In the thick of Southern Illinois University’s student ghetto, stretching along Main Street from Logan Avenue to Graham Street in Carbondale, stands an old and curious cemetery. In some ways a typical Victorian graveyard, it’s full of markers commemorating young wives who died in childbirth and clusters of children carried off by epidemics. But what makes these grounds unique are the 60-odd graves containing Civil War soldiers–including a few who died fighting for the Confederacy. Woodlawn Cemetery demonstrates how southern southern Illinois is, how close it was to the action, and how divided were its loyalties.

Vandals and the elements have done their damage over the years; Woodlawn’s proximity to Route 13 has it made it a target of highway litter, and graves are lit up all night by the old Gas & Wash (now a Convenient Food Mart) across the street. But recently Carbondale’s oldest cemetery has acquired a defender in its youngest councilman.

Twenty-eight-year-old Brad Cole, elected last fall, has made the restoration of Woodlawn his personal mission. This spring he convinced the Carbondale City Council to spend $180,000 on the cemetery. His two-year plan will repair and restore the fences that mark family plots, install military markers on all unmarked veterans’ graves, prop up fallen stones, build a fence to separate the cemetery from the highway, and construct a small parking lot and “interpretive station” near the grounds. He wants the rest of Illinois to learn the significance of Woodlawn, a national historic landmark that was the site of the state’s first Memorial Day ceremony in 1866.

Cole–whose full-time job is in Governor Ryan’s office, writing policy on economic development and education issues–describes southern Illinois as “right in the middle” of the war between the states. “There were houses around here that were part of the Underground Railroad, and yet there were people who wanted to go with the South,” he says. “U.S. Grant was based in Cairo for six months. John Logan was from Murphysboro. A lot of people here were key players in the war.” And not all of them played for the same side.

Understand the geography and history of southern Illinois and you’ll start to understand how its loyalties could be divided. The first wave of immigrants to the downstate area were Germans from Pennsylvania, says Ken Cochran, president of the Jackson County Historical Society. The second big wave followed Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap, and then kept going, traveling down from the Appalachians and west to hilly, fertile counties like Jackson, Williamson, and Alexander, with their magnolia trees and heavy, Faulknerian summers. “They weren’t plantation people,” Cochran says. “But they’d spent a couple of generations in the South, and some of them had slaves at one point or another, and they had Southern sympathies.”

So Confederate officers came to the area to seek recruits, he says. “They couldn’t organize a unit here because it was a free state, so they’d say, ‘OK, you guys, cross the river into Paducah [Kentucky] and we’ll organize you.’ A few guys served both sides. They served in the Confederacy, got mad at what was going on there, and joined the Union.”

Some of the Woodlawn dead fell in February 1862, at the battle of Fort Donelson, Kentucky, less than 100 miles away. Wounded soldiers were brought to hospitals in Cairo and Mound City, and buried in Carbondale.

Under the trees the dead seem to talk to each other, remembering old quarrels and affections. One pillar honors George Tiffany, a scout for Grant: “In the early part of the war contracted smallpox while in service and died in Carbondale, Ill. of the disease March 8, 1862. Erected to his memory by his friend D.H. Brush who on his way home after the battle of Donelson, wounded and sick, was Kindly assisted and cared for by the deceased. May he rest in peace.” Daniel Harmon Brush, one of Carbondale’s founders, survived the war. He’s also buried at Woodlawn.

In another part of the cemetery lies James W. Kilgore, dead at 39, remembered as “A Refugee: Author of The Spirit of Secession and its Bitter Fruits.” Beside Kilgore is his mother, Elizabeth, who died a month after her son. Carved on her stone is a citation from Matthew 2:18, “…Rachel weeping for her children; she will not be comforted, for they are dead.”

One stone remembers 30 freed slaves, names unknown, who died of smallpox in 1864 soon after arriving in Carbondale.

