Above: The Confederate Mound monument in Oak Woods Cemetery.
Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Every year, rifle-toting men in Confederate costumes come to the South Side of Chicago carrying Confederate flags stitched with the outline of Illinois.

This is the Illinois chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a hereditary group that visits the Oak Woods Cemetery in Greater Grand Crossing for an annual memorial service honoring thousands of rebel soldiers buried at Confederate Mound. Some leave flowers at the base of the monument, which has plaques bearing the names of the 4,000 or so soldiers who were identified out of more than 6,000 dead.

Looming over the mass grave site is a more than 40-feet-tall monument topped by a larger-than-life bronze statue of a solemn Confederate soldier. He stands there looking down on Confederate Mound with his arms crossed across his chest, holding his hat in his hand.

You won’t see anything else like him in Chicago.

The bronze Confederate is the first of his kind here and likely the last, unless the city decides to erect another monument to Confederate soldiers.

“It’s about honoring the dead, not trying to make heroes out of them,” says Peter Irvine, 66, an Episcopal priest and genealogist who serves as a chaplain for the Illinois Sons of Confederate Veterans. “It’s about recognizing the fact that they gave the full measure of devotion to the cause that they believed in—or, I guess they believed in. They may have been forced by circumstances to get involved.”

Irvine was the only member of his group—including the local chapter and national headquarters—who obliged repeated requests for comment.

He says that monument at Confederate Mound is much different than some of the other structures that have sparked vitriol and even violence across the country, like in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month. Irvine points out that the statue doesn’t glorify a Confederate leader or general. It honors men who died from starvation, disease, the bitter cold, and other atrocious conditions at the Camp Douglas prisoner of war camp in Chicago, which used to be in current-day Bronzeville. Oak Woods is a 184-acre private cemetery enclosed behind a brick wall, not a public park people walk by every day, Irvine says.

Irvine—who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but has spent more than half his life in northern states—was a longtime resident of south suburban Homewood Flossmoor, Illinois, before a few years ago when he moved to Paul Ryan’s hometown, Janesville, Wisconsin, where he's the chaplain of the local police department.

He’s still part of the Illinois Sons of Confederate Veterans because Wisconsin doesn’t have a branch of the group. He says it’s nice to be able to meet other people who have roots in the south. Irvine has ancestors who were slave owners and Confederate soldiers. He has some concern that people could call for the removal of the monument.

But he doubts many people would truly rally behind the idea of unsettling a burial site.

“I think most people feel the graves of the dead should not be disturbed,” Irvine says.

The Wrong Side of History

John Beacham, an organizer who recently protested the Balbo monument Downtown for its ties to fascism, doesn't think the Confederate Mound is immune to protest.

“People are compelled to feel sadness even if those human beings died for an unjust cause, so I can see why people are hesitant to protest Confederate Mound,” Beacham says.

But Confederate monuments in cemeteries have been coming down across the country, from as nearby as Madison Wisconsin, to Hollywood, California.

The arguments for removing those often line up with Beacham's: He says the soldiers buried there at Oak Woods “fought in an army that was trying to uphold, and keep and defend white supremacy.” In other words, Confederate soldiers, no matter how they died or why they joined the war effort, fought on the wrong side of history. Burying them, Beacham says, is one thing. Putting up a monument to them is another.

“That’s an attempt to resurrect their fight,” he says. “And their fight shouldn’t be resurrected, it should be kept in the grave.”

Jolisha Johnson agrees. The 23-year-old musician who lives in Bronzeville, the former site of Camp Douglas, prefers a modest historic site marker as opposed to a monument, and thinks that’s a fair compromise.

Johnson used to go to Dumas Elementary School in Woodlawn, about a block south of Oak Woods. She remembers touring the cemetery. She learned back then that black icons like Chicago’s first black mayor Harold Washington, crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, and Olympic hero Jesse Owens are buried there along with the Confederate soldiers.

She says it’s hard for her as a black woman to reconcile the presence of a monument to rebel soldiers who fought for a government that would have liked to see her in chains—especially on the predominantly black South Side.

When the monument went up in 1893, the area was all white and Chicago’s black population was small. But as blacks fled the South and flocked to Chicago and other northern cities during the Great Migration, whites first fought and then fled integration. Racist housing policies and violence from whites kept blacks segregated, which helps explain why Greater Grand Crossing, like many South Side neighborhoods, is nearly all black and has been so since the ‘70s. Blacks were barred from being buried in Oak Woods until the cemetery was desegregated in the ‘60s.

