The Rebel Graves

This transcribed Senate document below, from 1870, was part of an effort to account for the Civil War dead in cemeteries across the United States. The 1868 inspection of Oakwoods Cemetery shows only repeated figures of the number of buried dead. There was no visible indication of the numbers in the record.

Twenty-seven years later, the ground was marked with a memorial.


Senate Documents
41st Congress, 2nd Session
Ex. Doc. No. 62
Letter of the Secretary of War Communicating,
In obedience to law, the report of the inspector of the national cemeteries of the United States for 1869.

March 15, 1870 – Referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and ordered to be printed.

War Department, March 12, 1870
The Secretary of War has the honor to submit to the Senate of the United States, in obedience to the requirements of the act of Congress on February 22, 1867, the accompanying report of the inspector of the national cemeteries of the United States for the year 1869.
Wm. W. Belknap,
Secretary of War


In the Oakwood cemetery, south of the city of Chicago, in the government lot, are a few bodies; deaths by small-pox. The number is unknown.

The walks are not graveled, nor are the graves furnished with headboards.

In this cemetery four-thousand and thirty-nine (4,039) rebel prisoners of war are buried, all unknown. Three thousand three hundred and eighty-four (3,384) were originally buried in the city cemetery, three miles north of the city, and subsequently removed to this cemetery. Three dollars was paid for each grave for these bodies.


In the final chapter of George Levy's To Die in Chicago, he details the confusing accounts of the numbers of dead prisoners.

Comparing a February 16, 1863 Tribune article which is reproduced in the Camp Douglas newspaper accounts section, with the Tribune's account of the total dead from 1862, Levy deduces that 340 graves are missing by that time. Further, by comparing the Chicago Public Works record number of burials with the death toll at the prison during the first three months in 1863, Levy found a 700 body discrepency, amounting to 50 percent less than the 1,340 deaths that had occurred by then.

Levy gives several possible explanations for the missing graves. He said the Tribune cited bodies washing into the lake. (I found no mention of this in my research.) Grave robbers were another possibility. He also suggests that bodies were loaded into mass graves. Although he cites no evidence of mass burials, it seems the most likely scenario.

Levy writes of the undertaker C.H. Jordan as being responsible for the interments of the rebel dead. Jordan was also in charge of returning the soldiers' bodies to their families in the South - 400 are on record as leaving Chicago that way.

Jordan reported to the Army that 3,395 prisoners were buried in the City Cemetery during an 1865 investigation at the end of the war. The Army found only 2,968 names in the records. Levy writes that Colonel L.H. Pierce reported to General M.C. Meigs in a July 13, 1865 document, "They state that from Feby 1862 till all the secesh had left here, nearly all of the Medical Colleges in the North West were supplied by bodies stolen from the rebel dead buried in the cemetery, and the appearance of some of the graves gives evidence of the truth of this statement."

In a report by the Chief Quartermaster, to whom City officials address the 1866 letter above, General C.H. Hoyt acknowledges 1,402 rebel graves in the City Cemetery's potter's field. He wrote, "Very little care seems to have been taken in the interment of the bodies; they are crowded together, and in some cases the numbers are confused." By this accounting in 1866, Levy notes that nearly 2000 bodies are missing from the records.

The numbers get even more confusing when the bodies move to Oak Woods Cemetery from the City Cemetery during the transition of the grounds to Lincoln Park. Levy recounts a story of corruption in underbidding the costs of disinterments that led to careless removals and cheaply made coffins. He also cites two accounts of boxes arriving empty for burial at Oakwoods. The suggestion is that the number of coffins equaled the number of the recorded dead, whether or not there was a body within the box. The City did not keep written records of the initial interments to match the exhumations and reinterments. Acording to Levy, Joseph H. Ernst, the sexton whose bid was accepted to remove the remaining bodies from the potter's field in 1872, knew better about where the Rebel graves were than the men whose lower bid was accepted for their removals. The contract holders of the exhumations billed and were paid for the removal of 3,384 bodies, even though by the last count in 1866 there were only 1,402 graves. It is that larger number that stands as the record of the dead in Oakwoods Cemetery.

On April 13, 1867, exhumations of the Confederate dead commenced. Seventeen days later, on April 30th the job was recorded as complete.

George Levy believes that many rebel graves remain in Lincoln Park, below the baseball fields.

Pamela Bannos © 2021