Established in 1801 on the shores of Wallabout Bay, the Brooklyn Navy Yard served as one of the nation’s foremost naval shipbuilding facilities from 1801 until it was decommissioned in 1966. In 1824, the Navy purchased land directly eastward of the main Navy Yard property to build a hospital complex. Opened in 1838, the Brooklyn Naval Hospital became a leading center of medical innovation, developing new techniques in anesthetics, wound care, and physical therapy. The hospital closed in 1948, but the property remained in use as a naval receiving station until 1990.
In the early 1830s, the Navy established a small burial ground on the eastern edge of the hospital campus. The two-acre Naval Cemetery was used from about 1831 to 1910 and was the burial place for more than 2,000 people of all races and creeds, most of them officers and enlisted men of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. Interred here were two Congressional Medal of Honor winners, Vendovi, the “Fijian Cannibal Chief” who died in the Naval Hospital in 1842, and individuals from more than 20 different countries.
Among early interments at the Naval Cemetery were 28 sailors and Marines who perished when the U.S. receiving ship Fulton exploded while moored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in June 1829. Originally laid to rest at Wallabout Cemetery, in November 1834 the remains of those killed in the Fulton explosion were disinterred and escorted under Marine guard to a stone vault in the Naval Cemetery grounds.
In 1897, a New York Times reporter visited the Naval Cemetery and described the graveyard behind the Naval Hospital:
It is little larger than the ordinary city block, and is inclosed on the hospital side with a high brick wall, and on the other three sides with a tall iron fence, which is badly in need of a coat of paint. Outside this railing, and facing Flushing Avenue, are several foundries, machine shops, factories and stables that completely prevent a view of the cemetery from the street. The entrance is through a small street running back from Flushing Avenue, and separating the city and Government property. It is seldom traveled and never cleaned. The children in the neighborhood use the place as a playground. There are heavy chains and a stout padlock on the cemetery gate.
The cemetery is rarely visited. One’s first impression of it is that it receives no attention outside of keeping the grass cut and the trees trimmed… Scattered throughout the cemetery are tall elms. One of the things that strike the visitor most forcibly is the lack of monuments. There are no handsome stones to mark the last resting places of the men who gave their lives to their country. In fact some of the graves have no headpieces except the kind that the Government furnishes. Some of these have been broken away or lost, and it is not known who lies beneath.
When the Times reporter explored the cemetery in 1897, most of the graves were marked with cast-iron markers about a foot square, many of them rusty, worn, and broken. These were replaced in 1899 with uniform marble headstones like those used in national cemeteries. Despite this improvement to the old Naval Cemetery, there was little room remaining for additional burials by this time and it closed to interments in 1910. In 1926 the Navy disinterred remains from the burial ground and reinterred them at Cypress Hills National Cemetery. The trees were subsequently removed from the property and the site graded to create a playing field. With the assumption that the area no longer contained burials, the Navy reused the grassy space of the former cemetery for a variety of primarily recreational purposes for the next 50 years or so.
During the process of transferring the Naval Hospital campus to the City of New York in the 1990s, questions arose about the former Naval Cemetery. Extensive archival and archaeological investigations of the site concluded that the remains of 987 individuals were recorded as being relocated, leaving hundreds of burials unaccounted for and potentially still at the site. Replanted as a meadow, the site is now preserved and reopened to the public in 2016 as the Naval Cemetery Landscape, a park that is part of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. Its design includes a raised walkway that allows visitors to explore the landscape without disturbing the hallowed ground of the former cemetery.
Sources: Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; Hyde’s 1904 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn 3:1; “Interesting Ceremony,” Long Island Star, Nov 27 1834, “The Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 2, 1875; “G.A.R. Services,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 23, 1887; “Jack Tar’s Burial Ground,” New York Times, Dec 19, 1897; “Heroes’ Last Resting Place,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Oct 24, 1899; “Burial at Naval Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 23, 1900; “Talk of Closing the Old Naval Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, May 16, 1907; “No Mourners for These Sailor Dead,” New York Times, Oct 16, 1910; “Navy Yard Cemetery Plan is Denounced as ‘Ghoulish,’” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 24, 1926; “Capt. Blackwood Outlines Plans to Abandon Cemetery,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Feb 28, 1926; “Exercises to Mark Transfer of Last Body from Naval Cemetery,” The Chat, Oct 16, 1926; Archaeological Evaluation (Stage 1A Documentary Study), Former Naval Station (NAVSTA) New York, Navy Yard Annex Site Brooklyn, New York (Geismar 1996); State of the Research, Naval Hospital Cemetery, Historical Documentation, Naval Station Brooklyn, New York (Geismar 1999); “Prairie Heals an Old Wound at a Former Brooklyn Cemetery,” New York Times, July 11, 2016; Brooklyn Greenway Initiative—Naval Cemetery Landscape