Image source: TheGlitteringEye.com
Dignity Memorial operates more than 2,000 burial sites, including one not far from where I live. But a site that they operate on the South side of Chicago, Oak Woods Cemetery, is notable for being the final resting place of more than 4,000 Confederate troops who were captured on the battlefield and sent Up North for the remainder of their lives. This action closed off a source of fighting men for the Confederate cause, and helped the Union to prevail in a what became a costly war of attrition.
As Confederate statues are being toppled throughout the South, it seems odd to me that such a monument exists within a city that remained loyal to the Union cause, and in the state that gave rise to Abraham Lincoln, the president who ultimately brought down the Confederacy.
I had known about this site for many years, since I first came upon it back in 2013. However, for some reason I considered it as a Union soldier atop the site or, at the very least, a sufficiently defeated Confederate soldier that bows his head in reget for having fought the war in the first place.
But today I learned that the staute was not as I had imagined it to be. Yes, the soldier in the painting which inspired the statue is dejected in his appearance. However, the artist who created this painting, John Adams Elder, seems to have made a cottage industry after the war of painting Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other images from the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. According to a curatorial assistant for a display of Elder’s works in Virginia, “Elder’s work played a significant role in postwar America, helping to perpetuate the idea of the glorious Old South and the ‘Southern mystique’…”
With this in mind, I sent the following message on today’s date to Dignity Memorial, via their website:
“As the ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd have forced a long-overdue examination of race relations in this country, I am writing to call your attention to a most incongruous monument to the Confederacy within the walls of Oak Woods Cemetery: namely, the statue which is modeled on the painting “Appomattox” by John A. Elder, which now stands at the site commonly known as “The Confederate Mound.” (see https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/Illinois/Confederate_Mound_Oak_Woods_Cemetery.html)
As a life-long resident of Illinois I am concerned that, at a time when Confederate statues are being toppled in Virginia, Alabama, and Tennessee, (see https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/6/7/21283003/protesters-tore-down-confederate-statue-virginia-monuments-alabama-new-orleans) a visible reminder of the Confederacy remains standing here in the Land of Lincoln.
I have read about the history of the statue and of the site itself, and understand that it has stood in its current location for more than a century. However, the cause for which thousands of Confederate troops lost their lives in a far-away prison camp was wrong in 1861, and it remains wrong today.
By continuing to leave this statue in place, Chicago—and the state that Abraham Lincoln called home—risks missing this historic opportunity to right a very old wrong.
I have been given to understand, from a September 2017 article in Chicago Magazine (see https://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/September-2017/Chicago-South-Side-Confederate-Mound/) that the statue itself is under the control of the National Cemetery Administration, within the auspices of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Please forward this concern along to them, as I believe that they will have the final jurisdiction over what is to be done with this statue. However, as the operator of the cemetery which houses this monument, I cannot imagine that a comment originating from your office would not draw a reply of some sort.
The legacy of slavery, and the bloody conflict that was fought to end this terrible practice, remains with us to this day. If the former states of the Confederacy can take action to address how this legacy is presented to the public today, surely the city that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 1860 can take a positive step in this direction, as well.
I appreciate your consideration of this request.”
Whether Dignity Memorial will respond to this message, I have no idea. I hope that they will, but I’m just one man with an opinion about something that can be done, and should be done, as the national focus on the injustices of the past continues to evolve. But I’m also sharing my request here, to create a record that I did speak out on this issue, in an attempt to redress a symbol that few are aware of, in the first place.
While I can’t do much more than this, I can take this step, and so I will. Updates will follow, if and when they become available.
UPDATE 1: On Tuesday, June 9 I received a phone call from a representative of Dignity Memorial. I’m not disclosing any names, but we had a substantive conversation, and I was told that my request was being passed along to the National Parks Service (NPS) for their review. So that’s certainly a positive first step. Hopefully there will be more to come later.
UPDATE 2: On today’s date I spoke with the representative from the company that manages the cemetery, who indicated that there has been no response from the National Park Service on the matter. I did learn, however, of an interesting detail which I won’t comment on any further until I can confirm it for myself.
Having researched the acting Director of the NPS—because there hasn’t been a Senate-confirmed Director of the agency since Barack Obama left office—I’m not real hopeful that any positive response is forthcoming. He was the director of the Southeast district of the NPS for the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War, and let’s say he seemed pretty comfortable with allowing the Confederates to celebrate as they wanted to. This doesn’t bode well for the type of change I’m looking for here.
UPDATE 3: On today’s date (January 3, 2021) I sent an email to the NAACP Atlanta, the operators of the website Invisiblehate.org after reading a story about them in the New Yorker. I had given up on the Trump administration doing anything in this regard, but hope–in the form of an incoming Biden administration–is now less that three weeks away. I shared this link with them, and invited them to consider adding the Confederate statue standing over the Confederate mound to their interactive map. If anything comes of this I will write about it here.
UPDATE 4: On today’s date (March 9, 2021) I provided feedback to the Chicago Monuments Project. The city of Chicago has identified 41 pieces of art, sculpture, and statues and invited public commentary about whether they are deserving of continued public display. Five are statues of Abraham Lincoln, and my comments about them (and some of the others) will be forthcoming before the April 1 deadline. But I made a statement that the representation of a Confederate soldier on public land was inappropriate in Chicago, and that raising awareness of this statue will be the first step towards its removal.
The full text of my statement reads as follows:
Although not listed on your website, the statue that stands in the northeast corner of Oak Woods cemetery is worth of discussion. The site is on private property operated by Dignity Memorial, and is administered by the National Park Service, but is especially problematic in that it is modeled on a paining named “Appomattox” by John Adams Elder, who became one of the leading artists of the “Lost cause” imagery of the Confederacy. The sympathetic portrayal of a Confederate soldier is wholly inappropriate in Chicago, and whatever awareness can be raised about this issue will be the necessary first step toward bringing about its removal.
Looking at it now I can count at least two typos, and those always drive me nuts, but I’m still hopeful this will receive some attention.
As I can see that my initial description as to the location was both vague and geograpically wrong, I offered an additional response on the website, as follows:
To follow up on my comment from earlier in the day, the monument I am referring to is at the site of the Confederate Mound and is located in the southern and western sections of the cemetery, just north of 71st Street and east of Cottage Grove Avenue. A link to a map and more information is at https://www.theclio.com/entry/97398. Thank you again for your consideration.
Any updates will follow, as conditions allow.