Johnson noted the irony of Confederate Mound’s location, but she’s most concerned about the annual pilgrimage that the Illinois Sons of Confederate Veterans make to it. She thinks it’s shameful for men in Confederate costumes to be in the cemetery holding Confederate flags, and is livid that people sometimes leave behind miniature ones at the site.

“This is a blood-soaked flag that is used to strike fear, and the fact that it is in the same place with all these prominent black people, that is a violent act and really not all right with me,” she says. “And that should just stop, be it by direct action or by trying to petition the federal government.”

But if other Chicagoans agree with Beacham and Johnson, they haven't been vocal—no public campaigns have formed and an online petition has gained only three votes from Chicago. (It suggests replacing the monument with a statue of James Armistead Lafayette, a black spy who served the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, or Peter Salem, a freed slave who fought as a soldier in the American Revolution. The petition creator could not be reached for comment.)

In 1992, ​black City Council members blasted efforts to designate the monument a historic landmark. They said the designation would honor those who fought to preserve slavery​, and halted the plan with the threat of a public fight.​​​

The mound and monument are maintained by the National Cemetery Administration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which also gives the Sons of Confederate Veterans permission to conduct their memorial every year. Both the cemetery and the office of Ald. Leslie Hairston (6th Ward) say they haven’t gotten any complaints from nearby residents about Confederate Mound—that the only calls have come from pesky reporters following the events in Charlottesville. 

“What place other than Chicago?”

Confederate Mound isn’t just about remembering the dead. It also stands for reconciliation between whites in the North and South after the Civil War, a reunion that Chicago had a major role in at a time when white supremacist sentiments, Jim Crow, and the web of institutionalized racism were rising in the country, and the federal government had abandoned the project of Reconstruction.

On the top floor of Harold Washington Library downtown, in the special collections room, there lives a 121-year-old book that the librarian will bring out to you rested on a pillow to protect its spine, titled, Report of Proceedings Incidental to the Erection and Dedication of the Confederate Monument. The author of the book is Major-General John C. Underwood, the Confederate veteran and politician who designed and secured funds for the monument. Underwood’s father was a unionist but his grandfather had been a slave owner.

About 11,000 Confederates were buried in five Illinois cemeteries following the Civil War, including burial sites in Rock Island and Alton, according to Underwood’s records. Most, 6,229, were buried at Oak Woods. At Oak Woods, before the monument, the dead were already buried on a modest government lot, in three concentric graves.

Confederate Mound in Chicago
The burial site wasn't always on the South Side: The federal government the bodies to Oak Woods from the City Cemetery in Lincoln Park, after the latter was closed due to frequent flooding.​Photo: Ted Slowik/Daily Southtown

Up to three-fourths of the cost of the monument came from donations from Chicago citizens, including businessmen like Marshall Field, Potter Palmer, George Pullman, and Ferdinand Peck, whose brainchild is the landmark Auditorium Building at the corner of Michigan and Congress. Peck served as a leader of the committee that organized the dedication of the monument on May 30, 1895, and the extravagant dinners and aristocratic affairs leading up to the ceremony.

The festivities and the monument cost $25,000 altogether, or nearly $676,000 in 2017 dollars. At the dedication dinner, former Confederate and Union generals, local businessmen, and the mayor of Chicago gave toasts. The next day, Memorial Day, former Confederates and union soldiers marched together, with thousands of Chicagoans joining and cheering them on. Indeed, etched into a plaque near the monument are thanks to the “Liberal Citizens of Chicago” whose donations helped finance Confederate Mound. An estimated 100,000 people attended the dedication ceremony in Greater Grand Crossing, including President Grover Cleveland. It was hailed by Chicago papers as a historic event unlike any the nation had seen—symbolized reconciliation between North and South.

Underwood writes, “What other city under the sun could have done such a thing?”

“What place other than Chicago, with its cosmopolitan elements, changing in sentiment from the bitterest city during the war to one of the greatest liberality—one that extended the right hand of fellowship, open, and with an honest heart beating responsive to the return of friendship from the south, silently expressing a welcome to its representatives; not as conquered foes, not as men who are prodigal children, but as citizens of one country and one people.”

