Twenty rows of tombstones, one hundred deep had weathered the elements for close to one-hundred and fifty years without so much as one soldier falling out of formation. They were good men; some just boys when they went off to war in their own back yard.
Is there really anything civil about war?
The Rock Island Confederate Cemetery is all that remains of that sad piece of our collective history. Ornate stone officers’ quarters were erected along what is now Terrance Drive where the prison was originally located.
I was looking at all those tombstones off to the right as we approached the gate to exit the U.S. Army Arsenal Island Post, the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the United States, and currently the only active U.S. Army foundry in the U.S.
I was no stranger to the military. I grew up a military brat. Saturday morning cartoons at the base theater always began with the pledge of allegiance. At the age of seven I thought it hilariously funny my father’s heavily starched uniform could stand at attention without the benefit of my father’s bulk. By the time I turned ten I didn’t find anything remotely funny about my father’s long absences that same uniform necessitated. I lived in fear of those deployments.
Six hundred thousand soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice during the Civil War. Double or triple that number to add to that count the family members who shared in that sacrifice; the parents, the siblings, the spouses, and the children who lived with that loss in the years after the war. There’s the hidden toll. I can't imagine the collective challenge the nation faced recovering from that war.
Looking out across the rows of tombstones I could almost imagine the pitched tents of a Civil War encampment. What was is like for all those soldiers, for William F. Ray, Company D, 6th Florida Regiment? Did he march the thousand miles from Florida to Illinois’ Rock Island? Did he succumb to smallpox, the cold, starvation or sheer hopelessness?
It took three interments before William Ray and his brothers in death would finally come to rest on the three acres of land on which I stood on the southeast corner of Rock Island. Did his family know then of his final resting place; do his descendants today know his remains are here?
It would take another forty years until the decayed, wooden markers in both the Confederate Cemetery in which I stood and the separate 44 acre Union Cemetery on Rock Island would be replaced with marble tombstones, pointed-top for Confederate soldiers, rounded-top for Union soldiers and all other U.S. soldiers and veterans buried in National Cemeteries during the ensuing wars; the Mexican War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Persian Gulf and Iraq.