Recently I took a two-day trip to Springfield, Illinois to visit the nearby Camp Butler National Cemetery in order to research a novel I’m working on.*
Confederate graves at Camp Butler National Cemetery near Springfield, Ill
This cemetery is one of the original fourteen commissioned by President Lincoln during the war, the most famous of which was, you guessed it, at Gettysburg where he made the dedication address. (He didn’t, as far as I know, make it to any of the others) Here in Tennessee we also have several federal cemeteries containing the graves of Civil War soldiers, mostly at battlefield sites and parks but not always. The “Spring Hill” cemetery here in Nashville near Madison is not located on or near a battlefield. Though these cemeteries often have large sections devoted to veterans of various wars and conflicts since the Civil War, the majority of the space in all of these cemeteries is devoted to soldiers of the Union-1861 to 1865. This is to be expected, they are the reason the cemeteries were created in the first place. Furthermore at nearly all of these cemeteries one group is conspicuously absent-Confederate soldiers. Their remains are elsewhere.
Visitors to national battlefield parks are continually distressed by the absence of Confederate graves. Park rangers and historians are forced to explain the reasons for this seemingly unfair situation on a daily basis. Modern folk forget that at the time the cemeteries were established Confederate soldiers were the enemy and enemy soldiers do not customarily receive the same treatment as your own even though, and this part is also difficult, the cemeteries are located on Southern soil. No, it doesn’t seem fair and I don’t suppose it is but we must remember: it was war. And wars tend to be bitter, nasty affairs where those in authority, the victors, are not terribly concerned with how people one-hundred and fifty years later are going to view their policies. The Rebel dead were not their concern.
The Camp Butler National Cemetery is a surprising and refreshing exception. Like the Spring Hill cemetery here in Nashville, it is not located on or even near a battlefield. But, the most unique aspect of this cemetery is that in addition to the many Union soldiers and military personnel of the modern era, a fair portion of the cemetery contains graves of Confederate soldiers, all of whom are laid out neatly and respectfully. Each man, like his Union counterparts buried nearby, has a proper headstone bearing name, unit and company designation, sometimes rank, and a reference number. Very few are marked “unknown.” In all my years of touring Civil War Battlefields and cemeteries, this is the first time I’ve seen this. I had to go North to see this-odd I know.
How were the Confederate dead usually disposed of after battles? Not so well -for the most part. Years ago when I asked Jim Jobe, the historian at Fort Donelson, also site of a Federal cemetery, as to the disposition of the Confederates who died at that battle, he shrugged his shoulders and sadly told me that they really don’t know. It is thought that the Confederate dead were simply tossed into the already existing trenches used in the siege and covered over with the loose dirt that comprised the breastwork or fortification above. This would have been the easiest, quickest way to dispose of them, to bury them in holes that the Confederates themselves had dug. At Fort Donelson then, there are four to five hundred Southern dead whose whereabouts are unknown. The Union soldiers who died there and in the hospitals afterward are laid out in neat rows with headstones in a proper ,well maintained government cemetery.
At the Shiloh battlefield it is a little better for the Confederates but not much. They were all dumped into three big holes on the battlefield, three mass graves-all unidentified. One of these is thought to hold around seven hundred men. Thankfully, all three sites are identified and well maintained. The official cemetery for the Union soldiers at Shiloh, as at so many other places, is beautiful-well laid out, long evenly-spaced rows of neat white headstones set in a lovely, peaceful setting with park benches and shade trees.
At the Stones River Battlefield Park outside Murfreesboro, the situation for the Southern dead is, (in my opinion), worse. There are no Confederate soldiers (that we know of) interred anywhere on park property. They lie in a mass grave several miles away, the bones of perhaps fifteen-hundred men-all unidentified. After being buried at a site on the Shelbyville road they were dug up around the turn of the century and reinterred at yet another location in the city cemetery. Likely they didn’t get them all. There is no marker today at the place, now a heavily developed commercial zone. There is a monument and a flag flying over their final resting place at the city cemetery. Of course, the Union soldiers who died in that great battle lie in marked individual graves (as at Shiloh) in a proper enclosed national cemetery, a stark reminder of who won that battle and who controlled the site afterwards.
