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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Camp Butler National Cemetery, located about six miles northeast of Springfield, Illinois, is all that remains of one of the largest Civil War-era training centers for Union troops. While the immediate area did not see major fighting during the war, a sizeable hospital center and large prison necessitated the creation of a cemetery, which Congress established in 1862 as one of 14 original national cemeteries. The intent of the Camp Butler National Cemetery was for one-half to be dedicated for Union casualties, and the other half for Confederate prisoners of war. Today, the national cemetery has burials from 20th century wars as well.
At the outset of the Civil War, Illinois had no organized militia companies from which to draw troops in order to meet its quota of six regiments. Therefore, any soldiers from the state had to be trained before being sent off to battle. General William Tecumseh Sherman, along with state treasurer and Springfield resident William Butler, and former Illinois Secretary of State O. M. Hatch, selected a site outside the capital with suitable high ground for camping and level ground for training exercises. Named in honor of the treasurer, the new camp opened in August 1861, replacing the temporary Camp Yates west of town. Most troops at Camp Butler spent little more than one month training, often using wooden sticks in place of rifles due to weapon shortages. Over the course of the war, nearly 200,000 troops passed through the camp.
Camp Butler also served as a major prison beginning in February 1862 with the arrival of 2,000 Confederate soldiers captured at the surrender of Fort Donelson in Tennessee. These prisoners of war constructed troop barracks and hospital buildings at the camp, but by the summer the harsh conditions, brutal heat, and a smallpox outbreak claimed the lives of more than 700 of the prisoners.
Even as the war ended, the hospital at Camp Butler remained active caring for wounded veterans. On May 4, 1865, President Lincoln’s body arrived in Springfield for his final services and burial at Oak Ridge Cemetery, with men from Camp Butler serving as honor guards during the funeral and sentries at his grave. Even as the war ended, the hospital at Camp Butler remained active caring for wounded veterans, before closing in June 1866. Most of the site returned to farmland, though portions of the training fields became Roselawn Memorial Park Cemetery, immediately south of the current national cemetery.
The cemetery has been expanded several times to the east, north, and west. The main entrance is now located further east of the original entrance and is marked by a double wrought-iron gate. This entrance opens into a central promenade looping around two burial sections. A newer section to the west features a memorial plaza within an oval shaped pathway. An iron fence with brick piers replaced the cemetery’s original brick wall in 1949. Constructed in 1870 and designed by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, the first superintendent’s lodge stood until 1908 when the present lodge replaced it. This existing lodge—an American Foursquare—is a two-story, eight room, brick house that exhibits influences from the Colonial Revival and Prairie styles popular at the turn of the century. Located near the cemetery entrance, the lodge currently serves as office space for the cemetery staff. Also on site is a 1939 rostrum designed in the Classical Revival style. The temple-like structure features limestone walls and a copper roof.
Several memorials are located at Camp Butler National Cemetery. In 1970, AMVETS (American Veterans) dedicated a carillon for the cemetery to “affirm that the sacrifices made by those who died were not in vain,” and to “remind us of our legacy and of our debts to those who fought to preserve freedom throughout the world.” In 2005, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans dedicated a monument to Confederate soldiers who died as prisoners of war at Camp Butler. In 2006, the Illinois LST (Landing Ship Tank) Association dedicated a memorial to all Illinois sailors of LSTs, amphibious vehicles designed to transport troops and equipment from ships to land. Though most famous for their role in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, they also saw action in Korea and Vietnam as well.
Camp Butler 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.”
Another notable burial at Camp Butler is that of Colonel Otis B. Duncan who lies in Section 3, Grave 835. Duncan, a Springfield native, was the highest-ranking African American officer during World War I.
Also buried at Camp Butler are more than 800 Confederate soldiers who were held as prisoners during the Civil War, and 35 foreign prisoners of war from World War II who died at various U.S. Army forts and camps throughout the Midwest.