Land of last resting places

Land of last resting places

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The graves of the historic, tragic, and just plain strange in western Illinois
confederate gravestones with soldiers marching in backgroundCivil War reenactors march past headstones in the Confederate Cemetery on the Rock Island Arsenal, just across the Mississippi River from downtown Davenport. Republished with permission © 2010 SourceMedia Group, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Editor's note: The University of Iowa offers lots to do throughout the year, from arts performances to readings, and lectures to recreation. But sometimes faculty, staff, and students want to explore areas beyond campus. So University Communication and Marketing is publishing a series of "daytripper" stories this summer, pointing to fun, interesting, and uniquely Midwestern destinations within a day's drive of Iowa City. This story is the first story in the series. Future stories may be found here."

It’s an odd thing to see north of the Mason-Dixon Line, rows and rows of Confederate battle flags solemnly displayed, flapping peacefully in a breeze. So often a symbol of political hostility, they seem to have a different meaning on the grounds of the Confederate Cemetery on the Rock Island Arsenal, just across the Mississippi River from downtown Davenport.

Here, in a graveyard, the flags are more symbolic of war's cruelties than anything else.

The cemetery is the last vestige of a Confederate POW camp operated by the U.S. Army on Arsenal Island between 1863 and the war’s end in 1865. More than 1,900 Confederate prisoners died during those years, and this is where they were buried; a peaceful knoll surrounded by soaring oaks and elms—some of them so old the prisoners probably saw them in their final days. Today, it’s wedged between a playground and daycare on one side, and on the other a wooded area that separates it from the National Cemetery, where more than 18,000 white headstones mark the graves of people who fought to defend the union.

Like in any national cemetery, the Confederate graves are laid out and marked with rows and rows of white stones, normally unadorned, but every Memorial Day, volunteers place Confederate flags in front of each to honor their sacrifice. But what exactly is the nature of their sacrifice? What lay behind the Confederate flag was the ugliness and brutality of slavery, but what did the men who lie here think? By far the vast majority of them were privates, the lowest of the low who had no power and no wealth and, in all likelihood, no slaves. What did they think of the Cause? Did they fight for any cause at all?

The Confederate Cemetery is located on Rodman Avenue. Other points of interest on Arsenal Island are the Arsenal Museum, on Rodman, just east of the Confederate cemetery, and the Army Corps of Engineers Lock and Dam 15. NOTE; Arsenal Island is an active U.S. Army installation and photo identification is necessary to enter the base.

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Drive down the Illinois side of the Mississippi some two hours from the Arsenal until just north of Burlington and you come to the little town of Oquawka and a very different kind of last resting place, that of Norma Jean the elephant.

Norma Jean was the 30-year-old, three-ton star of the Clark and Walters Circus that had set up in the small town’s city park for a performance on July 17, 1972. That evening, a thunderstorm passed over and a bolt of lightning hit the tree she was shackled to, killing her immediately from electrocution.

The circus was in difficult financial straits and didn’t have the money to carry away a dead elephant (without its star, it would go out of business within a year). So the townsfolk simply dug a giant hole behind Norma Jean’s body and buried her where she fell.

“Nobody knew what to do with a dead elephant, and the easiest answer was to dig a hole with a backhoe and roll her in,” says Gus Hart, a local resident and former editor of the Oquawka Current. But the story was too good to be buried with her, and soon Norma Jean became the second most famous living thing to have visited Oquawka (Lincoln came through frequently, but those were in his days as a circuit rider, long before he became president).

Norma Jean made all the papers, and Paul Harvey and Charles Kuralt did stories about it. A film student at Southern Illinois University shot a documentary that won a Student Academy Award in 1988. A few years after her death, the local pharmacist raised some money to build a small Norma Jean memorial that opened in 1977.

“There were Norma Jean postcards, Norma Jean Days, a Norma Jean baseball tournament,” says Hart. “It was a weird little thing that Oquawkans grabbed onto.”

small elephant statue sits atop a rock wall
The final resting place of Normal Jean. Photo by Tom Snee.

Much of the Norma Jean thrill is gone now, but the memorial is still there on the town square, between the municipal swimming pool, the water tower, and a skate park/basketball court. An original elephant sculpture on top that actually looked like an elephant was eventually lost to the elements and replaced by the cartoonish lawn ornament of an elephant that’s there today.

The memorial also has a glass case of old newspaper stories that explain how an elephant came to be buried in the town square of a small Illinois river town.

Strangely enough, Norma Jean is not the only elephant buried in a small town in western Illinois. In Monmouth, 20 miles to the east, lies an elephant that was used as part of the act of illusionist and magician The Great Nicola. A Monmouth native, Nicola worked in the early 20th century and had an international reputation that rivaled Harry Houdini’s. The elephant was part of his act for many years before she was retired to a farm in Nicola’s hometown owned by a local veterinarian. She was buried there after she died, though the grave location is unknown.

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For a literary last resting place, stop by Galesburg, where you’ll find the grave of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, biographer, children’s novelist, folk musician, journalist, and socialist agitator Carl Sandburg. He was born in Galesburg and grew up in a hardscrabble, working class neighborhood with Swedish immigrant parents, and the house where he was born and raised is today a state historic site and museum located in what is still a hardscrabble, working class neighborhood.

The ashes of Sandburg and his wife, Lilian, are interred in the home’s backyard, their graves marked by Remembrance Rock, a boulder that inspired the name of his mammoth novel.

Note, also, the unintended irony that the local shopping mall is named without irony the Sandburg Mall, after the devoted and proud socialist hometown celebrity.

Speaking of passed Swedes, just north of Galesburg is Bishop Hill. The village was originally established in 1846 as a utopian religious commune by the followers of charismatic Swedish religious leader Erik Jansson, one of the few times that “charismatic” and “Swedish” can be used in the same sentence. Jansson railed against what he considered the corruption of the Lutheran Church in his homeland and his criticisms eventually ran him afoul of Swedish religious authorities, so he and his followers exiled themselves to build a New Jerusalem on Illinois’ fertile prairie.

Jansson was murdered in 1850, but the commune continued until one of his successors made a series of bad financial investments that ultimately led to its demise. The colony was formally dissolved in 1861.

The village is now a state historic site, with many of its original buildings restored to their original condition—including the church, dormitories, community barn, and hotel. Many have been converted into trinket shops, galleries, and restaurants, and it also has a museum and interpretive center displaying original artifacts from the now-dead colony.

Contacts

Tom Snee, University News Service, office: 319-384-0010; cell: 319-541-8434

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