cost not to exceed $40.50”

The superintendent at the City Point Cemetery selected seven varieties for Major Eckerson’s approval. Though not completely clear, I believe the man asked for 100 bushes to be purchased at a cost of $25.

The superintendent at Cold Harbor forwarded a list of 14 varieties, totaling 26 dozen bushes at a cost of $4.50 per dozen.

The superintendent at Fort Harrison requested 31 varieties, to include climbing roses. In addition to the cost of the flowers, the superintendent requested an additional $2 for transporting the flowers to the cemetery and $10 for “one cord of stable manure.”

The supervisor at the Poplar Grove Cemetery in Petersburg, recommended setting “out during this spring in the cemetery under my charge, about thirty perpetual blooming roses. I find that they are hardy in this latitude and flower continually from May until severe frost sets in. Good size roses of this kind can be purchased in this neighborhood at .50 each.” He also mentioned that he had already planted at his expense “30 perpetual blooming and 55 annual roses,” and they “are doing well.” Major Eckerson endorsed his request, with the stipulation that the cost not exceed $15.

Without listing varieties by name, the superintendent at the Hampton Cemetery requested 250 black roses, 50 white, 50 red, and 50 yellow.

The superintendent at Yorktown explained, “As there are but few shrubs and none but common wild roses in the cemetery at present, I …recommend that about forty plants be set out, equally divided between” five varieties he listed. He considered his selections to be “very prolific growers and among the choice varieties,” and then explained, “There are none to be had in this neighborhood.”

The superintendent at Fredericksburg asked for “at least three hundred rose bushes,” of 17 varieties. He believed the cost in Richmond to be .35 each, and he did “not know of any person in this neighborhood who had any roses for sale.”

Finally, the superintendent at Seven Pines National Cemetery requested 3 bushes each of 68 varieties, most of which could be purchased in Richmond for $4.50 per dozen, with three varieties costing but .75 each. Conscious of the government’s money, Major Eckerson trimmed the request to one bush of each variety, with the total cost not to exceed $25.

As soldiers and volunteers will soon be placing flags and wreaths at the headstones of veterans in many of our national cemeteries, I thought a brief account of early attempts to honor and beautify these cemeteries when still in their infancy might be of interest.

On an unrelated note, I am happy to say that my book is now under contract with Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.

Sources: Unpublished documents from the National Archives

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