ILLINOIS STYLE: Grave of unknown Confederate soldier tended by Mattoon man
June 28, 2004
MATTOON, Ill. – As a boy 70 years ago, Henry Bell used to enjoy visits to Dodge Grove Cemetery as a chance to dart through the low rows of gravestones.
His eye would sometimes catch the words "Unknown Confederate Soldier" on one of the headstones at the edge of the cemetery. It seemed so out of place in a graveyard filled with hundreds of Union dead, including three generals.
Many decades later, Bell learned how the Confederate soldier ended up in Mattoon.
In 1863, a train was carrying Confederate prisoners of war through Illinois to a camp in the northern part of the state. Many of the prisoners were sick and were removed from the train for treatment. One of them died while he was being unloaded. He was later buried in Dodge Grove Cemetery with great reluctance.
"They couldn’t get anybody to bury him at first," Bell said. "There was such hard feeling then with the war going on. It’s said that they buried him outside the fence and they even buried him sideways, facing north to south. We’re supposed to be buried to the east so you can be part of the Resurrection."
In fact, the grave did not have a marker for 50 years until Herb Pennington, a former Mattoon printer, placed a small monument on it, according to "Mattoon … A Pictorial History." Pennington also arranged to have a Confederate flag displayed at the grave on Memorial Day. Eventually, the grave was included in the expanded boundaries of the cemetery.
In addition to the Confederate flag, an American flag was later added to the grave display, just like all of the "Yankee" graves. Many people have been involved over the years in the effort to honor the grave that once had pauper status.
"Over the years, there’s always been a flag out there," said Barb Kelley, a former secretary of Dodge Grove Cemetery. "People would come in to the office and tell us they were going to put something up out there.
Seven years ago, Bell joined the effort to recognize the grave as being the final resting place of not only a soldier, but of a human being far from home.
"This poor man’s family probably didn’t know what happened to him," Bell said. "I thought he was entitled to some flowers and a flag. I’ve been in the South and they take good care of the graves for the Union dead."
"Everybody who fought in the Civil War was an American," said Mike Smyser of Gays, a veteran with an interest in Civil War history and the Confederate grave. "Placing a Confederate flag there is not wrong. He fought under the Confederate flag. The problem is, it is a little hard to find those flags in this area."
Bell said some Confederate flags have been stolen from the grave. He has arranged for the purchase of the flags through relatives in North Carolina.
Finding possible relatives of the soldier has been impossible because efforts to track the identity of the soldier have not been successful, Bell said.
"Some say he might have been an officer in the Confederate Army," he said. "He was probably involved in fighting in the Western Theater, maybe at Shiloh. But they have nothing but dead ends on tracing down his name."