Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Civil War headaches


Near the entrance to the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site cemetery just outside Higginsville, Missouri.
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Quite frankly, thinking about the Civil War gives me a headache --- and the sesquicentennial of it may, too. If you think we’re divided as a nation now, turn around and look back 150 years to a time when we really were shooting at each other. It will be interesting to see if we can get through this long observance of our most costly war in a creative enough manner to avoid letting what divided us (and in some cases still does) obscure what unites us.

Iowa was a solidly Union state --- obviously. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a good deal of debate (and acrimony), especially down here in the southern hills, about the war and its causes. Those debates have for the most part been obscured by now.

Our neighbor to the south, Missouri --- drive 45 minutes south from here at a good clip and you’re there --- had a tougher time of it. As a border state, it was claimed by the Confederacy but never managed to secede. It is the only state in which I’ve found in my own family brothers who really did serve on opposite sides --- one twin for the Confederacy, the other for the Union.

One useful thing to remember is the commonality between the vast majority of the young men of the Union and the Confederacy, shooting at each other during that war. If they hadn’t been ordered to kill, they would most likely have been friends.


I’ve thought about that a few times while visiting one of the loveliest Confederate memorial sites within easy driving distance of here --- the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site just outside of Higginsville, a small Missouri  town not that far east of Kansas City and not that far south of Missouri River.

The Confederate Soldiers Home of Missouri opened here in 1891and continued to operate until 1950 when the last of veterans, John T. Graves, died at the home at the age of 108.

The focal point of the memorial now is the cemetery where more than 800 of those veterans are buried, along with the nearby chapel.


The centerpiece of the cemetery is the official memorial, erected in 1906 by the Missouri division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It is an adaptation of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s 1820 Lion of Lucerne (Switzerland), sculpted to commemorate Swiss Guards massacred during the French Revolution. Here, however, the dying lion’s head is resting on the Great Seal of the Confederacy rather than on broken symbols of the French monarchy, as in the original.


It’s a lovely place, but still prone now and then to skirmishes. The Confederate Battle Flag, for example, had flown daily at the cemetery until 2003 when state officials ordered that it be taken down, declaring it a decisive symbol, leaving only the U.S. and Missouri flags still flying. I’m not sure of the current state of that dispute, although I did find an online petition dating from 2010 asking that the battle flag be restored.


And just over the hill to the southwest is a new Missouri Veterans Cemetery, containing the remains of Missouri sons and daughters who served in wars that followed the war we’re preparing now to spend five years remembering.

The old veterans cemetery also contains, as of 1992, some remains of Capt. William Quantrill, looked upon from varying perspectives as a freedom fighter or a terrorist. Quantrill led the August 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas, during which his guerrillas massacred some 183 men and boys ranging in age from 14 to 90. Quantrill became somewhat scattered after his death in a Union ambush in Kentucky during the spring of 1865 (his skull, for example, is buried in Dover, Ohio). But that’s an entirely different story.

The cemetery is a good spot to think about all sorts of things, however, so if you're ever in the neighborhood --- stop.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Try as I might, I have yet to find a confederate among the ranks of my ancestors, even among one family who lived in Missouri albeit less than a mile from the Iowa border. I guess I'm just a Yankee through and through.