VA buys site in Meigs County to expand Chattanooga National Cemetery

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Rays of sunlight illuminate graves at the Chattanooga National Cemetery on June 15, 2022. The cemetery is nearing capacity so the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Tuesday it is buying 270 acres in Meigs County to expand the Chattanooga National Cemetery.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Rays of sunlight illuminate graves at the Chattanooga National Cemetery on June 15, 2022. The cemetery is nearing capacity so the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Tuesday it is buying 270 acres in Meigs County to expand the Chattanooga National Cemetery.

As the 160-year-old Chattanooga National Military Cemetery nears capacity, another military cemetery will be built about 30 miles to the northeast on the Tennessee River in Birchwood, Tennessee.

After more than three years of searches and study of potential expansion sites, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced Tuesday it purchased 266 acres of riverfront property in Meigs County to add another military cemetery.

"We are very excited to have acquired a great piece of property in the Chattanooga area," Matt Quinn, a retired Army major general who serves as the VA's undersecretary for memorial affairs, said in an announcement. "This will allow us to continue providing a final resting place of honor to the veterans who have served and the family members who sacrificed for their veterans' service."

The Chattanooga National Cemetery, which was created in 1863 to bury both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War, is nearing capacity with nearly 64,500 veterans and eligible family members interred at the cemetery along Bailey and Holtzclaw avenues. The Chattanooga National Cemetery is projected to run out of land for new burials by 2038, if not sooner.

The VA estimates there are 167,742 veterans living within the 75-mile radius of the new site in Birchwood who are entitled to be buried there, according to agency spokesperson Gary Kunich.

The VA has been seeking land for another cemetery site in the region since determining the Chattanooga National Cemetery could not be expanded at its current location due to surrounding rail lines, roads and commercial development.

"For decades, Chattanooga's veteran community has been rightfully sounding the alarm that the Chattanooga National Cemetery is rapidly running out of space," U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Southeast Tennessee, said in a statement Tuesday. "In fact, in less than a decade, the current cemetery will be fully at capacity, and there will be no more room for burials -- this is why expanding Chattanooga's National Cemetery is critically important to our veterans and their families."

Fleischmann, a subcommittee chair on the House Appropriations Committee, has worked to secure funding for the cemetery expansion in his East Tennessee congressional district. The VA manages 155 national cemeteries across the United States, including five VA national cemeteries in Tennessee. The Volunteer State also has six State Veterans Cemeteries.

The VA paid nearly $11.6 million for the Meigs County site, according to a property filing with the Meigs County Register of Deeds filed Monday. In an emailed statement, Kunich said the VA has scheduled a contract award for this winter to develop a master plan for its new cemetery site in Meigs County.

"From the preliminary analysis, phase 1 will develop roughly 55 of the 266-acre land acquisition site and will provide grave sites along with initial facilities and associated infrastructure," Kunich said. "Construction is anticipated to begin in 2026, subject to available funds."

The future national cemetery in Birchwood will receive a new name, although that has yet to be determined, Kunich said.

(READ MORE: Moments in Memory: Chattanooga's National Cemetery is a place of honor)

The VA bought the riverfront site from state Rep. Greg Vital, R-Harrison, a developer and conservationist who purchased the property a decade ago after plans for a larger 525-acre golf course development on the site collapsed. Through his Vital-Blythe Ferry Holdings LLC, Vital acquired the land in 2013 from the former GreenBank after the bank foreclosed on Rarity Communities developer Mike Ross, who had planned to build up to 600 homes in his Rarity Rivers complex.

Preserving the land

Vital said he bought the land to help preserve and protect the site, and he said the property offers an ideal setting for the final resting place for military veterans.

"This is a beautiful and spectacular place to honor our veterans for the next 150 years," Vital said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "This also allows for the land to be preserved and protected in a way that doesn't contribute to massive development. I have worked to preserve and protect the wildlife and land in this area, and this should help continue to protect this valuable site."

The site includes nearly 4,000 feet of riverfront property on the main channel of the Tennessee River and is just across the highway from a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife management area and the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. The Cherokee memorial was established in 2005 in honor of the Cherokees forced to emigrate from their ancestral lands during the Cherokee removal at Blythe Ferry, which came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

The VA paid an average of $42,805 per acre for the riverfront property, which Vital probably could have sold for more to private developers interested in building on the land, he said.

"I have been approached over the years by several major developers interested in the site, but I bought this property because it is unique and should be protected," Vital said.

Vital, the CEO of the Morning Pointe Senior Living chain of assisted living centers, owns a number of properties in northern Hamilton County and Meigs County, including a buffalo farm near Georgetown.

Fleischmann said he "worked diligently with the VA and local leaders to ensure that the expansion of the Chattanooga National Cemetery remained in East Tennessee" and called the Meigs County site "the best possible place for our nation to honor our heroes and their loved ones."

Civil War heritage

The Chattanooga National Cemetery was created in commemoration of the Battles of Chattanooga that took place Nov. 23-27, 1863. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas reportedly chose the site of the cemetery during the Battle of Missionary Ridge. He selected the same hill used by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the earlier Battle of Lookout Mountain.

The site faces 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, according to the cemetery's website. 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 [email protected] or 423-757-6340.

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