Rows of white marble slabs stretch into the distance, stark reminders of the cost of war.
Not all those buried in National Cemeteries were killed in battle. Some died later of their wounds, while others died as a result of injuries or disease. For others, death was simply a matter of old age. But at the Mound City National Cemetery, one of the most striking things is the large number of Civil War dead – especially unknown soldiers.
"We have close to 8,000 total burials here and more than 2,600 unknown soldiers from the Civil War," says John Watson, a local historian who also serves as a volunteer tour guide at the cemetery. "You know why they were unknown? They didn't have dog tags back then."
Southern Illinois, especially Mound City and nearby Cairo, were important cogs in the Union effort, although you would never know it because of the lack of historical markers, buildings and monuments.
Mound City was home to a large hospital – along with a floating hospital ship – that cared for both Union and Confederate soldiers. In addition, a Naval shipyard was located there that provided warships, including the famous ironclads, to the Union's Mississippi Squadron. Both are now gone, although the concrete slips of the boatyard remain, obscured by brush.
At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Cairo was of strategic importance. General Ulysses S. Grant arrived there in 1861 and made it his base of operations, known as Fort Defiance, for the Western Campaign of the Civil War. Illinois' southernmost (and once bustling) city was also the base for the fleet of inland river gunboats that controlled the Ohio, Mississippi, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers for the Union.
There is a movement under way to create a national museum at Fort Defiance, currently a quiet and spartan park just off U.S. 51. Backers want a museum and visitors' center, an "Avenue of Heroes" featuring statues, a recreation of the earthen fortworks of Fort Defiance, a naval museum with a recreated USS Cairo (an ironclad built at Mound City and the first Union warship sunk by a mine), a plaza area for events, and a new campground and other amenities for the park.
Watson is simply happy to have the Mound City National Cemetery open to visitors. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had intentions of closing the cemetery, which sparked a group of local citizens into action.
They raised money, including securing grants, to restore the caretaker's house and also purchased two additional acres for future interments.
The house will be dedicated in a ceremony with other activities from noon to 4 p.m. Friday.
"We just finished the house July 13 and spent more than $900,000 on it," Watson says. "It probably would have been cheaper to tear it down and replace it. We're hoping to turn it into a museum and visitors center, but we're going to need more grants and donations for that."
The cemetery was created in 1864, although burials had already taken place, most of them dead from the hospital complex at Mound City. Soldiers killed in battles at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Paducah and elsewhere are among those buried at the cemetery, both Union and Confederate.
"We've got both sides buried here. Of course, there are more Union soldiers than Confederates. The Confederate stones have a point to them at the top, where Union stones are rectangular," Watson says.
The focal point of the cemetery is the large Illinois State Soldiers and Sailors Monument, erected in 1874 at a cost of $25,000 by the state. It pays homage to the unknown soldiers buried in the cemetery. In all, there are 4,937 Civil War soldiers – 2,300 known and 2,637 unknown – interred in the cemetery.
The most famous, or rather infamous, soldier buried at the cemetery is Ivan Turchin, born Ivan Turchaninov in Russia. He was known in the South as "The Robber Colonel" because of a ruthless band of soldiers under his command, especially after a raid on Athens, Ala. He was dishonorably discharged from the Union army for several incidents, but was later reinstated. He died in 1901 at a mental hospital in Anna.
Closer to home is the Danville National Cemetery, located near the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System (still better known as the VA Hospital). The cemetery was created in 1898, next to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, a home created the year before, largely for Civil War veterans.
"Vermilion County had more soldiers volunteer per capita during the Civil War than any other county in the United States," says Sue Richter, director of the Vermilion County Museum in Danville.
The cemetery has more than 10,000 burials, including Medal of Honor winner Lt. Morton A. Read for his heroism in the Battle of Appomattox Station in 1865.
"My favorite thing is that it's a Civil War cemetery, that's the big selling point," says Eugene Bencomo of Oakwood. "A lot of people don't know that this used to be a soldiers and sailors home, and when they died they were buried here."
Bencomo is a member of a local Civil War re-enactment group that will be holding an event Sept. 23 and 24 at the Vermilion County Conservation District's Kennekuk County Park. "Civil War Days" will take place at the historic Bunker Hill area of the park.
The Danville National Cemetery also features a prominent statue of a Civil War soldier holding a rifle with one foot on his kepi, or hat.
"During battle, soldiers did not want their hats to fall off and so they would lay them on the ground when firing, and so that's what that statue represents," Bencomo says.
Civil War soldiers and veterans are also buried at private cemeteries throughout Champaign and Vermilion counties, as they are throughout the state.
"The largest GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) cemetery is just east of Homer," says retired physician and Civil War buff John Schmale of Mahomet. "Everywhere around here there were areas set aside for GAR members or Civil War veterans."
Other historic cemeteries with Civil War-era burials in Illinois include:
– Camp Butler National Cemetery near Springfield: One of the original National Cemeteries, it was established in 1862. Camp Butler was home to a prisoner of war camp and many of the graves are those of Confederate soldiers – 700 alone died of smallpox in 1862. In all, the cemetery has nearly 20,000 burials and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
– Rock Island National Cemetery, Rock Island: This large cemetery has nearly 24,000 total burials, including almost 2,000 Confederate soldiers who died as prisoners of war at the camp.
– Confederate Mound, Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago: Nearby Camp Douglas was also a large Confederate prisoner of war camp, with 18,000 prisoners passing through. It was known as the "Andersonville of the North" because of its harsh, brutal conditions. An astounding 6,000 Confederate soldiers died of disease, starvation or both at the prison.
– Alton National Cemetery, Alton: Most of the 175 Civil War soldiers buried at the cemetery, located within the Alton City Cemetery, died at an Alton hospital for soldiers and sailors.
– Quincy National Cemetery, Quincy: Located within Quincy Graceland Cemetery, the soldiers' remains were removed in 1899 from Quincy's Woodland Cemetery. There are 582 soldiers buried at the cemetery, including 221 from the Civil War.