One of my favorite places in the Vicksburg National Military Park is the hillside on the western edge of the park that is home to the Vicksburg National Cemetery. It is quiet and peaceful beneath the canopy of ancient trees overlooking the Mississippi River in the distance. It is hard to believe that a place so calming and serene is the result of the horrors, disease and brutal combat of the Civil War.
The United States National Cemetery system was established in 1862 in response to the mortality rate suffered by Union forces during the Civil War. These national cemeteries initially served as the final resting place for “soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” This definition did not include those who died in battle who came from states which had seceded from the Union. However, in 1873 the right of burial in a national cemetery was extended to all honorably discharged Union veterans of the Civil War. Over the years Congress has enabled legislation that gradually extended burial privileges to a larger portion of the population.
The 116-acre Vicksburg National Cemetery was established in 1866 to serve as a central burial location for Union soldiers who were killed in action or died of disease during service to this region. Union soldiers whose remains could be located in battlefield graves or at hospital sites were disinterred, brought to Vicksburg, and placed in the national cemetery. There are approximately 17,000 Union soldiers buried here of which 13,000 are listed simply as “Unknown”. The Vicksburg National Cemetery is the nation’s second largest behind Arlington National Cemetery.
Nationwide, 54% of the number of reinterred were classified as “Unknown.” At Vicksburg National Cemetery 75% of the Civil War dead are listed as “Unknowns.” Rounded, upright headstones mark the graves of the known soldiers; white small, square blocks, etched with a grave number only, designate the burials of the “Unknowns”.
Cedar Hill Cemetery, Vicksburg’s sprawling city cemetery, is the final resting place for fallen soldiers of the Confederate States of America. A section of the cemetery designated as Soldiers’ Rest contains the remains of an estimated 5,000 Confederate soldiers. Approximately 3,500 of these soldiers lay in repose as “Unknowns”.
Cedar Hill is also the final resting place of Douglas the Camel. Douglas, a dromedary (one hump camel), along with 73 other camels were part of an U.S. Army experiment to test the creatures’ capabilities in exploring the desert Southwest of the United States. Douglas died during the Siege of Vicksburg on June 27, 1863.
Although Confederate burials were not permitted in the Vicksburg National Cemetery there are two exceptions. In the late 1860s two Confederates were mistakenly buried in the cemetery. Private Reuben White, 19th Texas Infantry Regiment (grave #2637) and Sergeant Charles B. Brantley, 12th Arkansas Sharpshooters Battalion (grave #2673).