The Old Burying Ground is linked to world events: the War of 1812 and the Crimean War in particular. You would not be the first tourist to contemplate historical events while strolling in these grounds; in fact, you’d following the example of L.M. Montgomery’s character, Anne of Green Gables.
Anne’s imagination soars when she reflects on the lives and adventures of people buried and commemorated in the Old Burying Ground. For example, she imagines the aftermath of the War of 1812 battle between the British frigate, HMS Shannon, and the American USS Chesapeake:
“Here’s a grave I didn’t see before—this one in the iron railing—oh, girls, look, see—the stone says it’s the grave of a middy who was killed in the fight between the Shannon and the Chesapeake. Just fancy!”
Anne paused by the railing and looked at the worn stone, her pulses thrilling with sudden excitement. The old graveyard, with its over-arching trees and long aisles of shadows, faded from her sight. Instead, she saw the Kingsport Harbor of nearly a century agone. Out of the mist came slowly a great frigate, brilliant with “the meteor flag of England.” Behind her was another, with a still, heroic form, wrapped in his own starry flag, lying on the quarter deck—the gallant Lawrence. Time’s finger had turned back his pages, and that was the Shannon sailing triumphant up the bay with the Chesapeake as her prize.
“Come back, Anne Shirley—come back,” laughed Philippa, pulling her arm. “You’re a hundred years away from us. Come back.”
Anne came back with a sigh; her eyes were shining softly.
“I’ve always loved that old story,” she said, “and although the English won that victory, I think it was because of the brave, defeated commander I love it. This grave seems to bring it so near and make it so real.”
For Anne, it’s not the victory of local boy done good, Captain Provo Wallis, but the more tragic tale of the defeated American captain that captures her well-known imagination. The past comes alive with tragic young death, excitement, brilliant spectacle, heroism, and triumph. Of course, today, you’d really have to use your imagination to see the harbour from the Old Burying Ground’s railings. Reflecting the many changes to Halifax’s cityscape in the past century, tall buildings, especially the Maritime Centre, home to Bell Aliant, now make up this view.
The Lawrence whom Anne mentions is James Lawrence, captain of the defeated American U.S.S. Chesapeake. His adventure isn’t over when his body is brought into Halifax Harbour, the scene Anne envisions here. A few weeks after his defeat, an American ship, flying a flag of truce, had Lawrence’s body exhumed in the middle of the night and quietly brought back to New York where he is buried. Two crewmen from the British Shannon are still buried close to where the Sebastopol Monument--that’s the one with the lions--is now. (The Old Burying Ground Foundation website tells us more about this history).
Next up we’ll look at some of the less legendary people whose stories are intertwined with the Old Burying Ground’s.
Montgomery, L.M. Anne of the Island. L.C. Page & Co, 1915.
“The Old Burying Ground.” The Old Burying Ground Foundation, 2014. oldburyingground.ca
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