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Posted on Jul 12, 2013 in Stuff We Like

Laurel Hill Cemetery – Valhalla of Philadelphia

By Anthony Waskie

Philadelphia’s Laurel-Hill Cemetery circa 1848. (Illustration by Aug. Kölllner)

A large number of well-known military figures are interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery, one of the oldest Victorian Garden cemeteries dating to 1836. There are an especially large number of veterans from the Civil War interred there. This is due to the fact that Laurel Hill at that time was the leading cemetery for the elites of Philadelphia.

Army is represented by forty-two (42) Civil War Era generals including: Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, victorious commander of the Union army at Gettysburg; Charles Ferguson Smith, commander of the Western army before Shiloh; Joshua “Paddy” Owen of the Philadelphia Brigade; Robert Patterson of the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1861 and his two general sons, Francis of the New Jersey Brigade and Robert Emmet of the 115th Pa. Regt.; John C. Pemberton, commander of the southern forces at the siege of Vicksburg. Pemberton is one of a number of Confederate veterans buried in Laurel Hill who also had roots in the North.


The Navy boasts of a number of admirals, commodores, and captains, who rest there, including Adm. John Dahlgren, famed for his work with naval ordnance.

Marine Corps veterans include Gen. Jacob Zeilin, 7th commandant of the Marine Corps during the Civil War and its first general, who also helped design the Marine Corps emblem which is proudly displayed on his memorial obelisk.

There are six Medal of Honor recipients who rest here including: Robert Kelly, master’s mate USN; Frank Furness, Capt. 6th Pa. Cavalry; George Pitman, Sergeant 1st N.Y. Cavalry; John Story, Sergeant, 109th Pa. Volunteers, Pinkerton Vaughn, Sergeant, USMC, Henry Bingham, Brevet Brigadier General, 140th P.V..

George G. Meade’s gravesite at Philadelphia’s historic Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Other military notables buried here include: Commodore Isaac Hull of the USS Constitution; Col. Ulric Dahlgren, killed in the Dahlgren-Kilpatrick Richmond cavalry raid; Col. Charles Ellet of the Mississippi Ram fleet; Major (USMC) Levi Twiggs, killed in the Mexican War; George Alfred Townsend, known as “GATH,” the most famous war correspondent of the period; and the battlefield nurse Mary Morris Husband.

Also found here are volunteer soldiers, sailors, and marines who struggled in the darkest days of our nation’s history. Some of the Union veterans from the Civil War are interred in the Meade Post #1 G.A.R. burial plot – including Lt. William Tyrrell, a hero of Gettysburg. Most are scattered throughout the cemetery resting in honored glory, some yet to be identified.

The first official Memorial Day Service in Philadelphia was held at Laurel Hill on May 30, 1868. The Services were sponsored by the newly formed organization of Union veterans of the Civil War: the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The Meade Post #1, G.A.R. was responsible for the veterans’ graves in Laurel Hill, and for holding its annual Memorial Day or Decoration Day Services every May 30th for many years. They also adopted the tradition of placing flag holder markers on the graves of veterans. Recently, this tradition was revived by the General Meade Society of Philadelphia, the Post #1 Society of the Union League and the Friends of Laurel Hill, and the project was begun to return the traditional grave marker of the Meade Post to every Civil War veteran’s grave. To date hundreds of the reconstructed Meade Post markers have been placed on veterans’ graves and appropriately dedicated at services at Laurel Hill.

Additionally, there are graves of veterans from all American wars and conflicts, from the Revolution up to Vietnam. A veteran’s marker has been specially designed to be placed on these graves too. This project continues unabated. Whenever a veteran is discovered without a grave stone, a marker is ordered, placed and dedicated at the annual Memorial Day services each year.
Each year, the Memorial Day Service is conducted on the Sunday before the National observance employing the old G.A.R. ritual with appropriate ceremony. Lately, hundreds have been in attendance to honor veterans.

Laurel Hill have also undertaken an ambitious project to highlight the Civil War notables buried there with a five (5) year exhibition featuring a constant “elite eleven” high profile individuals and adding another dozen each year who impacted the action during that period. In conjunction with the Exhibition, special tours have been developed to bring the stories of these historical figures alive at their grave sites. This year is the 150th Anniversary of the events of 1863, and the emphasis will be placed on “Gettysburg” and those who served during that campaign.

Please plan on visiting historic Laurel Hill Cemetery the next time you find yourself in Philadelphia!

For information, directions and events, call 215-228-8200; or go to: