Where old soldiers lie, undisturbed by visitors The forgotten: The 131 national cemeteries, including including two in Baltimore and one in Annapolis, are places of honor where few come to call

July 03, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

The caption for maps in yesterday's editions pinpointing the locations of Annapolis and Loudon Park national cemeteries incorrectly stated that they are the only two in Maryland of the 14 original national cemeteries established in 1862. There is a third -- Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg.

The Sun regrets the errors

Beyond the wrought-iron gate, headstones are decaying with age, epitaphs scarcely legible. Simple words, carved in stone, are poignant: "Here lies a soldier." Endless rows of white grave markers form perfect columns on the rolling hills.

Here, in a deserted Baltimore cemetery, lie America's forgotten dead, men and women who loved freedom enough to war over it. Lost soldiers who represent the reality of battle. Decorated warriors and fallen heroes, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor recipients. Sergeants, generals and undistinguished privates.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Theirs are stories of greatness. Or of dying on the verge of greatness.

But just a handful of visitors pay homage each year to the dead in this West Baltimore national cemetery and dozens like it around the country in places like Annapolis, Danville, Ky., and Keokuk, Iowa. The masses go instead to Arlington, making a quick stop there between tours of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial and the White House.

As a result, many of the nation's 131 national cemeteries are becoming tombs of the forgotten.

"It's sad," said Peter Johnston, who regularly visits the off-the-beaten-path national cemeteries. "These men went to their graves praying they would be remembered."

But even on patriotic days such as the Fourth of July, tens of thousands of graves go unvisited. Memorials go unseen. And stories of those who gave their lives for a nation go untold.

Nurse Beale, Loudon Park National Cemetery, Baltimore

It was January 1862, and thousands of proud men in blue and gray were dying in a bloody civil war that showed no signs of ending. A dedicated nurse already had lost her husband, so she went to work -- sometimes helping soldiers live, sometimes watching them die -- at Adams Hospital in Baltimore.

Under harrowing conditions, she nursed the wounded and diseased. The water was contaminated, the food unsafe. When her own fever started to escalate, Nurse Beale probably knew what was coming: the rashes, the stomach pains, the unromantic ending.

She died of typhoid fever on Jan. 10 at 48, still tending to her sick men, leaving four young children.

Beale is the only nurse buried at Loudon Park National Cemetery. She rests with 4,230 other Civil War casualties, some of whom she watched die.

Almost religiously, Johnston remembers veterans.

He views gravesites with reverence, referring to the marble headstones in the national cemeteries he visits as "altars to the dead."

"Every national cemetery is a shrine," the 31-year-old ex-Marine said while walking through Loudon Park National Cemetery this week. "Every soldier's grave is a shrine."

Johnston comes here often. Ask him to meet you, to show you around, to point out important soldiers' graves, and he won't bother telling you where to find him on the sprawling grounds.

"You'll know it's me," he will say. "I'll be the only one there."

Johnston knows only a few hundred people come here each year. The same with Baltimore National Cemetery just up the road and Annapolis National down in Anne Arundel County.

Compared with the 4.5 million people who visit Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington every year, the statistics are depressing.

"Why has Arlington become the unofficial shrine to our war dead?" Johnston asked. "Because it's in Washington. That's all. The guys buried there are the same guys buried here. They all have families -- mothers and fathers and children and wives -- and they're gone because they loved this country."

Now that he's on his favorite topic, Johnston can't stop. He will talk for hours, sometimes pausing, sometimes not, mourning a nation he says takes freedom for granted. After awhile, he apologizes for droning on. Then, almost immediately, he gets back on the subject.

"I just can't imagine why people wouldn't want to visit these places," Johnston said, standing in a sea of stark headstones. "Sure, the splashy monuments are in D.C., and monuments are nice to look at. But this place -- this is the reality of war."

He's not done yet:

H

"There's history here. Stories. Lots of untold stories."

Nicholas Demidoff, Annapolis National Cemetery

The Russian seaman, who was serving on a Russian man-of-war docked in Annapolis, died in a barroom brawl on Feb. 4, 1864, while on a goodwill tour to the United States. Demidoff had walked from the city docks to a nearby tavern, then become enraged when the bartender refused to serve him. The Russian and two fellow shipmates began a fight, and Demidoff was shot dead.

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