My next stop, Wilmington National Cemetery, is a wonderful example of our role as caretakers of the nation’s history.
Established in 1867, it is one of over 100 national cemeteries and soldiers lots we manage that are recognized as historically significant, through designation as National Historic Landmarks, listing in the National Register of Historic Places, or both. A nationally significant property is considered to be of exceptional value in representing an important theme in U.S. history, whereas properties listed on the National Register tend to be of state and local relevance.
Wilmington National Cemetery was added to the National Register in 1997. The two-story Superintendent’s Lodge at the site, completed in 1934, currently serves as headquarters for the Historic Wilmington Foundation, a local historic preservation nonprofit whose mission is “to protect and preserve the irreplaceable historic resources of Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear Region.” The foundation recently completed some work on the building’s interior as part of its lease agreement with NCA; improvements include removal of a 70’s-era drop ceiling upstairs and re-plastered walls and ceilings.
The day before I arrived, a state historical marker was dedicated on Market Street just outside the cemetery gates. The marker honors United States Colored Troops—as all-black Union regiments were called during the Civil War—and white officers interred with them at Wilmington.
The cemetery also highlights another interesting aspect of American history: The great influenza pandemic of 1918. As many as 100 million people are believed to have died worldwide from the outbreak, including 28 Puerto Rican workers brought by ship to the Wilmington area to help build nearby Fort Bragg. The headstones marking their graves in the cemetery are unlike any I’d ever seen, bearing the decedents’ names and an additional inscription reading “Employee U.S.A.” It’s sad to think of them dying so far from home, yet comforting to realize that, as with all those buried in national cemeteries, their gravesites will be cared for in perpetuity.
Ron Walters is VA’s Acting Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs and Chief Financial Officer of the National Cemetery Administration. This is the eighth in his ten-part series exploring Veterans cemeteries in the southeastern U.S. Next: Coastal Carolina State Veterans Cemetery, Jacksonville, NC: Caring for Veterans and Families.