But the most famous memorial at Woodlawn is an unmarked sarcophagus. Raised on stone blocks about three feet off the ground, it’s the subject of conflicting legends. According to one, the tomb was built for a young woman from Vicksburg, Mississippi, who agreed to move to Carbondale only after her husband promised that she would not be buried in Yankee soil. Before he closed the lid on her coffin, the husband sprinkled a handful of Vicksburg soil inside.

The other story says that the tomb originally contained the body of Union lieutenant colonel John Mills. When his relatives learned that Confederate soldiers would be buried at Woodlawn, they indignantly moved Mills’s body to Marion, Illinois, leaving the sarcophagus empty.

In 1866 soldiers Ambrose Crowell and Russell Winchester got a notion to organize a community-wide day of remembrance at Woodlawn. It was held the last Sunday in April, the 29th, and was attended by 219 veterans and 4,000 area residents. General John A. Logan, on horseback, led his fellow vets on a parade march to the cemetery, after which came a group prayer for the war dead, some speechifying by Logan, and a barbecue. Cemetery sexton John Green, Logan’s cousin, recorded the day’s events for posterity in the front cover of a book he was carrying.

Logan, a congressman representing southern Illinois both before and after the war, was himself an example of the area’s conflicting alliances: though he was pro-South before the onset of war, he ended up helping persuade the region to support the Northern cause. Two years after the Carbondale event, Logan–by then commander of the Grand Army of the Republic–signed an order calling for May 30 of that year to be a national day of remembrance, one he hoped would be “kept up from year to year.” In an official declaration he asked Americans to guard soldiers’ graves with “sacred vigilance….Let no vandalism or avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.” By 1888, Memorial Day was a legal holiday in 12 states.

Though there has been much debate over whether the 1866 Woodlawn ceremony was the first Memorial Day in the nation, it was clearly the first Memorial Day in Illinois. It’s also clear that it was the Woodlawn ceremony that inspired Logan to propose a national holiday, says former Carbondale mayor Helen Westberg. Due to its role in the origin of Memorial Day, Woodlawn Cemetery qualified for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Mike Kimmel, president of the Carbondale Preservation Commission, said he hasn’t seen Cole’s plans for the cemetery. But Kimmel said Cole has been working with the commission, and he won’t object to any proposals as long as the cemetery will look as much as possible like it did in the 1870s: “If they’re consistent with the period, I’m wildly in favor of it.”

The city plans to prop up the sandstone graves with external bracing where needed; the Carbondale Preservation Commission would also like the city to repair broken tombstones and to raise stones that have started to sink into the ground. The commission also wants to make sure a proposed fence separating the cemetery from the highway will be consistent with the Victorian period. The same goes for any new fencing around family plots. The city wants to place in-ground markers beside veterans’ graves to identify them, an addition that Kimmel concedes is “not period” but, he thinks, won’t detract from the Victorian look of the site.

In past years, the commission itself has tried to persuade Carbondale to pay for restorations to the cemetery. It was met “not with really resistance, but not with open arms either,” says Cole. So he decided the best approach would be to not open up the issue to debate at all and assume everyone on the council already agreed with him.

“The way I approached it is, ‘This is what we’re going to do. I’m not going to argue; this is what we’re doing. This is long overdue. We’re talking about an historic cemetery. We’re not giving tribute to these veterans, and we need to do this.'” The council’s vote in favor of his proposal was unanimous. “I was kind of surprised that it went that easily myself,” he says. (He still hopes to win some federal and state funding as well.)

A frequent visitor to Woodlawn, Cole says his favorite spot is in the center of the cemetery, near the grave of Carbondale’s founder D.H. Brush.

“If you stand at the center and face north with your back to the Gas & Wash and the Taco Bell, off to your right behind you are those 30 slaves, to the right in front of you are all the young children, to your left in the front are the veterans, and to your left behind you are the regular townspeople….So you’ve got the Confederate veterans, the Union veterans, the founders, the housewives, the slaves, the kids….It all comes together here. You have every aspect of the community at the time.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kristina Krug.