THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

“Twists and Turns”:

The Confederate Mound at Oak Woods Cemetery

 

 

“I said death don’t have no mercy in this land

Death will leave you standing and crying in this land”

(Reverend Gary Davis)

 

Definitions:

MEMORIAL: something, especially a structure, to remind people of a person or an event.

MONUMENT: a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event.

CENOTAPH: an empty tomb or monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere.

 

 

I first happened to visit Oak Woods cemetery (1035 E. 67th Street—between Grand Crossing and Hyde Park) and discover the Confederate Mound more than a decade ago. I was there with my son Maurice, for maintenance of the Jewish part of the cemetery (fenced in), largely under the rubric of a youth group project. The original community had migrated elsewhere and had been replaced by the neighboring African-American community. The Confederate Mound was a bit of a surprise, as it seemed atypical to place a seemingly important historical monument-memorial both in Chicago and also within the confines of a more typical cemetery.

Cemeteries are like history lessons: culture, time, and place all seem to be juxtaposed and layered, while memorials and monuments shadow the landscape with the remnants of their eras. As cemeteries serve the dead while their occupants can only be remembered by the living, monuments like the Confederate Mound can be placed concurrent with smaller memorials and gravestones.

Although the mound itself was dedicated in 1896, the cemetery dates to 1853, spans one hundred and eighty-three acres, and was designed by the landscape architect Adolph Strauch. Considered very forward thinking for its time, it included abundant green space, rolling parkways, a small lake, open vistas, and a bucolic, welcoming topography.

Interspersed throughout the grounds of the cemetery itself are the remains of numerous other Chicago legends. To name a few, they include Mayor Harold Washington, Enrico Fermi (physicist and creator of the first nuclear reactor), Ida B. Wells (civil rights activist), Junior Wells (musician), Jesse Owens (Olympic champion), Nancy Green (the “Real Aunt Jemima”), Mircea Eliade (historian of world religions), Mayor Eugene Sawyer, Gary Becker (Nobel Prize economist), Thomas Dorsey (musician), William Stokes (mobster) and son Willie the Wimp (buried in a Cadillac-style coffin), Bill Veeck (Major League Baseball owner), Jake Guzik (gangster and bookkeeper for Al Capone), and Big Jim Colosimo (boss of the Chicago mob). Even Richard Loeb, of Leopold and Loeb notoriety, was cremated there after being stabbed to death in prison at the age of 31.

Surrounded within this landscape of multiple histories at Oak Woods Cemetery is the Confederate Mound.

The Confederate Mound is a hybrid in the sense that it is administrated and owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs, yet it is distinctly integrated within the confines of the cemetery. It is also, and most importantly, a memorial and monument to between four to six thousand imprisoned Confederate soldiers who perished at Fort Douglas in Chicago between 1863 and 1865.

The Confederate Mound dates to 1896, some three decades after the mass burial at Fort Douglas and subsequent reinterment at Oak Woods. Ironically, the bulk of the funding came from wealthy Chicagoans, including Marshall Field, George Pullman, Potter Palmer and Ferdinand Peck (financier of the Auditorium Theater). The grand opening for the memorial was attended by President Grover Cleveland and was initially billed as an act of reconciliation between the South and the North and a symbol of unity and empathetic acknowledgement of suffering. It is also one explanation as to the context of the memorial and why a large Confederate monument would be created deep within northern confines.

The Confederate Mound also bears the dubious distinction of being the largest mass grave in the Western hemisphere. Confederate prisoners, originally buried close to Fort Douglas, were removed after the war and reinterred at Oak Woods between 1865 and 1867. On the mound are also the engraved names of many but not all of the Confederate prisoners that died in Fo Douglas. Correspondingly, a Confederate soldier modeled after the John Elder painting Appomattox, depicting a vanquished soldier viewing the battlefield after defeat, is affixed to the top of the thirty-foot plinth on the burial mound. Surrounding the mound are three bas relief panels entitled “A Veteran’s Return Home,” “A Soldier’s Death Dream,” and “The Call to Arms.” There are also twelve marble headstones of Union soldiers that had died of disease while stationed at Fort Douglas as well as several other memorials-monuments in Oak Woods, including a statue of Lincoln the Orator as well as a smaller memorial dedicated to the Soldiers of Illinois, watched over by a marble soldier.

