Hidden from view in a forest on the campus of the nation's best-known psychiatric institute rest at least 300 fallen Civil War soldiers. Interspersed are warriors from the Confederacy and the Union, white and black. For years, this secret cemetery along the Potomac River just off of Interstate 295 has been closed to the public.
But recently, 23 historic gravestones have gone missing under the stewardship of the federal government, a rate an audit said is too high — and one massive granite marker was found in the home of an employee of the D.C. government.
In April 1864, a commander in the Confederate Army detailed an officer and two privates to accompany Jordon Mann, a teenage soldier from the 12th Missouri Cavalry, to St. Elizabeths, then named the U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane. The young soldier had been termed "an insane man," a letter from the commander shows. Months later, he died of typhoid fever.
He became one of as many as 450 military burials on a sharply sloped, disjointed three-fourths-acre site that, in highly unusual fashion, mixes the fallen of two races and two opposing armies.
Sometime between the 1990s and 2007, his marker disappeared, the results of two federal inventories showed. Last summer, when former D.C. employee Guy L. Schultz died, an auctioneer "found the gravestone standing in a corner of the garage, with some rakes and mesh in front of it, obscuring it from view," according to an inspector general's report obtained by The Washington Times under the Freedom of Information Act.
Schultz worked for the D.C. Highway Department until retirement, but his son did "not know if that has any connection to how he acquired the gravestone," the report said.
Mark Schultz, the son and heir to the estate, "remembered seeing the gravestone at the house on an earlier occasion, but did not remember when, nor did he have any information on how the gravestone came to be at the house or how long it has been there," the report said.
Names were redacted from the report, written by the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages the site, but were pieced together by The Times.
Mark Schultz told The Times that contrary to GSA records that counted the gravestone present in the 1990s, his father had had it since the mid-1970s. He wasn't entirely pleased that the auction company confiscated the gravestone and contacted the GSA. "The auctioneer company took it and they shouldn't have taken it," he said.
The gravestones are valued at up to $30,000.
But the resolution likely would have been similar regardless, he said: "I was heading to Texas and we opted not to sell it."
Daniel Sanders, president of Four Sales, the Virginia estate-sale company that found the gravestone, noted that it is illegal to sell a gravestone, adding that "once we realized the item was government property there was only one thing to do, and that was return it."
Still, to settle any desire for compensation he may have had, Mr. Sanders said, his company donated $500 to a veterans' organization in Mark Schultz's name.
Mr. Schultz said Mann "really weighed heavy on my heart" and he is glad it is back at St. Elizabeths.
But all has not been made right for the dead soldiers.
Only 209 stones remain. Most Confederate soldiers received iron crosses rather than stones. Other military men had stones that have been stolen or otherwise gone missing.
"Since the last inventory of the cemetery in the 1990s, we have identified 23 stones that are no longer present," a 2007 audit found. "The attrition rate is significant, given the relative obscurity of the cemetery and its location on government property."
That's nearly $700,000 worth of history-rich stones that have disappeared.
The GSA noted that it took control of the site in 2004 only after the Department of Health and Human Services said it no longer needed the property. It said preservation is a top priority.
A view from above
The cemetery is accessible only by cutting through historic-sized rosebushes and nearly impassable inclines in an obscure area of what is known as the West Campus of St. Elizabeths. The federal and local mental facility best known for housing attempted presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. long ago transferred its operations across Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. Southeast to the East Campus, and the dozens of former asylums and a stunning array of support facilities such as dining halls and crumbling greenhouses have sat vacant since.
For such a forbidden location, the view is breathtaking. The campus is situated at the elbow of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers — the cemetery was on the shore of the Anacostia until the river's path was diverted to create Bolling Air Force Base and I-295 was constructed — where wild turkeys, bald eagles and deer roam.
It is also one of the highest points in the region, and from its otherworldly tranquil grounds can be seen the legion of construction cranes shepherding the dense and intense development of downtown D.C. The West Campus presents what is likely the most soaring and uninterrupted panorama of the city's monuments, residences and high-rises.
That the 356 acres of prime real estate inside the D.C. limits remained pastoral and reserved for the mentally disturbed was no accident.
"The surrounding scenery should be varied and attractive, and the neighborhood should possess numerous objects of an agreeable and interesting character," a leading thinker on institutions at the time the hospital was established in the 1850s said. "While the hospital itself should be retired, and its privacy fully secured, the views from it if possible, should exhibit life in its active forms."
In fact, the site was one reason Washington itself was established here.
"When George Washington proclaimed the boundaries of the new Federal City, the heights surrounding it were a recognized factor in the city site selection. The defensible nature of the commanding hills and the safe harbor formed by the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers were both beneficial to the protection of the new capital," according to St. Elizabeths historical records. During the Civil War, forts were set up there to protect the city.
Now, after years of abandonment, the site will again play a role in protecting the nation: The Department of Homeland Security is moving into the West Campus, retrofitting the historic buildings. The Coast Guard has erected a modern building yards from the cemetery. Overhead, Marine One, the presidential helicopter, makes a practice flight.
"If you're driving north on I-295 from the Wilson Bridge, if you don't allow yourself to be distracted by jostling drivers, on the left side you'll see the new Coast Guard building and immediately to the left, there's this real steep slope," Mr. Sanders said of the burials. "And that's where these fellows are."
As for Mann, it took six months to get the GSA to accept the ancient stone: "You have to look at it from their perspective. We were trying to gift something to the federal government that, on paper, it already owned," Mr. Sanders said.
But on Nov. 7, the GSA held an elaborate ceremony at the St. Elizabeths campus timed with Veterans Day to commemorate the return of the gravestone.
In tandem with the Homeland Security Department takeover of West Campus, the white iron crosses of Confederate soldiers are being refurbished, and a museum is being constructed, where Mann's stone may be housed. It is in storage until that time.
Occasional tours of the West Campus are organized, which sometimes approach the cemetery, but the campus is otherwise closed to the public. Those interested in visiting the cemetery are permitted if they make an appointment to be escorted by a federal officer, a practice likely to continue when Homeland Security moves in.
Only two or three people, a longtime GSA official recalled, have ever asked.
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