Monday, January 24, 2011

Oakwood and the Confederate Cemetery

Obviously, the Snow Demons have not been appeased. They’ve unleashed their fury a second day in a row here in Philadelphia. As feet of snow drift down past my window, the lyrics of Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away” take me back to a warmer clime—June in Raleigh, North Carolina, to be exact.

Back in 2007 I was photographing in Raleigh’s beautiful Oakwood Cemetery, which is situated in the Historic Oakwood district of North Carolina’s state capitol. You can tell by all the Victorian homes here that this perfectly manicured cemetery had its origin in the same era. Though this National Historic District contains one of the largest collections of Victorian-era homes in the country, I was surprised that Raleigh seemed to be such a modern city—very little antebellum architecture (though there is some in the cemetery itself, as you see here). I guess I expected “Old South” plantation homes and “Gone With the Wind” mansions—sort of like how my Dad expected to see Royal Canadian Mounted Police (on horseback) as we crossed the border into Canada when I was a child.

Oakwood Cemetery  is wonderfully picturesque, with its flowering catalpa trees and magnolias, its massive shady oaks. Just up the road a piece is the coolest Krispy Kreme I ever saw, with a magnificent retro neon sign about the size of Rhode Island. So, equipped with a bag of warm glazed ones and large coffee (breakfast of champions), I entered Oakwood Cemetery. In one of my past lives, I’m sure I was born Southern—I’m inexplicably drawn to Krispy Kremes, crawdads, and smoked BBQ, as well as Southern music ranging from Robert Johnson to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Headstone of the Controversial Jesse Helms
Boasting a mix of the old and the new, Oakwood captivates the taphophile. Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell is buried here, along with her first husband, Berrien K. Upshaw. Upshaw, a Raleigh native, is believed to be the inspiration for the Rhett Butler character in her book. Political characters abound in Oakwood--North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms is now a resident. Helms, who died in 2008 (after my visit) conservatively had his pre-need planning done, as you can see from my 2007 photo. In December 2010, Elizabeth Edwards (ex-wife of presidential hopeful and North Carolina Senator John Edwards) was buried nearby after her long bout with breast cancer.

The statuary and other memorial sculpture at Oakwood range from the simple to the sublime. One of the most amazing monuments here rests at the grave of Wade Edwards (son of John and Elizabeth), who died in an automobile accident in 1996. The 10-foot high, 10-ton white marble sculpture “Wade’s Angel” shown below (sculpted by Robert Mihaly), is one of the most stunning contemporary memorials I’ve ever seen.

Wade Edwards' Angel, Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh

Within Oakwood is the “Confederate Cemetery” (seen here mapped out on granite), with about 1500 graves marked with uniformly sized “CSA” (Confederate States of America) headstones. The stones are rather oddly peaked at the top, not flat or rounded, as you typically see in a military cemetery. Gazing out on this expanse of CSA graves for the first time gave me the same feeling I got in New Orleans when I saw slave shackles and “receipts” in a collectible store. History meets reality when it smacks you in the face. You think, damn, this “war between the states” stuff really happened…

For anyone who was as poor a history student as I was, here's the Civil War in a nutshell: The Confederate States of America was an unrecognized group of eleven southern slave states of the USA (North Carolina was one of them) that had declared their secession from the United States. The U.S. government rejected secession as illegal, and after four years of fighting in the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), the Confederate armies surrendered, its government collapsed, and its slaves were emancipated. The sanitized, history book version usually doesn’t account for the magnitude of lives lost—618,000 Americans died before the Rebel Yell was finally silenced (compared to 404,000 who died in WW II).

"Deo Vindice" - "With God our Vindicator" (in other words, God will justify our actions)

It was interesting to me that such a significant number of Confederate soldiers were buried there, given that the cemetery was not established until 1869—four full years after the Civil War ended. I thought maybe these were not graves of casualties, but of veterans who died after the war. I noticed a cemetery employee near the office building so I thought I would go ask. As I was packing up my camera gear, and about to walk down the hill toward my rental car, I noticed another car driving up the narrow roadway toward it. Though I didn’t see it happen, I heard the unmistakable sound of two vehicles scraping each other...!

