During the Civil War, the capital of the Confederacy and the federal government lay barely 100 miles apart—and Culpeper was located roughly midway between them. As a result of its strategic geographical location, both Union and Confederate armies occupied the region around Culpeper, Va., during the conflict. Confederates encamped and patrolled the region to thwart Union efforts to attack the Confederate capital of Richmond. The Union Army was ever-present to defend Washington, D.C., and federal supply lines, as well as to attack Richmond.
From 1862-65, numerous battles waged throughout the region, including the Battle of Cedar Mountain on Aug. 9, 1862, and the Battle of Chancellorsville, April 30 through May 6, 1863. So great was the loss of life on both sides during these encounters that many scholars consider these battles to be the fiercest fighting of the war. Afterward, many soldiers died of wounds in field or military hospitals. Most were buried where they fell or were interred in make-shift graves around encampments, hospitals or the battlefield.
After the war, a reburial program was initiated by the federal government and carried out by the office of the quartermaster general. The objective was to locate the remains of all Union soldiers and reinter them in national cemeteries. As a result of the National Cemetery Act of 1862 and the number of scattered Union dead in the vicinity, Culpeper National Cemetery was established in 1867.
Land for the original six-acre cemetery was purchased from Edward B. Hill of Culpeper for $1,400. In 1872, a Second Empire Victorian-style caretaker’s lodge designed by Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, was constructed on the property. A tool house, brick perimeter walls, and a flagstaff were most likely constructed during the 1870s as well. H.W. McCray of Washington, D.C., constructed a decorative brick rostrum with iron posts and a tin roof in December 1905.
During the 1930s, the cemetery was improved through several Depression-era federal make-work programs. In 1934, the original tool house was demolished and replaced by a new brick garage-tool-comfort station erected by the Civil Works Administration (CWA) at a cost of $8,000. Another CWA project in May 1934 included repairs to the lodge, raising and realigning 912 headstones, and constructing a concrete driveway and walk. In 1936, a Works Project Administration project accomplished the realignment and re-setting of 402 headstones. The old flagstaff was removed and replaced with a new one in 1938 and in December 1939 a brick and slate-roof oil house was constructed.
The cemetery operated without major improvements until Nov. 17, 1972, when it closed to new interments. On Sept. 1, 1973, in execution of the National Cemetery Act of 1973, the cemetery was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Veterans Administration’s new National Cemetery System. In 1975, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Burton-Hammond Post 2524, donated an additional 10.5 acres for cemetery use. Another small tract was purchased in 1978 and a brick administration building was constructed on the property. The cemetery re-opened Jan. 16, 1978.
Culpeper National Cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.