If These Walls Could Bark: Fort Monroe Pet Cemetery

September 30, 2015 — It was a Black Friday. I was in a 180-year-old fort in Virginia trying to find a mannequin dressed as Edgar Allan Poe. I climbed to the top of the fort wall, looked down, and realized I was stepping on dead animals.

If I had any bravado whatsoever, I’d leave the article at that. But here’s the long explanation.

I was traveling for my book Poe-Land, visiting Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, because Poe was stationed there for a few months during his two-year stint in the military. It’s a massive fort. The largest stone one in America, in fact. Inside its walls is an entire town—office buildings, parks, residences. The place had only just been decommissioned in 2011. And so much had happened here over the course of its military service.

Inside one of its walls is the long, meandering, subterranean-feeling Casement Museum, which tracks all that history from back when it was the site of a wooden fort called Algernourne in 1609 all the way through to when Jefferson Davis was held prisoner there after the Civil War and on to the shiny-gun-metal of present day. It also has a corner exhibit on Poe’s time at the base, which consisted of a mannequin at a desk and a large placard. I adored it.

But, like you’re inclined to do at a historic coastal fort, I wanted to see the vantage point from the walls, so I ascended a set of steps near the entrance of the museum. At the top, I expected a few replica cannons, maybe some flags, perhaps a view of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Instead I found graves. Pet graves.

The grassy top of the rampart was lined with stones inscribed with names like Tippy and Dusty and Tinkie and Toodles and Dutchie, Goldie and Blacky and Red and Mitzy and all the condescending stuff we usually do to these once-wolves and -lions. At least, they were either pet graves or Virginia went through a real dark time in its maternity wards.

So there I was, on a Poe mission, inadvertently finding cats in walls.

The tombstones were in a line on the wall as far as I could see, like they were defending it. The styles varied, and I saw some that dated to the 1930s. I followed the line, treating them like paving stones. Every once in a while they wended across the remnants of batteries.

Eventually, after getting to the point where I was wondering if they’d circle the entire wall, they stopped. I found the nearest set of stairs down and headed back to my car to catch the tail end of all the holiday sales. It wouldn’t be until later that I learned exactly what I had explored.

It was, in fact, the pet cemetery for the fort, as well as some of the surrounding residential areas. Like I said, the walls encompassed an entire town. Lives were spent there, both human and animal. They say more than 400 animals ended up in those walls, with the oldest marker dating to 1936, although it’s surmised that interments go further back than that. The current fort structure goes back to 1834, after all.

It officially stopped being an active pet cemetery in 1988, about six years after Stephen King made those things creepy. However, the presence of some 21st century markers indicates that people still sneak their dead pets up there.

As long as they don’t try to come back for them, I guess.