In a small section of a wooded cemetery in Madison, weathered gravestones mark the final resting spots of 140 soldiers who fought for the South in the U.S. Civil War.
A 4-foot-tall stone marker lists the names of the men buried in the plot near a residential area of the city.
The marker — erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy — is part of what is referred to as the northernmost Confederate cemetery.
As debates rage across the country about Confederate memorials, finding such a marker in a Union stronghold like Wisconsin may seem odd, but can be easily explained — the soldiers were held as prisoners. And just a short distance away, another 240 headstones and memorials are dedicated to Union troops who died at Camp Randall, a major training center during the war.
More than 150 years after the Civil War, Confederate memorials continue to be a point of national dialogue.
Topics like slavery, secession and reconstruction are wrapped up in the monuments and statues.
Robert Zeidel, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, said despite the divisive issues and history embodied by the memorials, some are part of an American experience that needs to be remembered and discussed.
“I’m troubled when we start to eviscerate or remove history,” Zeidel said.
“I would much rather see the memorials stay in place and be contextualized than removed. … History is messy, and while American history shows the greatness of the nation, it also shows some of the problematic sides,” he added.
The memorial and grave markers for both sides are among dozens of Civil War monuments in Wisconsin — although the vast majority of those honor 92,000 Union troops that hailed from the state. Wisconsin prospered during the war, with an increased demand for food, strong wheat prices and accelerated production of farm equipment manufactured in the state.
But more than 12,000 soldiers from the state died in the war: 3,802 of combat wounds and another 8,499 from disease and other causes.
Monuments to those soldiers can be found in all corners of Wisconsin.
Some are grandiose, like the arch at Camp Randall, where 70,000 troops trained during the war and which served as a prison camp.
Other markers are more poignant — including rows of weathered white headstones that sit in silence at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison.
The memorial at Confederate Rest is dedicated to members of the Alabama 1st Infantry Regiment, about 1,400 of whom were captured on an island in the Mississippi River in 1862 and taken to Camp Randall as prisoners. About 10 percent of the troops died from illness, injury and other maladies.
Context is all
Confederate memorials have been a point of contention in recent years, with a number of cities moving — or removing — them.
Earlier this year, New Orleans officials removed four Confederate memorials from prominent locations in the city.
But there remain at least 700, and possibly more than 1,000 Confederate monuments, in 31 states — in public parks, courthouse squares and state capitols. Some of these markers, notably those in the South, were placed decades after the Civil War ended as tributes to the Confederacy.
Zeidel said the nature of the Madison monument — a grave site — and its proximity to Union dead, provides a context to the war and what was at stake.
“If you go to this cemetery you can see the grave sites of those who died on both sides of the conflict and have a perspective that it truly was a civil war and those on both sides died and that they reflected two different positions,” he said. “The cemetery almost adds the kind of context I wish was there on all the monuments so they could remain and be seen in a larger sense and their overall place in history.”
Much less contentious, and much more numerous, are the memorials dedicated to the Wisconsin troops who served the Union.
‘Lest we forget’
In the years and decades after the war, a group of Union Civil War veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization much like today’s American Legion.
At its peak the organization had more than 400,000 members, said Thomas McCrory, an Oshkosh resident and author of Grand Army of the Republic: Department of Wisconsin.
At one point, Wisconsin had 264 Grand Army of the Republic chartered posts in large cities and small towns.
The group hosted national reunions and is responsible for many of the Union memorials around the state and country. One of the group’s first efforts was marking the corners of Wisconsin camps where soldiers entered service — before the camps succumbed to urban sprawl.
“In a lot of ways they wanted to be recognized,” McCrory said. “The camps led to the monuments. If you were a part of a company that came out of Oshkosh, when you got home after the war you wanted to build a monument that represented who you were in the war and put that in place.
“Whether it was charging across a wheat field or somewhere at Gettysburg, you’d memorialize that in granite and put that right in the center of town,” he said.
The legacy of the war and veterans also lives on through the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, named after Civil War Brig. Gen. Rufus King and organized by the Grand Army of the Republic.
In the years following the war, surviving veterans reintegrated to civilian lives they left, many carrying the effects of the war.
“So many of many of them returned home injured and that put them at a huge disadvantage economically right off the bat,” McCrory said. “Others that got back picked up farming again and continued on.”
McCrory said in the decades after the end of the war, members of the Grand Army of Republic were wary of the South, some suspecting another war between the states was possible.
“When the Civil War ended in ‘65, for the next 30 years it was still pretty fresh,” said McCrory, an avid collector of Grand Army of the Republic items. “Up here in the north we thought, ‘They’re going to do it again, we just know it.’”
Over time, those fears and suspicions faded.
In the decades after the war, members of the Grand Army of Republic and its auxiliary and women’s organizations worked to make sure those Union sacrifices weren’t lost to time.
The memorial arch just outside Camp Randall Stadium in Madison sits at the gateway to the park that was once the nexus of the war effort in Wisconsin more than 150 years ago.
Inscribed on a plaque affixed to the arch is the reason it was built 105 years ago: “Lest we forget.”
An AP member exchange feature.