The Story of American Freedom, Written On Granite

The Story of American Freedom, Written On Granite

Published: Feb 28, 2011 at 11:35 am

By Wayne Lutz, photos by Katherine Fialkowski.

Tucked away in a working-class North Philadelphia neighborhood is an amazing repository of American History. The Philadelphia National Veteran’s Cemetery is mostly hidden from the view of city traffic by vine-covered stone walls topped by ornate iron bars.  The story of the birth and growth of our nation is written with the blood of patriots. This cemetery tells that story in a way no book could do – if you have the eyes to see the blood in the soil, spilled for freedom’s sake, and the ears to hear the voices of thousands of war dead crying out to us to keep as a sacred trust the promise that they have not died in vain.

As you step through the granite entrance at the corner of Limekiln Pike and Haines Street, you are immediately struck by the sense that you are on hallowed ground. Row after regimented row of identical, white granite tombstones stretch out before you. The grounds are meticulously maintained — hardly a leaf out of place even in autumn, the grass surrounding the stones perfectly manicured at all times.

Thirteen thousand veterans and family members rest beneath the green grass there — vets from every war in every era from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. Built in 1862 (the first remains were moved there from other scattered burial locations around Philadelphia), the Philadelphia National Cemetery is filled to capacity and long since closed to new interments. There are few if any living family members still connected to these graves, and the cemetery seldom has visitors, even on Memorial Day.

The Philadelphia National Cemetery was also one of the first to rebel against the strict segregation of that time. Black veterans have been buried there since it was opened, albeit with most in the same section. Segregation was the rule in 19th century Philadelphia, despite that since the American Civil War black American soldiers have fought and died for the nation that segregated them. Most of the grave stones bear the mark “US CLD TRP” or “US CLD INF”, for “US Colored Troop” or “US Colored Infantry”.

The segregation of that era is all the more disturbing when you consider the many heroic contributions that black soldiers made to the freedom of the United States, fighting and dying in all American wars.  Although segregated in life, even in war, the dust to which our heroes have returned mingle to enrich the soil. Dust is dust, it has no color. All blood spilled for liberty is red. And dreams of a better life lived in freedom are the dreams of all races since the beginning of time.

When the civil war ended, Congress formed two regiments of black cavalry with the designations 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry and four regiments of black infantry – the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Colored Infantry Regiments. History has recorded the heroism of those Cavalry units that collectively came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers.  Among the silent witnesses to the struggle of 235 years are 66 Buffalo Soldiers, buried there in the Philadelphia National Cemetery in the same ground as their white brothers-in-arms.

Standing in perpetual witness to the gravestones of 13,000 veterans are four monuments to the heroes of the wars of different eras fought throughout our unique American story. There is a Mexican War Monument, a marble obelisk that was erected in honor of 38 men who served and died in that war. There is a Revolutionary War monument, erected in 1911.

And in another defiant act of “inclusion” in this “Yankee” cemetery stands a Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, installed by the United States in 1911. This is a granite monument that honors Confederate Soldiers and Sailors whose remains were re-interred there from other locations after the Civil War. At the foot of this monument is a large rectangle of grass without stone markers. One Hundred and Eighty Four Confederate soldiers are buried there, without grave stones because the individual bodies could not be identified. The names of those soldiers are listed on three sides of the monument.

Turn another page in the story of the Philadelphia National Cemetery and read on. As if the ground in this place were not already saturated with more honor than it could absorb, two recipients of the Medal of Honor are buried there. Major General Galusha Pennypacker fought in the Civil War with the 97th Pennsylvania Infantry in 1865. And Seaman Alphonse Girandy, U.S. Navy, who served aboard the U.S.S. Petrel, 1901.

The American People remain the freest people in all of Human history. Our Nation was conceived by the yearning to be free and born in the pain of war and the fires of revolution.  The Philadelphia National Cemetery is one of 146 National Cemeteries across the United States. Added to that number are cemeteries on foreign soil that hold American war dead and the countless State and privately owned cemeteries that are the resting places of our veterans. When you stand in any of those places you stand on hallowed ground. You stand on soil soaked in the blood of heroes. You walk among rows of gleaming white stones that mark the passing of patriots.

The entire history of the United States is one long story of the struggle of men to be free. For as long as mankind rules the Earth, some men will seek to deprive other men of freedom. A place like the Philadelphia National Cemetery is a reminder of that struggle. The stones and granite monuments there are the tablet upon which is written the story of that struggle.

Go there, and in the quiet of a summer evening as you stand among the stones you might even hear the voices of fallen patriots telling their stories. Listen, and they will tell you what they did, what they sacrificed, what they lost, for your freedom. Hear, and they will plead with you to keep the freedom that they bought for you at so dear a price. They will beg you to hold on to your freedom and guard it as a sacred trust, so that they will not have lived, sacrificed, and died, in vain.

This is the story of the cost of American Freedom, as told by the Philadelphia National Veteran’s Cemetery. Read it. You need only eyes to see, ears to hear, and the moral courage to keep the story alive.

Wayne Lutz, photo by K. Fialkowski

Wayne Lutz is a Cold War-era veteran and founder of the Warriors’ Watch Riders, whose mission is to ensure that never again will an American Warrior be scorned or ignored. Mr. Lutz is also a skilled orator and writer, and an inspiration to many.