I grabbed my cameras and ran down the hill, in time to see the moving car parked in front of mine, and an older gentleman (its driver) outside looking at the side of my car. I asked what was the problem, and an old woman in the passenger seat yells out to me, “Oh nothin’ … we just heard a noise and was wonderin’ what it was!” Um, yeah. Before they sped off, I photographed their license plate—just in case. Of course they hit my rental car, on which I had waived the insurance rider. Oh well, a little mud and dirt splattered on the scratches and maybe the agency won’t notice it was side-swiped. Here’s a photo of my Guardian Auto-Angel asleep on the job…

Afterward, I did manage to track down the cemetery employee and speak with him about the origin of the Confederate Cemetery within Oakwood. It wasn't as obvious as one might think. To summarize his words, I'll quote the author and historian Michael Hardy, from his article  "North Carolina and the Civil War:"

"Cemeteries exclusively for Confederates were a product of post-war bitterness..."

Hardy explains:

"Oakwood Cemetery had its origin during the occupation of Raleigh by General Sherman’s Union troops. Prior to that, Confederate soldiers were buried at Raleigh’s Rock Quarry Cemetery [later renamed Raleigh National Cemetery] alongside Union casualties. After General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Raleigh started to become flooded with wounded Union troops. [As more and more of them died, larger burial facilities were needed.] The Federal Army wanted Rock Quarry Cemetery all to themselves, for a National Cemetery for Union dead.

In 1867, when the Ladies Memorial Association of Wake County was formed, their mission was to "protect and care for the graves of our Confederate soldiers." The reason that it was the "Ladies Memorial Association" was that men were banned by the Federal government from meeting in large groups. The ladies acquired a piece of property from Henry Mordecai and began to clean and level the property. Their goal was to move the Confederates interred at the Rock Quarry Cemetery, and others buried in the surrounding area, to the new Confederate cemetery. There were an estimated 500 Confederates interred at the Rock Quarry Cemetery.

On February 22, 1867, the group received a letter from the Federal commander in Raleigh. All Confederates had to be moved from Rock Quarry Cemetery immediately to make room for a National Cemetery. The Ladies Memorial Association set about work. Volunteers disinterred the [nearly 500] Confederate graves and began moving them to the new cemetery. Their progress was too slow for the Federal government, and in March 1867, the Federal commandant issued a letter, stating that if the Confederate dead were not moved by the given date [three days later], "their remains would be placed in the public road." [Can you BELIEVE that?!] By the end of March, the ladies and their volunteers had finished the work."

“So," Chardy says, "If the Federal government came and told you that the remains of your loved ones would be dug up and dumped in the road, well, I guess that could cause a little bitterness.” As they say on the Sopranos, “To the victor, belongs the spoils." Christ—no wonder the old folks whacked my car. “Damn Yankee...,” they were probably thinking. Legend has it that the tops of Oakwood's CSA grave markers were cut to a point so that no Yankee could sit on a Confederate tombstone.

The nonprofit Raleigh Cemetery Association, established in 1869, continued to add land to the original Confederate Cemetery site, chartering it as "Oakwood Cemetery." Its present size (102 acres) is attributable to the city itself and private donors in acquiring adjoining land for expansion. As CSA veterans died over the next several decades, many were buried here, bringing up the total to the present 1500 graves.

As a parting thought, if you're tempted to take sides, have a look at this wonderfully touching film of a 1913 meeting of Civil War veterans in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Links to Further Reading:

For the politically correct, history book version of Oakwood’s origin, see video here.

Northern Industry in the Civil War
Oakwood Cemetery Website
Raleigh's Confederate Cemetery 
Elizabeth Edwards' 2010 Burial at Oakwood Cemetery
Rhett Butler in Oakwood Cemetery 
Raleigh’s Serene And Scenic Oakwood Cemetery

Hear Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away