Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) ROCK ISLAND, Ill. A bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" and the bugler played "Taps." Then a group that gathered here to honor the war dead sang the song known as "Dixie."
On a gray, damp Sunday morning punctuated by bright flashes of the Confederate flag, visitors to the Rock Island National Cemetery saw the dedication of its first monument to 1,950 Southern soldiers buried on Arsenal Island.
"I feel it is something that has been long overdue," said Loretta Finnegan, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a coordinator of the event. "This is not about hatred or bigotry or politics or anything like that. It's about honoring soldiers, who died lonely and sick after defending their homes. They never even knew who won the war."
The honored dead were among more than 12,000 Confederate prisoners held during the Civil War in the Rock Island Prison Barracks, which opened 140 years ago last month. Many died of smallpox brought to the prison by the first soldiers to be incarcerated there. Pneumonia and dysentery were common.
Conditions in the barracks were brutal. Shivering through harsh winter weather, sleeping three to a bunk in shifts and eating rations that were minimal at best, imprisoned soldiers found life could hinge on the mere possession of a wool blanket, a speaker at the dedication event said. The disease-ridden facility averaged nearly a hundred deaths a month during its two years of operation.
The Confederate graves are maintained by the National Cemetery Administration, but they are located a half-mile down the road on Arsenal Island from the huge, more popular U.S. national cemetery. Buried at the larger facility are more than 20,000 U.S. military personnel - and some immediate family members - from the Union Army in the Civil War to the most recent veterans.
"We have ceremonies there all the time, but this is the first time we've ever had anything like (the dedication of a monument) in our Confederate cemetery," said Richard C. Anderson, director of the Rock Island National Cemetery facilities. "Sometimes you get people who want to make an issue of things, and there's been controversy over the flag and other things, but I thought this went off well. We're not into rewriting history here."
Finnegan and the Chicago area chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose members are descendants of the Confederate army, navy or civil service, spent three years raising funds for the 6-foot-high engraved granite memorial to the dead soldiers, and saw the project through considerable federal bureaucracy.
"We started our chapter three years ago and, from the start, our goal was to have some sort of memorial erected at this cemetery," she said. "That's all this was about."
The Rock Island cemeteries are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs' cemetery administration.
The regulations are strict - and identical - for both cemeteries. They govern details ranging from the types of plants that can be left at the individual, uniform headstones to forbidding anything "degrading to the country." The U.S. flag flies from the main pole at both cemeteries, and all other flags - American or otherwise - are forbidden except on Memorial Day weekend and at special, one-time ceremonies approved in advance.
"We could only carry the Confederate flag at our event and we were allowed to drape flags over graves, but I was fine with that," said Finnegan, a native of North Carolina who says her great-great grandfather and three of his brothers fought for the South.
The Daughters of the Confederacy submitted the monument's design and inscription to Anderson for approval. He says he forwarded it to the Veterans Affairs' general counsel.
"This is more than we'd ordinarily do before approving a group's plans," Anderson said. "I did it because we'd never had a Confederate ceremony before, and I wanted to be sure of everything, but, as far as we're concerned, the group that did it is a perfectly viable organization with a solid charter."
The monument's wording reads: "In memory of the Confederate veterans who died at the Rock Island Confederate Prison Camp. May they never be forgotten. Let no man asperse the memory of our sacred dead. They were men who died for a cause they believed was worth fighting for and made the ultimate sacrifice. Erected by The Seven Confederate Knights' Chapter 2625 (of) United Daughters of The Confederacy."
Though he had never overseen a Confederate ceremony, Anderson said he urged the UDC chapter to be as inclusive as they could with the inscription. He also had the entire ceremony videotaped. "It's for our archives, because it was so rare at Rock Island," he said. "I thought it went off really well."
The turnout for the Arsenal Island ceremony was small, but Finnegan almost seemed relieved over this, noting that displaying the Confederate flag remains a controversial issue. The NAACP boycotts the state of South Carolina for flying the flag over its capitol. Georgia's incorporation of the flag into its state banner was a major issue in its last gubernatorial election.
An honor guard of Civil War re-enactors fired three volleys from "black powder," Civil War-period guns during the ceremony. In a speech, Gary Corlew of the Sons of Confederate Veterans likened groups such as his "involved in a great cultural war" to preserve history.
Terry Henson, an airline mechanic from Indianapolis, learned of the ceremony through an Internet posting and couldn't resist attending. His great-great-greatgrandfather, Silas M. Moseley, is buried on the island and he had never visited the grave. Henson, a Civil War history buff, said the Illinois facility is different from others he has visited.
"Here, you've got individually marked graves," Henson said, "and that, for me, made this a very emotional day. In other cemeteries I've visited, there were mass graves because all the bodies were just dumped together, or whatever."
Anderson said the Arsenal Island facility draws history buffs and occasionally curious relatives interested in genealogy.
"You can't help but be moved by seeing 1,950 graves one after another, side by side," Anderson said. "As you read the history, you learn more and gain a lot of respect for the dead."
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