Hidden away on a quiet little side street in Alton, Illinois is a beautiful granite monument, honoring the Confederate Dead. If you didn’t know its precise location, you’d never find it. I suspect that many of the locals don’t even know about it.
The 57-foot-tall granite monument sits high atop a hill, and dominates the two-acre site on which its located. It was erected in 1909, and at its base are plaques with the names of 1,354 Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned by the Union. Lost in time are the names of the dozens of civilians (Confederate sympathizers) who also died as prisoners of war.
Alton, Illinois sits on the Mississippi River, just 20 miles north of St. Louis, and during the Civil War, it was Union territory. Missouri did not secede from the Union, and yet it was categorized as a slave state. It was a conflicted state, with both Union and Confederate troops within its borders.
By all accounts, Alton was filled with Confederate sympathizers (those who fed or housed Confederates), as well as Confederate spies. Both the spies and the sympathizers ended up in the Alton prison. Many died there, due to starvation, deprivation, extreme cold, and disease.
Sometime in 1862, there was an epidemic of Smallpox at the prison and before it was over, 1,354 of the Confederates were dead. These were the “enemy” and yet Union officials made it clear that their remains were to be treated with reverence and respect.
Specific instructions were given for the burial of these soldiers: “Those who die will be decently interred, and a proper mark affixed to their place of burial.”
The Confederate dead were placed in individual coffins, and a numbered stake was used to mark each grave. A detailed ledger recorded their name and burial place.
In 1867, the federal government assumed ownership of the site, and from 1899 - 1907, efforts were made to document the placement of the war dead. Even with those meticulous records, it was decided that it was “utterly impossible to identify the graves of those buried there.”
In an effort to honor the final resting place of these 1,354 men, the monument was erected. It was to serve as a marker for the unmarked graves of the Confederate dead.
Situated on the Mississippi River, Alton is a quaint little town struggling to survive, with a riverboat casino that brings in some cash and enables the town of 30,000 people to keep the lights on and the schools open. Despite that, the grounds of the Confederate Cemetery on Rozier Avenue are beautifully maintained.
When I visited the site in July 2015, every single thing - from the manicured grounds to the CCC-built wrought-iron fence - was in pristine condition.
The historic placards placed around the cemetery and prison tell a story that honors the memory of our Confederate dead. While it’s true that the victors write the history, the story of our Confederate soldiers - the men captured by the Union Army - is told with tenderness, approbation, honesty and the utmost respect. In 1935, a Confederate veteran - a survivor of that prison - returned to the ruins and was treated as an honored guest (see photo below) and a returning son.
The monument and grave site is treated as a scared site, and is given the proper reverence and honor.
That’s how the North treats our Confederate dead. Why can’t the South be permitted to do the same?
Here in Portsmouth, Virginia, our Confederate monument is under attack, by City Council members that have publicly stated that the monument must come down. This, despite the fact that specific state legislation prohibits the removal of monuments honoring our Confederate dead.
Perhaps City Council needs to take a field trip to Alton, Illinois, so they can learn a little something about honoring our war dead.
It’s a sad commentary that we must look to the North to teach us something about Southern civility and decency and honor.
Everything within this sacred space is kept in pristine condition.
It's a sad commentary that our Southern heritage is honored more in Illinois than in Virginia.
The Confederate cemetery is located off State Street on Rozier Avenue, a short, quiet residential street in Upper Alton. For 12 years, I lived in the Riverbend area and wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and yet I knew next-to-nothing about this "military cemetery" in Upper Alton.
The 57-foot tall obelisk honors the 1,354 Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned by the Union. The bronze plaques give the names of each of the 1,354 soldiers.
One of the many plaques at the base of the monument.
Each plaque lists the first and last name, and their unit. Most were from Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, but many were from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia.
This 57-foot tall obelisk serves as a grave marker for the Confederate dead.
The North honors our war dead. Why can't we?
Sitting on an elevated site in a bucolic setting, it's beautiful, majestic and reverent.
Much like our monument in Portsmouth, Virginia (and yet ours is more detailed and elegant and historically significant). Portsmouth's monument to our Confederate dead is on the National Registry, and is considered historically significant for many reasons. For one, it's one of only three monuments in the South that feature all four branches of service. Secondly, some of Portsmouth's own sons were used as models for the four zinc statues.
About two miles south of the monument you'll find the prison ruins where the Confederate soldiers were incarcerated. Located in downtown Alton, this is a popular tourism site for the city.
In 1935, Confederate veteran Samuel Harrison (age 93) returned to the site of the prison and chose one of the limestone blocks as a grave marker for himself. He'd spent eight months at this prison in 1864. When released, he walked 45 miles to his home in Rolla, Missouri. When he returned to Alton in 1935, he was lauded as an honored guest. Harrison (of Dent, Missouri) said that this was the first time he'd returned to Alton since the War. Mr. Harrison related that overcrowding was endemic, and bunks were stacked "nine high, with three men to a bunk."
The North is permitted to honor our Confederate dead. Why can't we?
To read more about our monument in Portsmouth, Virginia, click here.
For the next 60 days, all monies received at this site will go directly to Stonewall Camp #380 for legal fees to save Portsmouth’s Confederate Monument. Click here to donate.
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