Madison, Wisconsin is a long way from the battlefields of the Civil War or the states of the old Confederacy. It would seem to be an unlikely location for a Confederate cemetery, yet there is indeed such a cemetery in Wisconsin’s capital city. Confederate Rest, as it is called, is a section of Madison’s Forest Hill cemetery that contains the graves of 140 Confederate soldiers who died while prisoners of war in 1862 . It is the northernmost Confederate cemetery in the United States.
In March 1862, Union naval forces attacked the Confederate garrison on an island in the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Missouri called Island Number 10. The island and nearby mainland were heavily fortified to help stop the Federal advance down the river, which was a major transportation route. Eventually, Union forces surrounded the island, and with escape routes cut off, the Island Number 10 defenders surrendered on April 7th.
The Confederate prisoners of war were sent north to various POW camps. Some 1,156 prisoners, all of whom were enlisted men, were sent to Madison. They were first sent via transport vessels on the Mississippi River to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and then by rail to Madison. The first group of 881 arrived by train on April 20th, and 275 more joined them on April 24th.
Townspeople in Madison came out to the train station to see the arrival of the prisoners. While the first group was in relatively good physical condition, the second group was in much worse shape, with many suffering from pneumonia, mumps, measles, and chronic diarrhea. These prisoners were taken off the train on stretchers. Island Number 10 was in an important strategic location, but the soldiers who were given the task of defending it had to do so under poor conditions. Men were exposed to cold rain and winds, with little food and medicine, standing knee deep in water in the trenches. It was no wonder many were desperately ill.
The POWs marched or were transported to Camp Randall, a large training camp for Wisconsin volunteer soldiers. It was not designed nor equipped to be a prisoner of war camp. At first, the camp was badly run and many of the ill prisoners received inadequate medical treatment. Things improved after a visit from Lieutenant Colonel William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisoners for the Union Army. Later in the war, prisoner of war camps would be infamous for their appallingly bad conditions, but Hoffman made a sincere effort to improve things here. He ordered clothing, bedding, supplies, and medications for the camp, and improved sanitary conditions. Hoffman also brought in extra surgeons to deal with the rampant illnesses. Madison’s civilian population had been shocked at the condition of the ill prisoners and townspeople helped out by bringing food and other supplies to Camp Randall.
Despite these efforts, many of the seriously ill could not be saved by the 19th century medical practices of the day (far more soldiers died of disease than in combat in the Civil War). As many as 10 prisoners a day died.
The dead were taken to Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery. They were buried side by side in one section of the cemetery, with wooden headboards marking each grave. After about three months, the prisoners were moved out of Madison to other camps, but a total of 140 had died and were buried in what the civilian population called Confederate Rest cemetery. One hundred ten of these men were from the 1st Alabama Infantry with the remainder from Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
As time went on the site began to be overgrown with tall grass and weeds. Then in 1868, a southern born woman who had spent most of her life in the north moved to Madison. Although she did not personally know any of those buried there, Alice Waterman took an interest in the cemetery and removed the overgrowth, placed a fence around the site, and replaced the deteriorating headboards at her own expense. (The wooden headboards were later replaced with headstones). She got the attention of Madisonians including Lucius Fairchild and C.C. Washburn, both of whom were former Union generals who went on to become governors of Wisconsin. She persuaded them to help improve the site, and Washburn personally led a group of former Union soldiers to the cemetery on a Decoration Day (today’s Memorial Day) when he was governor.
Today, the site of Camp Randall is occupied by the stadium where the University of Wisconsin’s football team plays its home games, though reminders of the location’s Civil War past are just outside the stadium. Forest Hill Cemetery, where many prominent Madisonians of the past are buried, is maintained by the City of Madison, and Confederate Rest receives the same care as the rest of the cemetery. A section of Union Army graves lies near the Confederate graves, and each Memorial Day, commemorative ceremonies are held at both sites.
One grave in Confederate Rest lies in front of the first row of soldier’s graves. After her death in 1897, Alice Waterman was buried at her request in the plot of ground containing the remains of soldiers she had never known, but whom she referred to as “her boys”.
“A Wisconsin Burial Place of Confederate Prisoners of War” by William A. Titus, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 1953.
History of the First Regiment Alabama Infantry C.S.A. by Edward Young McMorrries.
Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron
by Gary D. Joiner
Official Records of the Union And Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series II Volume 3.