In so many instances, it is hard to know just what happened to the dead soldiers of the South after the big battles. One thing is certain: a proper, respectful burial of the Southern dead was never a priority of the Federal government. Once they got rebel bodies into the ground, Federal authorities tended to forget about them entirely. I don’t blame them too much, they had their hands full providing decent burials to their own dead, a massive undertaking in itself. They figured that the rebels could worry with their own.
The Camp Butler cemetery is an altogether different matter. In one respect it was a nice change. It was nice to see “our” boys buried properly. But the story of those 866 graves is a terribly sad one. Here is the short version.
In mid-February 1862 Confederates forces at Fort Donelson, approximately 12000 men, in a stunning and unexpected move, were surrendered to Union forces under US Grant. Most of these were put aboard steamers and shipped North to St. Louis. Officers were separated from their enlisted men, put on trains, and sent to two separate far-away locations. The thousands of enlisted men who remained were put aboard trains and shipped to two locations closer to St. Louis. The largest group went to Camp Douglas near Chicago and a smaller group, about two thousand, went to Camp Butler near Springfield, Ill, There they were housed in a collection of rough wood barracks formerly used by Illinois militia units. This group was composed primarily of three infantry units, the 18th and 30th Tennessee and the 15th Arkansas. They resided at this place as guests of the Federal government for six months. In early September of 1862 they were once again put on a train and then on steamers. This time they went South where they were exchanged and rejoined their comrades to get back into the war.
At least those who had survived their captivity got back into the war. Walking down the rows of tombstones the other day I took a tally of the dead. The poor fellows of the 30th Tenn and the 15th Arkansas were the hardest hit, seemingly struck down in a biblical-type plague. The cause was primarily pneumonia with some assistance from dysentery and diarrhea. Over a hundred men from each of these units died, approximately 20 percent of their number. For reasons I don’t yet know, the 18th Tenn was far more fortunate. From that unit I counted forty dead. The 40th Tennessee regt of infantry, about five to six hundred enlisted men, arrived in April after their capture near New Madrid on the Mississippi River. They fared no better than the 30th. Tenn. I counted nearly a hundred dead from that group. The survivors were, no doubt, delighted to get away from that deathtrap when the big exchange was announced in late August.
Incredibly enough, it only got worse after the departure of the first group of prisoners. Two regiments of Texas cavalrymen arrived either in late ’62 or early ’63, the 24th and 25th. Two to three hundred of these men died in a terrible smallpox epidemic. There were so many of these tombstones that I quit making marks on my paper. (My primary interest for being there was in that first group, especially the men of the 18th Tenn. who left just in time). One easily gets the impression that this place was far more dangerous than any battlefield. Out of about five thousand men interned there between March 1862 and June 1863 when it was closed as a POW facility, 866 prisoners died-a staggering death toll. All of this occurring about six miles down the road from where Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln and their children had lived before war broke out.
There were ways out. The Confederate soldiers could take the US “Oath of Allegiance” at any point and leave. They were then on an honor system. Many it seems, took the oath, boarded steamer and train and headed straight back to the Southern army. This was risky. If recaptured, they could be hung. But this seldom occurred; their chance of recapture was slim. Even if recaptured they could use a different name and lie. Then there was a only a slight chance of being returned to the same place and being recognized. Their chances of dying of illness in the camp were far greater and they knew it.
