At Philadelphia’s historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, Russ Dodge feeds his Civil War obsession
Like a hare on an Adrenaline rush, Russ Dodge bounds from grave to grave at historic Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. The clamor of distant traffic on highways along the Schuylkill River fails to distract the south New Jersey native as he delivers bursts of information about a Civil War veteran at the well-manicured, 78-acre grounds. “Look at this place,” he says of the National Historic Landmark site, founded in 1836. “You could stand anywhere and within 15 feet is a story.”
Dodge is dressed in his typical cemetery tour guide attire: blue jeans, blue Villanova University pullover, and funky red Converse sneakers. His shoulder-length hair gives him a slight 1960s vibe. Intensely interested in American history and the Civil War in particular, Dodge became a Laurel Hill tour guide in 2008.
For years, Dodge had traveled to cemeteries from Maine to Texas to visit the final resting places of Civil War generals. His searches eventually led him to Laurel Hill, where 47 Union generals and one Confederate—vanquished Vicksburg commander John Clifford Pemberton—are buried. For the past 15 years, the 48-year-old has spent countless hours crawling around cemeteries, an avocation fully supported by his wife, who sometimes accompanies him during his wanderings. Dodge, a dispatcher for a chemical trucking firm in his day job, also is a senior administrator for “Find A Grave,” a popular website of cemetery records.
The grave of former Army of the Potomac commander George Meade, “Old Snapping Turtle,” is the main Civil War attraction at Laurel Hill, but he is hardly the only notable buried at this outdoor museum. Six hundred known Civil War veterans rest at Laurel Hill, and Dodge knows details about many of an estimated 75,000 graves at a cemetery that’s also the eternal home for other Philadelphia historical figures.
At the pearl-white tombstone of Thomas Simpson, set in the dark-green grass dappled with yellow dandelions and purple wildflowers, Dodge pays respects to the 81st Pennsylvania private, who was mortally wounded at Boydton Plank Road in Virginia in 1864. He paid for the flag holder next to the grave of the 19-year-old soldier, one of 40 (at about $35 a pop) Dodge says he has purchased for Civil War veterans’ graves at Laurel Hill.
Within site of the river once used to transport bodies by boats to the cemetery, Dodge stops at the grave of Union General Hector Tyndale. On September 17, 1862, while commanding a 12th Corps brigade at Antietam, he was wounded in the head and hip and had three horses shot out from under him. “For resolute courage, conspicuous gallantry, self-possession and judgment at Antietam,” read words inscribed on Tyndale’s tall, gray-granite marker. In rapid-fire delivery, Dodge offers two more nuggets about the Philadelphia native: In 1859, Tyndale accompanied John Brown’s wife to Charles Town, Va., for her husband’s hanging. He also escorted Mary Ann Brown and the fiery abolitionist’s body north—Brown eventually was buried in North Elba, N.Y.
During a brief stop, Dodge points out the gravestone of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, barely peeking above ground. The officer was killed in 1864 during an ill-fated, controversial cavalry raid on Richmond, perhaps an attempt to assassinate Jefferson Davis. Then he notes that Dahlgren’s body is missing his right leg. Wounded during a July 1863 skirmish in Hagerstown, Md., the son of Rear Admiral John Dahlgren was taken to recover at his father’s house in Washington, D.C. The wound festered, and Ulric’s leg was amputated below the knee and, oddly, buried in the wall of the Washington Navy Yard foundry building, then under construction. Most of the building was torn down in 1915. But the wall–with Ulric’s entombed limb–remains, marked by a large plaque to note its grim contents.
As he hustles through the grounds, Dodge gestures to markers and recounts details of the departed. There’s the impressive grave of William Drayton, Dodge’s favorite. A South Carolina native, Drayton had sons on both sides of the conflict: Percival was a captain in the Union Navy and Thomas a Confederate brigadier general. He also points out the marker for photography pioneer Robert Cornelius, who shot a daguerreotype self-portrait in 1839, nearly 170 years before the invention of the iPhone turned millions into selfie masters. In a cool touch, the cemetery affixed an image of Cornelius to the back of his tombstone. There’s a weather-worn, white marker for beloved nurse Louise E. Claghorn, a key figure in the U.S. Christian Commission that aided soldiers throughout the Civil War. “A large number of boys from the Northern Home,” a Civil War veterans’ home, “attired in deep mourning” were present at her funeral in 1898, a Philadelphia newspaper reported.
