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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Keokuk National Cemetery, located just west of the town of Keokuk, Iowa, is divided into two sections, the older western section with burials dating from the Civil War and the eastern section with burials from the late 20th century. The cemetery features a superintendent’s lodge, several unique monuments, and the cornerstone of the Estes House, which served as a Union hospital during the Civil War.
The area where Keokuk stands today was once the territory of the Sauk and Fox American Indian tribes. Treaties with the tribes in 1837 and 1842 brought waves of new farmers to the region’s rich soils. Keokuk’s position on the Mississippi River made it an ideal location to station Union troops during the Civil War. Nearby, Camp Ellsworth began training soldiers, mustering the 1st Iowa Volunteer Infantry on May 14, 1861. Three other camps in the area, Camp Rankin, Camp Halleck, and Camp Lincoln, were also established between 1861 and 1862 to prepare the state’s troops for deployment throughout the Mississippi Valley and the western theater of the war.
Keokuk was also the location of five Civil War hospitals that treated thousands of injured troops transported upriver from battles in the south. The dead from the hospitals were first interred in a section of the city-owned Oakland Cemetery. The burial of Union casualties continued here until 1866, when the city of Keokuk donated the soldiers' section to the Federal Government, thus establishing the Keokuk National Cemetery.
The cemetery’s original entrance in the western section is located near the intersection of Ridge and 18th streets. The entrance gates were erected in 1949, several years after the city of Keokuk donated additional land to the cemetery. The large wrought-iron gates are supported by dressed stone block piers, which are in turn connected to an iron picket fence with similar stone piers. Iron picket fencing, dating to the 1870s and 1940s, surround the eastern cemetery.
Around the same time as the construction of the new entrance, several acres of land along the southwest corner of the property were donated to the cemetery. This parcel of land was developed starting in the late 1970s and features its own entrance due to a steep ravine separating the grounds from the eastern section of the cemetery.
The cemetery superintendent’s lodge dates to 1870 and was built according to the design of U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs. While the lodge’s Second Empire style and mansard roof are common in the national cemeteries, the lodge at Keokuk is the only one with arched first floor windows. Other buildings on site include a garage/restroom dating to 1937. An administrative building constructed in 1982 is just inside the gates of the western cemetery.
In 1912, the Women’s Corps of Keokuk dedicated the Unknown Soldiers Monument, a granite pedestal topped with a soldier standing at parade rest, to honor 48 unknown soldiers buried at the cemetery. The monument is located in the Section D. The American War Dads and Auxiliaries of Iowa dedicated the Unknown Soldiers Wreath, a bronze wreath in memory of the unknowns located in Section D.
In Section B of the cemetery is the cornerstone of the Estes House, once a grand hotel that stood at the corner of 5th and Main Streets in Keokuk. The hotel was converted into a hospital during the Civil War, the largest of the five in town. When the building was razed in 1929, its cornerstone was relocated to the Keokuk National Cemetery, where it is enclosed in a glass-topped metal case in tribute to those soldiers who died in the hospital.
Keokuk National Cemetery is the final resting place of a recipient 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 burials of note include First Sergeant Columbus H. McCaa, a member of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” and participant in the San Juan Hill Campaign. He is buried in Section H, Grave 1151. Eight Confederate soldiers who died as prisoners of war are buried at the Keokuk National Cemetery.