 

Tablets with the names of the buried soldiers surround the base of the plinth.  Photo © 1997, 1998 by Matt Hucke (Graveyards.com)

 

Concurrent timewise (1896) and within close proximity of the Confederate Mound is a much smaller memorial, the Cenotaph. Inscribed on the stone by the southern abolitionist Thomas Lowther, an accompanying text recounts a divergent history that is both profound and often overlooked, as it recounts the sacrifice and suffering of those Southerners that resisted the Confederacy. This unusual juxtaposition is certainly atypical of memorials, as the Cenotaph, although dwarfed in stature, is very much present.

 

 

Thomas Lowther's Cenotaph. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers (twunroll.com)

 

The Confederate Mound itself is a bit of a yin and yang, as the proximity between monuments creates poignancy for one and reexamines the other. It is a very dark and sad monument, glorifying neither the Union nor the Confederacy; it also resonates as a memorial to the impact and sadness of war and the responsibility of victor to victim. Right can become wrong, and in this case, we have only shades of gray. To erase this dialogue is to erase this conversation, and in the context of revisionism concerning memorials and monuments, the Confederate Mound needs to be looked at within this lens, as the obvious choice might not be the best or only choice. The Confederate Mound’s history is uniquely its own, and the conversation regarding its fate should be at least partially considered within its own parameters as we reexamine and reconfigure monuments.

Most poignantly, the Confederate Mound is also a unique and perhaps unprecedented dialogue between Thomas Lowther’s Cenotaph and the Confederate Mound; the two have been sitting quietly in the sidelines and next to each other for the last one hundred and twenty-five years. This dialogue of competing and differing narratives is an odd history lesson—perhaps a teachable moment. It suggests that the present also had a past that was equally poignant and divisive. This is the irony of Oak Woods, as time forgotten is now remembered and can be easily erased as we redefine our landscape with the morals and norms of our time.

In writing this article, I was struck by the profundity, individualism, and heroism of Thomas Lowther the abolitionist. His Cenotaph, although small in stature, casts a sombering shadow over the Confederate Mound. In looking back, we look forward, and wonder if our voice (and values) would as be loud and clear, and our courage and conviction as resolute. In the land of the dead, he is still very much alive, and in the words of Thomas Lowther:

 

TO THOSE UNKNOWN HEROIC MEN,

ONCE RESIDENT IN THE SOUTHERN STATES,

MARTYRS FOR HUMAN FREEDOM,

WHO AT THE BREAKING OUT OF THE CIVIL WAR

REFUSED TO BE TRAITORS TO THE UNION;

WHO, WITHOUT MORAL OR MATERIAL SUPPORT,

STOOD ALONE AMONG RUTHLESS ENEMIES,

AND, AFTER UNSPEAKABLE SUFFERING, EITHER

DIED AT THEIR POST OF DUTY,

OR, ABANDONING HOME AND POSSESSIONS,

SOUGHT REFUGE,

AND SCANT BREAD FOR THEIR FAMILIES,

AMONG STRANGERS AT THE NORTH:

TO THOSE PURE PATRIOTS WHO,

WITHOUT PENSION, WITHOUT HONOR,

WENT TO THEIR GRAVES

WITHOUT RECOGNITION EVEN BY THEIR COUNTRY,

THIS STONE IS RAISED AND INSCRIBED,

AFTER THIRTY YEARS WAITING,

BY ONE OF THEMSELVES,

AN EXILED ABOLITIONIST.

 

Neil Goodman is a sculptor formerly based in Chicago with an extensive exhibition history.  Presently living in the central coast of California, he retired from Indiana University Northwest as Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts. He is currently represented by Carl Hammer Gallery as well as serving as the Los Angeles correspondent for the New Art Examiner.

 

Confederate Mound, Chicago, Illinois with a cannon in the foreground. Photograph by John Delano of Hammond, Indiana

 

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