Since the establishment of the Arkansas History Commission (today’s Arkansas State Archives) in 1905, the institution has fielded countless inquiries concerning just about any aspect of Arkansas’s past. These have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the pedestrian to the paranormal and from the easy to the almost-impossible to answer. Not surprisingly, over time the conflict known variously as the Civil War, the War Between the States or, perhaps facetiously, as “The Late Unpleasantness” has proved to be a perennial inspiration for queries. Questions concerning the war and those caught up in it come from both Federal and Confederate partisan or descendants thereof. Many are straightforward and easy to resolve: “Yes, we have their service record” or “No, I’m sorry, that is a Union pension, they are located at the National Archives.” But another category of Civil War inquiry, one that touches on emotions, is harder to answer: looking for an ancestor’s place of burial. Lately, ASA staff have received several queries along these lines: “My two-times great-grandpa died in Little Rock during the war, can you tell me where he is buried?” Such questions seem simple but in practice, good answers are elusive and honest ones are often unsatisfying.
When speaking of the honored dead, the temptation is strong to look through rose-colored glasses of optimism and think that during the Civil War every death was recorded, every name logged on one roster or another and that for every death there was a plot … but the reality was quite the opposite. In this article we set aside those rosy spectacles as we look at how wartime burials were handled in Little Rock and where your ancestors-regardless of the color uniform they wore--may lay at rest.
In the initial months of the of the Civil War, the dead generally received proper burials with military honors. As the war progressed, however, and the butcher’s bill grew, the traditional and reverent practice was not sustainable as hot words and skirmishes gave way to massed armies meeting in pitched battle.1 Settlements of any size became centers of care; by 1862, it could be said that all roads in the region led legions of casualties to Little Rock. Arkansas’s capital became, as Confederate surgeon William McPheeters noted in his diary, a “hospital city.”2 Ambulances and walking wounded lined the paths, many dying along the way. Their bodies were left in shallow graves on the roadside and in the forests. In the city, the industry of the living could not keep pace with that of Field Marshal Death: local coffin factories turned out as many as 40 coffins a day and grave diggers were needed around the clock. This pace of mortality is not surprising: Estimates project that Confederate units could lose 50 percent of their men per year from not only injuries, but also disease. As the year progressed and the dying did not cease, land for burial became scarce; individual graves gave way to long trenches with a thin covering of dirt. Little Rock’s city council as a result was forced to purchase property adjacent to the established Mount Holly Cemetery, on “West Main Street, now Broadway” to accommodate Confederate dead, but it was not enough.3 The city also began negotiations to purchase the Starbuck Plantation, a 160-acre tract, located southeast of Little Rock toward Pine Bluff. This property became known as Oakland, due to the forests which covered much of it; today it is known as the Oakland-Fraternal Historic Cemetery Park.4
The purchase of the plantation was completed by March 1863 and the burials of Confederate soldiers began. Later in the year when Little Rock fell to Union hands, the new cemetery, Oakland, served as campground for Federal troops. These bluecoats were as mortal as the Confederates they displaced; they, too, died of wounds, died of infections, died of contagion—and like the Confederates before them were buried in the newly-consecrated former plantation ground.5
After the Civil War, the Federal government purchased parts of the Oakland property from the city, establishing Little Rock’s National Cemetery. In September 1866, the first 9.1 acres were purchased, to be used for military burials. Another parcel was added in 1868; on April 9 of that year, the cemetery was designated as Little Rock National Cemetery, dedicated as a final resting place for the remains of Federal troops in Arkansas. That year, the remains of 1,482 individuals were recovered from several battlefield burial grounds in the area and reburied at the National Cemetery.