Many took the oath and never returned to the army. Once they reached home, they found the comforts of home irresistible. Honor and patriotism and all that be damned. They had had enough, particularly after hearing of the passage of the so-called (please excuse me here) “Twelve-nigger law” (1862) in the Confederate Congress, a conscription act that exempted wealthy slave-owners who owned at least 12 slaves from mandatory military service. Infuriated soldiers across the South deserted in droves muttering that the war had become “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Doubtless many in the POW camps did the same thing, for all practical purposes, by signing the “Yankee paper” and just going home. Of course, this wasn’t considered honorable. In after years the men who did this tended to keep quiet about it or simply lie to anyone who asked. It usually wasn’t something they would share with their children. In later years when the veteran’s groups met to talk of old times in the army, these men were conspicuously absent. If they applied to the state for a pension they were denied. If they wanted to run for public office or aspired to some prominent place in business, they had to worry about this “skeleton in their closet.” Yes, there were consequences.
There were only two “honorable” ways of getting out: escape or simply waiting it out till a prisoner exchange was accomplished and the unit went out as a whole. Many, particularly in the first month or two while there was no wall around Camp Butler, did escape, causing the camp authorities great embarrassment. A few of these were recaptured. They were disciplined and given the usual encouragements to avoid trying it again, an object lesson for others who might be considering a escape attempt. Consequently the majority did not leave or even try to leave. They simply stayed and waited it out. Of course, many of these wound up in the cemetery where they remain to this day.
There is little indication that the prisoners were deliberately abused or suffered extreme neglect as was so often the case at other camps both North and South during the war. From all reports the camp commandant, Major Fonda, did the best he could and saw to it that they received adequate food, clothing, housing and medical treatment. I’ve studied the Camp Butler story from a number of sources and have not run across any horror stories (other than the death toll). It was not Andersonville by any means. Nevertheless, the prisoners died like flies. In those days, this is simply what happened when large groups of men were confined for long periods of time at close quarters. And, of course, when deliberate abuse and neglect occurred, it only made the situation worse. The Civil War POW story is not a happy one.
The good news is that the Confederate soldier who died at Camp Butler, unlike most of his comrades who died on the battlefield many miles away in the South, did get a decent burial- a decent burial in a wood coffin, in his own little patch of ground, and, eventually, a nice headstone with his name and unit designation on it- buried in neat rows outside the camp hospital building where his bones were undisturbed unlike the battlefield dead such as those at Murfreesboro or Franklin who were later dug up and moved to a permanent location. At Camp Butler the dead Rebel, likely a young man between 17-25 years old, rested in peace. After the war, if his family could make the trip to Springfield Ill, and it is a long trip even now, they could lay flowers on his grave and pay their respects properly, something that the families of those killed in battles, particularly enlisted men, were usually unable to do. For thousands of Southern families, their loved ones simply went away and never returned, their remains mixed with others in mass, sometimes unknown and unmarked graves. Many families went for years never really knowing if their loved one was alive or dead. When there is no grave, no body, it is hard to get a sense of “closure” even when you have it on pretty good authority, perhaps a letter from an officer or surgeon, that your loved one was killed or mortally wounded.
A death on the sickbed was the most common way to die in the Civil War. It was depressing and anticlimactic. No, there was little “glory” to be gained by wasting away slowly on a sickbed up North at Camp Butler, nothing dramatic or interesting about it, nothing to make the history books, nothing that would inspire interesting tales around the hearth or campfires in later years, but your chances of getting a proper burial were much better. And there’s a lot to be said for that.
*The working title of my Civil War novel is DEFENDERS OF THE STATE. I’m about halfway through the rough or first draft. Though it is “historic fiction” I’m trying to get the history right, to weave fictional characters into the real story. I am interested in the POW experience and the information is not as easy to find as one might think. Among the thousands of books on the subject, the POW experience has been given modest treatment. Battles and campaigns were far more dramatic and interesting. Furthermore, I suspect that discussions about the long months of heartbreaking boredom and the rampant disease in the POW camps was something the veterans avoided . They didn’t tend to write about it in post-war reminiscences. Maybe it was, to them, a little embarrassing, that of being held captive for so long. In many unit histories, veterans and later historians spent page after page, chapter after chapter on battles and campaigns and almost nothing about their long months in confinement. Maybe it was assumed that people wouldn’t be interested. I’m not sure why.