On Controversial Happenings at a Naval Cemetery

“Naval Cemetery?” you might ask. “What relevance does a Naval Cemetery have to the history of maritime medicine?” Actually, you probably already see the connection: U. S. Navy hospitals are responsible for operating and maintaining nearby Navy cemeteries, presumably on the principle “if you can’t cure them, you bury them; but you care for them either way.”

So it was with the Naval Cemetery on Mare Island in northern California. It actually antedates the first Naval Hospital on the west coast by about 20 years, having received its first burial in 1856. Navy medical care was delivered on a succession of receiving ships almost from the Mare Island Navy Yard’s founding–by then-Commander David Farragut in 1854–until the first land-based medical facility, a converted granary, opened for business in 1864. From the beginning, Medical Officers in Charge included regular cemetery status reports and funding requests in their correspondence with leadership back in Washington DC.

The Cemetery officially closed in the 1920s, though the last burial actually took place in the latter part of the 20th century. The Naval Hospital closed in 1957, and the Navy Yard in 1997. Management and maintenance of the Cemetery–now part of a National Historic Landmark District–fell to the City of Vallejo.

Buried in this Cemetery are more than 900 sailors, Marines, family members, and, significantly, a few foreign sailors. Among these are 6 Russian sailors interred during an 1863-64 Russian fleet visit to San Francisco. It’s about the graves of these sailors that recent controversy developed:

About a year ago, 1890s-era marble VA  grave markers labeled “Russian Sailor” which stood over three of the six (three earlier marble stones probably dating from the 1860s had been spirited off the island in the 1990s only to be returned last year) were quietly removed, and six larger, granite markers in the style of two 1904 Russian graves in another, later, part of the cemetery were substituted in their place. Vallejo City Ordnance requires that any such change to the historic district receive a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Architectural and Heritage Commission. This Certificate was never sought or granted.

1904 granite crosses among 1860s flat marble grave stones (courtesy Vallejo Times-Herald)

A small group of local historians and preservationists raised a hue and cry over the surreptitious nature of the swapout, the failure of those responsible to seek appropriate advice, and the fact that 1904-era markers were placed in an 1860s part of the Cemetery. The locals obtained outside expert opinions on the matter, and launched a letter-writing campaign both to the press and to the Architectural and Heritage Commission itself. That Commission, after several postponements, met last night. Despite a city staff recommendation for retroactive approval of  the grave marker swapout, the seven Commissioners voted unanimously to deny it. Further, the seven voted to require repair or historically appropriate replacement of the stones originally guarding the graves. While this decision can–and likely will–be appealed to City Council, preservationists are elated over the Commission’s rejection of its own staff advice and adoption of their view on the matter. Your author is proud to have been part of the group advocating for repair and / or historically informed replacement of the earlier markers.

© 2011 Thomas L Snyder

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