Washington and Lee University's Leyburn Library has created a new website that catalogues almost 60 percent of graves in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in Lexington, Va.
Stonewall Jackson is buried in the cemetery along with 144 Confederate veterans, two Virginia governors and the poet and author Margaret Junkin Preston. But it was the thousands of graves of lesser-known Lexington citizens that fascinated Lexington resident Tom Kastner and led him to conduct the census.
So far, Kastner has documented 2,800 graves and he expects to take at least two more years to complete the task.
Kastner enlisted the assistance of Washington and Lee to present the research to the public through the online database, which includes photographs of the graves.
After Kastner received complaints four years ago that a brochure listing the 20 most prominent citizens in the cemetery contained errors, he decided to visit the cemetery to check. "I was intrigued because, here was the grave of Governor McDowell, but who was that next to him? There were a lot of graves that weren't mentioned," said Kastner. "And I think a lot of what the town of Lexington is today is due to a large extent to all the citizens, not just the 20 most important people. So I was curious as to who these people were."
Kastener found that the cemetery records were kept not by who was in each grave, but by who bought the grave site. Consequently, someone looking for a great grandmother, for example, would have great difficulty finding her unless they knew who bought the plot she was in.
Kastner's work is sponsored by Preservation Virginia, the Rockbridge Historical Society, the Rockbridge Area Genealogical Association, the City of Lexington and now Washington and Lee University.
He visited each grave and compared it to past records, taking a photograph of the inscription on the grave and noting pertinent information such as birth and death dates and anything significant with respect to accomplishments. He then gave the information to the genealogical society which checked its records and provided any additional information.
During his research, Kastner gained a good idea of society at a particular time. "For example, the way graves were laid out showed the importance of family," he explained. "And married women were buried under their maiden names. If it was sufficiently important to inscribe their maiden names on the tombstones, then that meant something from a social point of view."
He also found a new appreciation for child mortality at the time.
"Everybody knows about Colonel John Jordan, the Virginia builder who was a splendid citizen and a leading light in Lexington, and his wife Lucy, a great big strapping woman who was well known throughout the community," said Kastner. "But if you go to the southeast of Col. John Jordan’s monument, there’s a monument erected by Lucy that shows that four of her ten children died. They were born two years apart and none of them lived more than 18 months. So when you look at that monument it gives you a different appreciation of the Jordans in particular that you won’t find anywhere else.
"And if you go about ten paces south east from the monument there's a little marble plaque that says "Rose" but nobody knows who Rose was," he added.
Emily Crawford, a junior classics major at Washington and Lee, worked on the website project by resizing, sorting and labeling the thousands of photographs Kastner took.
She wrote in an essay that "the voices that speak to us from the inscriptions on the gravesites are real and for a few brief moments an observer is aware of the type of life the deceased person led. I saw many tombstones that were erected in memory of a loving mother, a brave soldier, a small child. One tombstone even explicitly told the cause of death of a small child—the child had drowned in a terrible accident at the age of four. Another inscription told of the 'long and fruitful life ' another person had led."
Crawford also noted that in the oldest sections of the cemetery graves are worn down, overgrown with plants and sinking into the ground with the inscriptions barely visible.
Crawford was supervised on the project by Carol Karsch, library data and statistical support specialist at W&L's Leyburn Library. Karsch took Kastner's spreadsheet of data and designed and created the searchable website. The website includes a link to a form that people can fill out if they spot an error or can give additional information. ""We'll double check any new information and add it to the database," said Karsch.
But even with the website it will be hard to find a particular grave, according to Kastner, because it doesn’t yet include a map of the cemetery. He hopes to persuade the city to create a map that can be posted online in the next few months.
People researching genealogy often end up at W&L's Leyburn Library, which has a very active association with the Lexington Historical Society. John Tombarge, associate professor and head of public services at the library, described the new website as "a tremendous aid in that type of research because researching families is one the hardest things to do and people take it so personally.
"This is just one more step the library can take to help both the local historical society and visitors that come to our library. But it also helps us to show that libraries are more than just books and manuscripts, or passive recipients of items. Through this website we are also generating information that will be available to everybody."
The Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery website can be found at http://library.wlu.edu/SJCemetery/