Uncovering the past in hidden graveyard

A St. Mary's County man is restoring a cemetery that made way for a base.

April 14, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON PARK - It was the middle of World War II and, the official story goes, the Navy worried about forcing its superstitious pilots to fly over graves on the grounds of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station it was building here.

The Navy also worried about visitors who traveled the base's main road. The last thing they should see was such a stark reminder of the dead.

So the Navy made St. Nicholas Cemetery essentially disappear. Workers laid down the tombstones and covered them with dirt and sod. Future flyers wouldn't even know it had been there.

But old-timers would. And they would tell others. More than 60 years after what could have been the end of St. Nicholas Cemetery, where veterans from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 had been laid to rest among others, it is rising once again. Roughly 40 tombstones have been recovered, and there are plans to dig up and restore many more.

"When a family erects a stone to a loved one, it's meant to memorialize them. I feel we're obligated to protect that - even if they're long dead," said Scott D. Lawrence, who learned about the hidden graveyard from his grandfather. "It's unfortunate that it happened in the first place. At the same time, it's very fortunate that the wrong can be righted. ...

"I'm just glad they didn't pick the stones up and throw them in the river."

Not long before his grandfather died a few years ago, Lawrence asked him where to find the cemetery where their ancestors were buried. At St. Nicholas Church inside the gates of the Naval Air Station, Lawrence was told.

Lawrence, a federal contractor who worked on the base, had driven by that old church many times over the years. Only there wasn't any cemetery there, just a plush green manicured lawn.

So began a project that has taken Lawrence on a journey into the past that will continue long into the future. Lawrence would quickly learn there had indeed been a cemetery at St. Nicholas, where many of St. Mary's County's prominent citizens had been buried. He would find out that the Navy had meticulously laid down the tombstones and wooden crosses and other markers after it purchased the land in 1942 - and then buried them atop the bodies there.

He would be told he couldn't excavate the marble and granite monuments. And then, after refusing to take no for an answer, he would be told that under strict conditions, including that he always be accompanied by an archaeologist, he could try to restore what could be the burial ground for more than 600 who called Southern Maryland home.

Not everyone is buying into the Navy's rationale for trying to hide the graveyard.

"There's an official reason why it was done, but it just doesn't make sense to me," said Jim Gibb, the Annapolis archaeologist who has worked with Lawrence to restore the cemetery.

The air station was built on about 4,000 acres of large family farms and small-town crossroads taken from Cedar Point landowners for the cause - with just 30 days' notice tacked to the front door in some cases. At least one cemetery - the one at the Methodist church - was relocated. Otherwise it would have been underneath two runways.

"I suspect [covering over St. Nicholas Cemetery] was the Navy's way of saying [to those being moved], `So long, there's no reason to come back,'" Gibb said.

"You do things in wartime that years later, when you take it out of context, you don't always understand," said Eve Love, president of the St. Mary's County Genealogical Society.

Ads running in the local newspaper gave descendants of those buried at the cemetery the opportunity to have their loved ones exhumed and buried elsewhere. Only one casket was moved (a distant cousin of Lawrence's, actually, who had died three years before).

The rest of the graves were carefully charted by Navy surveyors, who drew a map including all of the names and dates they could read off the markers and noted where crosses with no inscriptions had stood or where bodies had clearly been buried but without a grave marker. Sixty years after it was drawn, Lawrence got a copy of the map, which he has used to help pinpoint tombstones.

The Navy map shows roughly 300 burial spots. Through researching old church records and ledger books, Lawrence has come up with about 300 more.

Lawrence wasn't the first person to ask permission to restore the cemetery. He was just the first one to persevere long enough to get it. In 2003, he was finally told he could raise the tombstones of 13 veterans - including Lawrence's great-great-grandfather David Hammett, a Confederate soldier whose grave was marked with a tower made of several heavy slabs of granite and rock. One of the 13 tablets he set out to find remains elusive.

The grave markers have been found by pretty low-tech means. Using a T-shaped steel probe, they poke through the grass until they hit something hard. They dig with shovels and trowels - some of the stones are just 5 inches deep.

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