Dodge makes his way to the grave of Meade, which has an impressive, sweeping view of the Schuylkill River. An unabashed admirer of Meade, he recalls his reaction the first time he visited the general’s gravesite in March 1997: “Really, that’s it?” Unlike the “humungous” grave for Union General George McClellan in nearby Trenton, N.J., Meade’s resting place is marked by a simple white stone inscribed with his name, final military rank, place and date of birth and death and nine words: “He did his work bravely and is at rest.”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Thousands lined the streets to say goodbye to ‘the hero of Gettysburg’[/quote]
“He was professional and humble,” Dodge says of Meade, “although he apparently did not like reporters.” During the Overland Campaign in 1864, the general became incensed by a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer that implied Meade wanted to retreat following the Battle of the Wilderness. To punish Edward Crapsey, Meade ordered the reporter placed on a mule backward with a sign around his neck that read “Libeler of the press.”
On November 11, 1872, five days after Meade died of pneumonia in his house at 1836 Delancey Street, thousands lined the streets to say goodbye to what one newspaper called “the hero of Gettysburg.” President Ulysses Grant, Phil Sheridan, Winfield Hancock, and William Sherman were among the mourners. The city had “never witnessed such a representation of the power and greatness and genius of the nation, as that which assembled within its limits today, to pay the last tribute of honor and respect to the memory of Major-Gen. George Gordon Meade,” The New York Times reported.
Meade’s coffin was taken from his house for a service at St. Mark’s Church, and the route along the funeral procession “took nearly an hour to pass a given point,” a Pittsburgh newspaper noted. In civilian dress, Grant rode in an open carriage while Sherman and Sheridan appeared in full uniform. Even “Old Baldy,” Meade’s beloved horse, was part of the procession. Meade’s coffin, draped with an American flag and a wreath, was carried on a gun carriage pulled by six horses. Since 1996, the General Meade Society has held a ceremony at its namesake’s plot every New Year’s Eve, the anniversary of the general’s birth in Cadiz, Spain, in 1815. Dodge has attended eight such remembrance services for Meade, whose grave he often gently taps as a sign of respect for the officer.
After the visit to Meade’s final resting place, conversation shifts to Pemberton. Born in Philadelphia, he married a Virginia woman and moved south before the rebellion. In war, Meade’s friend and roommate at West Point lived a mostly charmed life. “Through perils of the storm and stress of battle,” Pemberton’s obituary in the Philadelphia Times noted about the Confederate lieutenant general, “he seemed to bear immunity from harm….in the front and midst of the fray through some of the most disastrous affrays he passed unscathed.”
But the loss of Vicksburg “so stirred up the popular feeling of the South against [Pemberton],” the Times reported after his death on July 13, 1881, “that he never had the opportunity to retrieve the disaster….” Decades after the war, Pemberton was, the paper reported, “still the subject of controversy among ex-Confederate officials.” Coverage of his death in local newspapers was scant, and Meade’s family wanted to kill plans for Pemberton’s burial at Laurel Hill, considering it an affront to the Union veterans who rest there. Perhaps it’s best then that the down-on-his-luck Pemberton was buried elsewhere, a zip code away from Meade at Laurel Hill.
Before departing the cemetery grounds, Dodge marvels at its vastness. “Look at this place,” he says. “You could spend hours and hours here and not see a 1/10 of it.” Clearly, this cemetery reporter relishes the dead beat. Asked if he would like to be buried in Laurel Hill when the Grim Reaper taps him on the shoulder, Dodge leaves no doubt. “Absolutely,” he says without hesitation. “It’s almost a given that’s where my wife and I will be.” ✯
Visiting Laurel Hill Cemetery
Hours: Open weekdays (8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) and weekends (9:30 a.m.-4 p.m.). Closed some holidays.
Laurel Hill offers guided tours for a fee, which supports the upkeep of the cemetery. For more information, visit thelaurelhillcemetery.org.