On the South Side of Chicago, thousands of Confederate soldiers are buried in a single mass grave.
Oak Woods Cemetery is home to the Confederate Mound, said to be the largest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere. The Confederate soldiers buried here came from Camp Douglas, a training ground turned prison camp. The Civil War began in 1861, after a number of southern states seceded from the United States to protect their ability to use the labor of enslaved people. After the Union won a victory at the Battle of Fort Donelson in December 1862, the camp became a detention facility for Confederate prisoners of war.
Set on land not far from Lake Michigan, the hastily-built barracks at Camp Douglas were not comfortable lodgings for the Confederate soldiers held there. Severe cold and wind tore through the buildings, and cruel and inexperienced guards were employed to keep the citizens of Chicago safe. Most of the prisoners of war died from diseases such as scurvy, dysentery, and smallpox in the camp, but some were shot as punishment. Camp Douglas lived up to its nickname “80 Acres of Hell.”
The bodies were originally buried in Chicago City Cemetery near the Camp Douglas hospital, but the graveyard was closed due to flooding. The Confederate coffins were relocated to Oak Woods Cemetery in 1866, in concentric trenches that circled the plot.
The site was unremarkable until 1893, when a 30-foot-tall monument was erected atop the grave. It is topped with a somber soldier, and on the sides it lists the names 4,200 soldiers buried in the grave. Twelve individual grave markers commemorate unidentified Union soldiers who died while stationed at Camp Douglas. The rest of the thousands buried in the grave go unknown. It isn’t even known exactly how many there are, but estimates suggest up to 6,000 people are buried here. A pyramid of cannonballs and a cannon also decorate the site, reminding visitors of the war that led to these men’s deaths.
Know Before You Go
The Confederate Mound is located in the southwest area of the cemetery. Best if accessed by car.