In death, as in battle, these fallen Federals rest close by their one-time antagonists. In the southwest corner of Oakland, the graves of Confederates lie, interred in two plots. A one-acre section includes a mass grave that contains 900 unidentified Confederate soldiers, most of whom died in Little Rock hospitals during 1863.6 A larger Confederate plot, totaling over 11 acres, was made the resting place for over 1700 Confederate soldiers who died during and after the war; this cemetery was sited in the southeast corner of Oakland, just west of and bordering the National Cemetery. In 1884, the population of the larger Confederate cemetery grew: Mount Holly’s commissioners found it expedient to remove the remains of its Confederate dead, to facilitate “needful changes,” likely related to landscaping. These men, numbering about 640, were Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and Louisiana Confederate troops who died between 1861 and 1863; the bodies were reinterred in the 11-acre plot and a marker was placed to memorialize these relocated unknowns.7 To ensure that the Confederate Cemetery would be taken care of, in 1890 it was turned over to the Ladies’ Memorial Aid Association of Little Rock. This group would long maintain it, even after the Association merged into the Little Rock Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.8 In 1913, the city signed over Confederate Cemetery to the Secretary of War, allowing it to become part of the Little Rock National Cemetery, with the proviso that only Confederate veterans might be buried there. This restriction was relaxed in 1938, allowing the Confederate Cemetery to become the Confederate section of the Little Rock National Cemetery.
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So, the next time I am asked something like “Where is my great-great-great grandpa, who died in Little Rock during The War, buried?” I will ask, “Which side did he serve?” and if he wore a blue suit, your ancestor is probably in the National Cemetery. If, on the other hand, he wore homespun, butternut or grey, chances are good that he lies today in Oakland or the adjacent National Cemetery, even though if his remains are in the latter, his first place of last resort may have been Mount Holly. Regardless of what color uniform he wore, chances are good that the sought-after ancestor is among the hundreds of “unknown” soldiers who although separated in life by diverging allegiances, now rest close by one another.
Photo Caption: Map of Little Rock in 1863, showing Mount Holly (marked with a star) and showing where West Main Street, (highlighted in yellow, now Broadway) was at the time. Reference: Map 1354 3 of 4
1. Roberts, Bobby and Carl Moneyhon, Portraits of Conflict: Photographic History of Arkansas in the Civil War, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1987), 144.
2. Pitcock, Cynthia Dehaven and Bill J. Gurley, I Acted from Principle: Civil War Diary of Dr. William M. Pheeters Confederate Surgeon in the Trans-Mississippi, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002), 55-56.
3. Roberts and Moneyhon, Portraits, 144; Pitcock and Gurley, I Acted from Principle, 56; O’Donnell, William W., The Civil War Quadrennium: A Narrative History of Day-to-day Life in Little Rock, Arkansas, During the American War Between the States, 1861-1865, (Little Rock: Civil War Round Table of Arkansas, c 1985), 35.
4. “Oakland-Fraternal Cemetery, National Register of Historic Places,” last modified 2023, accessed January 5, 2023, https://www.arkansasheritage.com/docs/default-source/national-registry/pu5892-pdf.pdf?sfvrsn=5aac62ef_0; “A Chronicle of Little Rock,” Arkansas Gazette, November 7, 1931, Part 2, 6; “Oakland-Fraternal Cemetery,” last modified November 10, 2021, accessed December 30, 2022, https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/oakland-fraternal-cemetery-7383/
5. “Oakland-Fraternal Cemetery,” last modified November 10, 2021, accessed December 30, 2022, https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/oakland-fraternal-cemetery-7383/
6. “Little Rock National Cemetery,” last modified September 1, 2021, accessed January 7, 2023, https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=180795; “Memorial Day To-morrow,” Arkansas Gazette, May 9,1869, 2; “The Confederate Dead,” Arkansas Gazette, May 10, 1872, 4. “National Register of Historic Places,” last modified 2023, accessed January 5, 2023, https://www.arkansasheritage.com/docs/default-source/national-registry/pu5892-pdf.pdf?sfvrsn=5aac62ef_0;
7. “After Many Years,” Arkansas Gazette, March 21, 1885, 5. “Little Rock National Cemetery,” last modified September 1, 2021, accessed January 7, 2023, https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=180795
8. “Young Democracy,” Arkansas Gazette, June 13, 1890, 4; “Care of Confederate Graves,” Arkansas Gazette, May 21, 1899, 4.