Lexington’s buried past fascinates locals – and goes online

By Garrett Paglia

xxx

The Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery is full of history.  But alongside the generals and governors that everybody hears about lie people with their own interesting untold stories.

Thomas Kastner, a retired naval officer living in Rockbridge County, was struck by this idea while doing research on one of the more popular people buried there.  As he looked at this grave, he began to wonder about the story of the grave next to it, or the one next to that, and so forth.

Since then, he has spearheaded a project to build a website containing as much information as he and local historical societies could find on the people buried in the cemetery.

Among the dead are 144 veterans of the Confederate Army and two former governors of Virginia.  But Kastner says that all of the others buried there had at least something to do with Lexington’s development.  They all played a role in shaping the city’s identity.  This is why he delves into the histories of the other not-so-popular gravestones.  On a tour of the cemetery, he pointed out some of the interesting stories he stumbled upon.

Not all the history here is dead yet, he said, pointing to a large white oak with a major limb cut off and steel bars holding twin trunks together.  He said it’s the oldest tree in Lexington, standing in the southwestern portion of the cemetery, where the original Presbyterian Church used to be. This tree has been there since before the cemetery was founded by the church in 1798.

The city of Lexington purchased the cemetery around 1940.  Kastner said a couple of extra dollars could be spent to create plaques for that tree and some of the others in the cemetery.

Only three African-Americans are buried in the cemetery, a fact that caught Kastner’s attention.  One is Davy Buck, whose tombstone reads, “He belonged to the estate of Matthew Hanna.”  It lies in one corner of the cemetery by itself, at an odd angle to almost every other grave.  Another is Samuel Hays, who served a man named Matthew White, Sr., and was buried in the White family plot with them.  Kastner discovered that there was great controversy surrounding this decision.  White insisted that Hays be buried in his family’s plot because of his contributions to three different generations of White children. The third black in Stonewall Jackson is a freed female named Amy Hill.  She lived on Jefferson Street north of Nelson Street. At that time, this block was referred to as Back street, in the black section of town. A historical journal says that she had the respect of her white neighbors, and that she wished to be buried as near to her friends as possible. Amy Hill’s grave and this history were found by an artist named Jan Tratnik who, like Kastner, grew fascinated with the old cemetery. When she brought a daughter to Washington and Lee University last fall, she took enough photographs of gravestones to create an exhibit in the university’s Leyburn Library, “Sacred to the Memory.”

Photos: Garrett Paglia  xxx

In his research, Kastner came upon something strange on the eastern side of the cemetery.  In the Pole family plot, he noticed that John Pole’s wife, Cora Lee, had drowned on Aug. 11, 1901.  He noticed that three of their four children had also died on that day.  With research, Kastner found that John Pole had taken his family for a carriage ride out past Whistle Creek, west of Lexington.  While out, a thunderstorm broke, causing the creek to flood.  On their way back, Pole tried to get the horse-drawn carriage through the creek.  It capsized, drowning all in it except for one of their children and John Pole himself.

Another tombstone that caught Kastner’s attention is that of a Chinese cadet at the Virginia Military Academy named Yu Hsian Hu.  There is a Chinese inscription on this gravestone, but Kastner has been unable to get it deciphered, apparently because the lettering is not the same as modern Chinese.  The cadet died April 29, 1923, cause unknown.

Kastner pointed out one tombstone that suggests an interesting twist on family, gender and marriage.  The three Colton sisters, who were all married and died over a span of almost 30 years, are buried under the same stone with the inscription, “Devoted Sisters.” Their husbands are nowhere to be found.

Emily Crawford, a Washington and Lee University junior, has been helping Kastner label and publish such interesting facts to be added to the website Kastner has started as a database of all the graves. In an essay about the cemetery, Crawford explains how the cemetery has captured her attention.  “These graves speak because the inscriptions give them a voice. All we have to do is to listen.”