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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Rock Island, Illinois
Rock Island National Cemetery, located on the grounds of the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, began as a post cemetery for one of the most important supply depots for the Union armies of the Mississippi Valley. The island was also the site of a major prison for captured Confederate soldiers. Prisoners of war who died during their incarceration lie buried in an adjacent but separate cemetery—now the Rock Island Confederate Cemetery. Today, the national cemetery is the final resting place for veterans of the Civil War, Mexican War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf and Iraq. A memorial walkway within the cemetery showcases more than 30 monuments dedicated to these veterans.
The first military installation on Rock Island was Fort Armstrong, constructed in 1816 to defend the upper Mississippi Valley from British traders. The fort also served as a headquarters for operations during the Blackhawk War of 1832. Though the Federal Government closed the facility in 1836, it retained possession of the island. In July 1862, just over a year into the Civil War, Congress established an arsenal on the island. The following year, the U.S. Army organized a camp on the island for Confederate prisoners of war, holding 8,594 inmates at its peak in early 1864. The first guards at the camp were a regiment of “Gray Beard” volunteers, consisting of men over the age of 45, including at least one man in his 80s. Later the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry, whose recruits were mainly composed of former Kentucky slaves, took over the guard duty.
The Arsenal’s first cemetery provided a final resting place for the guards of the prison camp. However, it lay in the path of a planned expansion at the western side of the island. Thus, the Army relocated the 136 interments in the cemetery to high ground at the southeastern tip of the island. Here the cemetery was laid out on a 1.2-acre, rectangular parcel. Originally, two intersecting avenues divided the space into four sections—three for burials and one to accommodate the rostrum.
The cemetery has been expanded greatly to the north and west, with a new main entrance constructed in 1993. The new entrance consists of an iron gate flanked by limestone ashlar walls, evoking the historic architecture of the arsenal. From this entrance, the new central axis runs southwest, terminating at the cemetery’s flagpole.
The cemetery’s first fence was made of light wood pickets, later replaced by a highly decorative cast-iron fence. The pickets on the iron fence evoke tree branches with attached leaves, while the gateway arches resemble tree trucks. The remaining sections of iron fence and one of the gateway arches mark the entrance to the memorial walkway; other pieces are located at various locations of Arsenal Island.
The only buildings on the site are an administration building, constructed in 1971, west of the central flagpole, and a committal service shelter, constructed in 1987, between the entrance and the flagpole along the cemetery’s main drive. The original rostrum was constructed in 1875 but removed sometime after 1950, and featured wood and brick construction with a tin roof. Since arsenal personnel oversaw the cemetery, there was never a need to construct a superintendent’s lodge on site.
This walkway terminates at the gravesites of Brigadier General Thomas J. Rodman and his wife, Martha Ann, and Colonel David Matson King and his wife, Marguerite. The Rodman gravesite features a large obelisk monument within a wrought-iron fenced enclosure. Brigadier General Rodman, the “Father of Rock Island Arsenal,” was an officer during the Civil War and was the arsenal’s commanding officer from 1865 to 1871. Three Civil War-era cannons mark his gravesite. Rodman invented the construction method used in producing these cannons, which involved casting the cannon barrels around an air- or water-cooled core, ensuring that the barrel cooled and hardened first. This allowed the cannon to withstand higher pressures, making them stronger, safer, and more reliable, while also greatly increasing the lifespan of the cannon.
Rock Island National Cemetery is the final resting place of two recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Other notable burials include 50 African American soldiers who served in the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, 16 “Galvanized Yankees” who died before being assigned to the western frontier, and 159 Civil War veterans reinterred from Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa. The largest group burial is of 19 servicemen who perished in an explosion aboard the USS Warhawk in the Philippines on January 10, 1945.