Thousands of stories in Knoxville National Cemetery

Beth KinnaneNorth Knoxville, Our Town Stories

I have often found it a bit off-putting for people to say “Happy Memorial Day.” Not to throw a wet blanket on anybody’s good time, but the day is not about cook-outs, beer and fireworks. It is also not a day that honors all veterans. It is specifically a day for honoring those who died in service of our country in the military.

Row of simple markers for Unknown soldiers.

Without any plans yesterday, I took a jaunt up Broadway and down Tyson Street for a visit to the Knoxville National Cemetery. Ashamed to say, I had never once visited the place. Of course, all of the 9,000 plus buried there were not killed in combat or were even in the military, as spouses were sometimes buried alongside a veteran.

But the cemetery’s original purpose was as a burial ground for Union dead during the Civil War. Its creation was ordered by General Ambrose Burnside, who freed Knoxville from the Confederacy’s grip by September 1863 and continued pushing rebels out of East Tennessee over the following year. Burnside saw the need for a proper resting place for those hastily buried at Cumberland Gap, Concord and other area battle sites, and he put his assistant quarter-master, Captain E. B. Chamberlain, in charge of planning it.

The flag was showing out for Medal of Honor recipient Troy McGill.

Over the next decade, there were around 3,000 interments. Of those, roughly 1,000 were marked “Unknown.” Beyond the Civil War, the cemetery holds veterans of the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It is the final resting place of two Congressional Medal of Honor recipients: Sgt. Troy A. McGill (1914–1944) for action in WWII and Pvt. Timothy Spillane (1842–1901), for action at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run during the Civil War. It is also where you’ll find the grave of Gen. Robert Reese Neyland, veteran of WWI and WWII who shouldn’t require further explanation, along with his wife, Ada.

The cemetery is just under 10 acres and laid out in a concentric format around a center flag such that no matter where you stand, the gravestones will line up in perfect symmetry. You will find the same effect at Arlington National Cemetery and the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. Cpt. Chamberlain did such a fine job with his layout and record keeping, that there were no changes needed for it to become a national cemetery.

Union Soldier Monument at Knoxville National Cemetery

The striking monument to Union soldiers wasn’t original to the cemetery. It was first dedicated in 1901, its construction funded by the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Tennessee. It was built in response to the Confederate soldier’s monument in Bethel Cemetery near Mabry-Hazen House, which stands 48 feet tall. The GAR was determined to build one taller. The first monument stood 50 feet and was topped by a bronze eagle. It was destroyed by lightning in 1904. Rebuilt and rededicated in 1906, the new monument was topped by a Union soldier at parade rest. It was built from locally quarried marble and stands nearly 60 feet tall.

The cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. I hope you had a reflective and grateful Memorial Day.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for

Sources: National Park Service, Department of Veterans Affairs, The Marble City: A Photographic Tour of Knoxville’s Graveyards by Jack Neely.

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