The History and Politics of Oakwood Cemetery

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The African American portion of Oakwood cemetery in Richmond

By Colin Woodward

Hollywood Rivalry

Longtime Richmond residents may not know much about Oakwood Cemetery. For that, they can be forgiven.

When it comes to the resting place of former Confederates, Hollywood Cemetery–located downtown, near the VCU campus–dominates Richmond public memory. Hollywood, after all, is where three presidents are buried: Monroe, Tyler, and Jefferson Davis–not to mention governors (Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E.), generals (again, Fitzhugh Lee and Jeb Stuart), and famous writers, such as Robert E. Lee hagiographer Douglas Southall Freeman. Hilly and leafy, with a view of the James River, Hollywood is an amazing spot.

Oakwood isn’t as pretty, and to get their by bicycle (as I did), you have to go up hill from downtown Richmond. Though less known than Hollywood, Oakwood also tells interesting stories. It is no less Confederate than Hollywood. The main difference is that Hollywood is aptly named: it contains some of the most sparkling of the Rebel glitterati. Flat, open, and sun-baked, Oakwood doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal or historical cache. It is a memorial to the common soldier.

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Stansfield marker in the 19th century section of Oakwood.

Johnny Reb

Who was the common soldier? Well, Gettysburg College historian Peter Carmichael is publishing a book later this year on the common soldier, which argues (to oversimplify things) that there was no common soldier. When it comes to a Confederate soldier’s individual experiences, that is largely true. It is often difficult to make generalizations about men from diverse backgrounds who fought in different theaters of war. But Confederates did have much in common. Most were in their 20s, unmarried, and not slaveholders. They believed (as did their northern opponents) in white supremacy. They had no interest in freeing the slaves. They traveled far from home (i.e., more than 20 miles) to fight. Most survived the war.

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Oakwood in 1865. Source: Library of Congress

But many did not. In August 1861, not long after the bloodshed at Bull Run, Oakwood cemetery was established. Tens of thousands of men perished in the Richmond area, mostly from disease. Oakwood is not far from Chimborazo, the largest Civil War hospital. Oakwood was where most private soldiers in the area were laid to rest. Roughly 17,200 men are buried there, with about 8,000 of them unknown. Oakwood’s dead Confederates were 95% from the enlisted ranks.

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The common soldier doesn’t create a lot of publicity. Monuments to Lee, Forrest, and Davis have been in the news. And yet, markers to the Confederate soldier have been less controversial, even though they guard countless country courthouse steps across the South.

Even academics have focused far more on battles and leaders than the common soldier of the North or South. The reason is not because of evidence (a historian could spend the rest of his life reading soldier letters), but because, in contrast to biography, it’s far more difficult to tell the stories of many men in one book than it is the story of one main character.

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A relatively new marker to a long dead soldier

Oakwood, then, is the cemetery for Johnny Reb. Hollywood has its share of “common” soldiers, too. But it is mostly an example in contrast, especially in terms of race.

Not far from the Confederate section of Oakwood is a large African American cemetery adjacent to Nine Mile Road. Lee’s headquarters house, which he used during the Seven Days campaign, is not far away. Unlike the Confederate side of Oakwood, the African American cemetery is still active. When I was there visiting in the spring, several coffins were awaiting burial.

True to the Jim Crow history of Richmond, Oakwood is segregated. Not just by race, but by a road. You will not see any African Americans buried among the Rebels. And you can’t even see the Confederate side from the African American side.

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Robert E. Lee and Oakwood

Historians usually discuss the Lost Cause as being strongest in the 1890s. But efforts to erect memorials to the Confederate dead began long before. In May of 1866, a year after the war ended, the Ladies Oakwood Memorial Association dedicated a marker to the 17,000 Confederates buried at the cemetery. The ladies invited Robert E. Lee to attend.

Lee, then president at Washington College in Lexington, didn’t go. Thousands of Lee’s soldiers were buried at Oakwood. But Lee, who disliked monuments and attempts to keep the war alive in public spheres, declined. Tactful as ever though, Lee wrote, “The graves of the Confederate dead will always be green in my memory, and their deeds be hallowed in my recollection.”

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Confederate flags abound at Oakwood

Restoration Efforts

Not surprisingly, over time, Richmond’s cemeteries for departed white residents and Confederate veterans received much more attention and funding than African American ones. More recently, dedicated volunteers have been working to clear and restore neglected sites such as East End and Evergreen cemetery, which are not far from Oakwood. Cemetery workers and researchers have been offering online resources for learning more about their efforts.

Yet, even a much better known and maintained site such as Oakwood has had little scholarship devoted to it (note, for example its rather thin wikipedia page). Hopefully, historians will change this soon. Oakwood might not make for a shiny coffee table book, but it is an important part of the Richmond and Civil War story.

 

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Author: leefamilydigitalarchive

The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at www.leefamilyarchive.org. The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.

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