A year ago, I was immersed in a project pertaining to the Civil War. As a history major, and a Lincoln buff, the project was a dream come true for me, and I threw myself into it like nothing I had ever worked on before. The project came to a successful completion, and since then I have found myself involved with projects that are far less appealing. But there was a loose end to be tied up, and today I had an opportunity to take care of this.
Living in Chicago means having no everyday attachment to the Civil War. No battles were fought nearby, but there was a Confederate prisoner of war camp on the South side, where Stephen Douglas lived. But for Civil War-minded persons like myself, there are some statues of Abraham Lincoln, one of U.S. Grant, and another of General Philip Sheridan. But the best way to get a feel for the war and its impact is to go to a cemetery where its casualties are buried. And such a cemetery–Rosehill Cemetery–is just a few blocks away from where I live.
The cemetery opened in 1859, and it was in place to receive the remains of fallen soldiers during the war, as well as veterans who returned to Chicago after the conflict had ended. I had first visited these graves last year, at the height of my project, to remind myself of the terrible costs of the war, and to be grateful for the sacrifices that were made. The United States is still united today, as a direct result of thousands and thousands of men, who are buried at Rosehill and in other places around the country.
There are rows of simple gravestones, with the name of the soldier and the unit he was with. Most came from Illinois, but others were from Michigan, Ohio, Maine, and the other states that remained loyal to the Union. A soldier from Maine–who lies buried a thousand miles away from his home state–may not have received any visitors to his grave site in Chicago. On the other hand, his family might have preferred for his remains to be buried in Maine, but for some reason it didn’t happen that way. Every gravestone has a story behind it, and the people who could tell these stories are all dead themselves. All we can do now is appreciate their sacrifice in the war.
After I got into my car, and drove through a neighborhood that was mostly farmland back in the 1860s, I wondered how many people are even aware of the Civil War, and the consequences that it had on the country, both then and now. Whatever the United States may have looked like if the Confederacy had prevailed, I’m quite certain it wouldn’t be any place where I would want to live.
The 600,000 deaths that occurred in battles, and the countless veterans who lived out their lives with physical and psychological reminders of the conflict, would be a terrible human cost to bear in our world today. Considering, however, that the nation was much smaller then–both in terms of size and total population–only makes the price seem more devastating. And yet, many people today have only a vague idea that there even was a war, or what the stakes of its outcome were.
There is a Memorial Day holiday every year, designed to honor those who died in America’s wars. But if you were to go to the beach on Memorial Day, it’s probably far more crowded than a cemetery with military graves. Death and suffering and sacrifice are things that we generally don’t like to think about, and perhaps that’s part of the problem with this country. When Memorial Day comes around this year, I think I’ll start the day with another visit to Rosehill. The soldiers buried there deserve at least that much.