Federal government seeking land for another Chattanooga area national military cemetery

VA projects Civil War-era cemetery to fill up in next decade

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Retired Navy chaplain Phil Sumrall lays wreaths on headstones at the Chattanooga National Cemetery in 2016. The cemetery along Holtzclaw and McCallie avenues has about 47,000 occupied grave sites and is running out of burial space for veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is seeking to buy more than 150 acres to locate another military cemetery within 30 miles of downtown Chattanooga.

The federal government is seeking property to develop another national military cemetery in the Chattanooga area.

The Chattanooga National Cemetery, which was established to bury both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War, has at least another decade of burial capacity for military veterans, according to projections by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

But after determining that railroad lines, underground pipes and other urban development prevented an expansion of the landlocked cemetery along North Holtzclaw and McCallie avenues near downtown Chattanooga, the VA is soliciting proposals for at least another 150 acres within a 30-mile radius of downtown Chattanooga for another military cemetery.

"To plan for when the cemetery begins to run out of space, the VA is currently seeking more land in the Chattanooga area to ensure we continue to serve veterans in the community without interruption," said Lew Boone, director of corporate communications at the Department of Veterans Affairs. "Once a site has been selected and funding has been authorized, the VA begins a design process that includes cemetery master planning, design development for the initial phase of cemetery construction and development of the site."

Carl Levi, an 89-year-old retired brigadier general in the Tennessee Army National Guard who grew up riding his bike through the Chattanooga National Cemetery, said he has been urging the VA to expand the current cemetery for over two decades.

"For many years, all I got was a lot conversation about this, so I'm glad it is moving ahead, although I wish they could have found a way to expand the existing cemetery to the south from where it is now," Levi said Friday.

Bill Raines, a commercial real estate developer who is a retired Army major general, said he also had hoped the current cemetery could be expanded more "but that was not successful because of the railroad tracks" and other restrictions due to the urban setting of the 157-year-old facility.

"I think that in the long term this is in the best interests of the veterans in our region and our country," said Raines, who previously served as chair of the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council. "But finding a suitable site for another cemetery will be a challenge in our area."

photo Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Honor guard bring flags into a small gathering at the Chattanooga National Cemetery durng an Arbor Day celebration. The cemetery along Holtzclaw and McCallie avenues has about 47,000 occupied grave sites and is running out of burial space for veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is seeking to buy more than 150 acres to locate another military cemetery within 30 miles of downtown Chattanooga.

The VA extended its original August deadline for land proposals until Oct. 21 to attract more property proposals. According to the VA's advertisement, the agency is seeking "expressions of interest" from landowners to sell 150 or more acres of property outside of the 100-year flood zone and within 30 miles of the current cemetery, which potentially includes sites in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

Richard Banchoff of the consulting firm of ISI Professional Services, which is helping to solicit the offers, said the VA will evaluate each site for its potential as a cemetery within a variety of VA objectives, not just on the cost of the property. Typically, the VA does site tours of the best potential sites and will buy the property based upon the fair market value of the site.

"The VA uses specified evaluation factors and criteria to determine site suitability for national cemetery purposes," Boone said.

The Chattanooga National Cemetery has about 47,000 occupied grave sites which include in-ground caskets, cremation, and columbarium burials. There are approximately 4,500 available sites.

"At the current rate of interments, we estimate the cemetery has at least another decade's worth of burial capacity," Boone said.

The VA currently manages 150 national cemeteries across the United States, including five VA national cemeteries in Tennessee. The Volunteer State also has six State Veterans Cemeteries.

The construction of new cemeteries varies in number from year to year, but in the past decade the VA has added 13 new national cemeteries. There are five new national cemeteries now in queue to be added in coming years. Additionally, Boone said the VA regularly purchases land or constructs columbaria to augment burial capacity at existing national cemeteries.

The Chattanooga National Cemetery buried its first soldier on Christmas Day in 1863. Major Gen. George H. Thomas created the national cemetery in commemoration of the Battles of Chattanooga which took place Nov. 23-27, 1863.

General Thomas reportedly chose the site of the cemetery during the Battle of Missionary Ridge. He selected the same hill used by Major Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the earlier Battle of Lookout Mountain.

The site faced Missionary Ridge to the east, the Tennessee River to the north and Lookout Mountain to the southwest. In 1863, the cemetery opened with the interment of casualties from the Battles of Chattanooga and Chickamauga, including nearly 1,800 unknowns. By 1870, more than 12,800 interments were complete: 8,685 known and 4,189 unknown.

The land was originally appropriated, but later purchased for $10,000 from local residents Joseph Ruohs, Robert M. Hooke and J. R. Slayton.

The cemetery has been expanded and upgraded over the past century and a half with both public and private investments. In 1935, the German government erected the German Prisoner of War Monument at the cemetery to honor 92 German prisoners of war captured during World War I who died on American soil, 78 of whom are buried at Chattanooga, according to the National Park Service. The cemetery also contains the remains of 108 World War II prisoners of war, from Germany, France, Italy, and Poland.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.