Trigger warning: I will discuss war, prisoners-of-war, and death in today’s article.
My husband and I sometimes spend our vacations in out-of-the-way places. This past spring, he and I went to Shiloh National Battlefield Park in Tennessee. He and I spent the better part of a day on the park grounds. We followed the two days of the battle, driving from place to place on the battlefield. My husband is descended from three direct great-great-grandfathers who fought in the American Civil War (all from Iowa regiments); he has been fascinated with Civil War history and battles since he was a boy.
I also am an avid reader of history, so some years ago I was shocked and saddened to hear about Fort Douglas, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp located on what is now the near south side of Chicago. Approximately 26.000 Confederate prisoners went through the swampy, poorly-ventilated camp during the time it was in operation. When the prisoners did die in the camp, as some did, they were buried in unmarked graves either on the camp grounds or in the City Cemetery.
Some years after the war, all of the graves in the City Cemetery were moved. (The area where the cemetery was formerly located is now one of the high rent districts of the city: Lincoln Park.) All of the unmarked Confederate soldiers were gathered together and buried in mass unmarked graves around Confederate Mound, in Oak Ridge Cemetery further on the south side of the city.
In the summer of 2020, my husband and I made a short trip to the south side of Chicago. We went to visit Confederate Mound, which is part of a large group of Civil War-era cemeteries across the country.
I know there are many reasons people go to war, and as many reasons why nations and regions enter into war. As someone trained as a chaplain and involved in pastoral care as much as I am, I find myself wondering why individual farm boys from rural areas or young men from small towns decided to go off to the far-away war. My husband has read some of the actual letters, transcribed – primary documents – where some of these young men talk about the reasons why they went to war. Sometimes, a group of friends would enlist together. Other times, some would be swept up by patriotism, or others by a call to join in a righteous cause.
(I consider this discussion of war very sad, disturbing, and finally, destructive to all kinds of things. So hurtful to individual lives, families, livelihoods, souls and spirits; crippling all manner of physical, mental and emotional aspects of so many who fought and died, and those who fought and survived.)
I could not help but compare our trip to Confederate Mound with the longer trip to Shiloh. I felt Confederate Mound was more tangible, somehow. Here were bodies of more than 4000 men buried in mass graves. In trenches, under my feet. I could not help but bear witness to the humanity buried not even a few dozen miles away from where I am now sitting.
Each one was an individual, who grew up, lived, loved and died. Some died horribly in Camp Douglas, with only the bare rudiments of sanitation, ventilation, basic nutrition, and medical care. And then, to be buried in a mass grave, with hundred of their unnamed fellows. Such a sad ending.
Yes, I felt myself bearing witness as I stood in silence, for the unnamed Union soldiers buried there, as well. Some might question me, and say that it has been over 150 years since they died. Why concern myself with such ancient history? But, they were fellow human beings – now in unmarked burial mounds.
I am so grateful for the fact that the National Park Service still honors all those who served. No matter where, or when, or in what capacity. God bless these unknowns buried at Confederate Mound.