Heritage or Hate?

Irvine says he lacks any views that could be characterized as white nationalist or white supremacist. He admits he feels “a little uncomfortable with some of the statements from the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” who consider themselves the stewards of Confederate Mound and legacy.

“I would say, more than a little. I think they go over the top on some of their positions and statements,” he says. “I don’t really consider myself a part of that. The group is supposed to be a heritage group, not a hate group. And they have public statements on their page to that effect. But what you have is an organization that has both people like myself who are interested in history and genealogy, and then you have people who have a political agenda of some sort they're trying to promote through this organization.”

The group’s website misrepresents some key parts of history, especially about how the Confederacy treated blacks during the Civil War. For one, though blacks were not allowed to fight in the Confederate Army (many were brought by their masters to perform menial work) the group exaggerates the willingness of black slaves to, essentially, fight against their own freedom.

The group also disputes that the Civil War was even about slavery—and it’s not alone. In a 2011 survey of Americans, nearly half of the respondents answered that the war’s primary cause was the fight over state’s rights. But in declarations of secession, various states were quite explicit that slavery was a major reason for their rebellion, according to historical documents.

Irvine's Confederate ancestor, Major Edward McAlexander, was with the 27th Alabama Infantry when they lost the Battle of Fort Donelson, in Tennessee. As an officer, McAlexander was taken to the Camp Warren prison camp in Boston. But the enlisted men under him were taken to Camp Douglas, Irvine says, explaining part of his affinity for Confederate Mound.

As a genealogist, Irvine has learned that sometimes, when you look into your family’s past, you come across people who did things you wish they hadn't done.

“You have to deal with them one way or another,” says Irvine, who calls slavery “a cancer,” but admits he has an ancestor who owned a plantation in Mississippi and owned slaves.

Irvine regrets the feeling some people get about the monument and the Confederate flag, “that this represents something sinister or something they don’t want to be part of.”

At the end of the day, Irvine says, his point of view is this: “If somebody objects to the Confederate Mound and feels it needs to be modified in some way or removed, then the people who have an interest in that should have an opportunity to express their opinions and come to a consensus about that.”

the Bronze confederate
The statue is modeled after a figure found in a painting by John Elder titled Appomattox, referring to one of the last battles of the Civil War.Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

The bronze Confederate at Oak Woods is free, for now, from any major controversy. Activists haven’t, as they have in other cities, taken matters into their own hands and pulled him from his perch or defaced him. Head tilted, hat in hand, arms folded across his chest, he watches Confederate Mound as he has since 1893.

About 30 people stood under his gaze on April 23, a sunny Sunday this year, around when some southern states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day.

An officer with the Michigan chapter of the Sons wrote a blog post describing the ceremony, which he attended. The service opened with a prayer, and then an address from a member of the group named Steve Quick, who is described as a historian dressed as a Confederate naval officer, according to the post.

“Once a year we return to this place, this peaceful forgotten corner which conceals the horror of what happened to these men. We come to remember the 27,000 herded thru [sic] the walls of Camp Douglas and the 6,000 who never left. They rest, literally under our feet in the largest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere,” is how Quick began, according to the post.

Quick lauds the men as courageous “simple farm boys” who “answered duty’s call as their grandfathers did during the revolution, to preserve the union as it was handed to them, uncorrupted by the unholy alliance of big business and big government,” and died in Chicago due to “neglect and cruelty.”

“The challenge for us today is to remember truthfully, without bitterness,” Quick says. “To have the courage to speak of something too many prefer not to hear, to risk the epithets that will certainly be hurled if we dare break the silence and ignorance. Because until the truth of this place is known and their stories have been faithfully told, the work of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks remains undone."

Members of the Confederate group aimed their rifles at the sky and fired a volley of blanks.

And then there was “a moving ritual where handfuls of soil from all eleven Confederate States, along with three border states, were ceremoniously scattered along the burial grounds where these Confederate heroes now rest."

Despite his discomfort with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Irvine says, “I feel it’s sometimes necessary to venture outside one’s comfort zone.”

“My purpose is not to inflame or alienate anybody,” he says. “So that’s where I’m coming from. But I can’t speak for the organization.”

The Last Holdouts is an occasional series where Chicago looks at the people, institutions and groups that are sticking around while everything around them transforms. If you have ideas to pitch or submit, email holdouts@chicagomag.com.