Grand Procession at Green-Wood Cemetery: Civil War 150th Anniversary

I still can’t quite believe that Sunday night happened: that I was allowed to walk in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery at night with only the light of a distant skyline and candles dotting military graves to guide our way. (Okay, and a little help from my iPhone flashlight app.) Out of the darkness we came upon Confederate soldiers, banjo players, and choirs singing by the graves. The haunting experience was the Grand Procession, part of Green-Wood Cemetery’s marking of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

When we arrived, it was still daylight and we found a hill overlooking the main gate from which to lounge and listen to a rousing military band. Union and Confederate soldiers on horseback were gathering around the gate, along with a crowd of costumed and un-costumed people.  (It was much too hot for hoop dresses so I was not in a costume… and I don’t own one because it would take up my whole apartment, among other reasons.)

I was curious about some of the reenactors who were wearing red and blue outfits, and after some research found out that they were dressed as members of the Red Legged Devils.  They were the 14th regiment out of Brooklyn and fought the entire war while wearing red. While no Civil War battles were fought on the ground that’s now Green-Wood Cemetery, it did establish a soldiers lot where veterans could be buried for free. For the Grand Procession on Sunday night, candles (electric) were placed on the nearly 4,500 Civil War graves in the cemetery, a sadly small fraction of the over 3.5 million who fought.

As the sun started to go down, the Grand Procession began. We started by walking up Battle Hill (which was a site of conflict in the American Revolution) to the Civil War monument.

Along the way, soldiers from both sides and some mourners in black veils were standing guard.

At the top of Battle Hill, a choir was singing on the steps leading up to the Civil War monument. Later we would encounter them deeper in the cemetery after dark, when they were singing “Oh Shenandoah.” (Please, just close your eyes for a moment and imagine beautiful voices singing that as you approach on a dark road, cross tombstones gently lit around you, a gentle breeze coming from a distant harbor.)

Night fell quickly, and we were soon at the Soldiers’ Lot, dense with candles. The grassy field is presided over by the drummer boy, sculpted in white zinc. It was built in memory of Clarence Mackenzie, who was the first Brooklynite to die in the Civil War. Someone who overheard us discussing the grave said that the drummer boys were usually killed first since the drums were used as tactical signals and the young boys were unfortunately unarmed.

The stillness of the cemetery was suddenly broken by the boom of a canon. We finally found it a little ways off, just as they were about to fire it again. We were warned not to stand too close or we would feel the reverberations. I’d never seen a canon shot off in the dark. It seemed like it was shooting flames. I think even from a distance I felt it rattle my spine.

Everywhere we walked, there were little candle lights on close and faraway graves. We stopped to listen to a banjo player sing the blues. Further along we would hear Taps played on a trumpet up on a hill overlooking the chapel.

Inside the chapel, there was an exhibit on the Civil War. It was a little crowded and hot, so I’m going to have to come back another day. I did get to see the stereoscopic image viewfinder where you could see the Civil War “in 3D.”

The Grand Procession was an extraordinarily beautiful event and I’m so glad I went. It couldn’t really be captured in photos, but I hope this at least gives you an idea of being there.

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