On May 10, 1872, a large crowd gathered at the Confederate Lot in Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery to witness a most momentous occasion. For on that day, an impressive statue was dedicated to the unknown Confederate soldiers, who gallantly gave their lives at the two battles at Fort Fisher in 1864/1865. It is remarkable that such a statue would be erected just seven short years after the suspension of hostilities. It is also a tribute to the dedication of the Ladies Memorial Association who spearheaded the campaign for the memorial.
During the War Between the States, an organization, called the Ladies Aid Society, took care of sick and wounded soldiers in Wilmington. They met every train from the battlefields in Virginia and provided meals and comfort, often to the very seriously wounded or diseased. After the war, many of the same ladies continued their commitment to the veterans and organized the Ladies Memorial Association.
In 1866, soldiers who had fallen at Fort Fisher were re-interred from public grounds elsewhere in the cemetery to what would become the Confederate lot. On December 13, 1867, the Directors of the Proprietors of the Wilmington Cemetery Corporation donated the lot to the Association. Later, on November 21, 1872, the Cemetery Company agreed to keep the lot in order free of charge in perpetua.
There are 366 unknown casualties on the lot, who are buried with their heads towards the railing and their feet towards the monument. Most of the soldiers on the lot are those who had no other place to be buried – either not from the area or no one claimed their bodies. The plaque on the front of the monument steps states that there are 550 soldiers interred on the lot. That number refers to the Confederates who died at Fort Fisher, not all of whom are buried in Oakdale.
In 1868, there was a notice in The Morning Star, announcing a subscription drive “to enable the Memorial Association not only to place a suitable fence around the Memorial lot, in the cemetery, but eventually to erect an appropriate monument over the remains of the Confederate dead, who are sleeping their last sleep in the lot.” In the same article, the writer opined that the memorial should be of North Carolina granite. “The sacred graves should not be desecrated by marble from the northern land.”
Obviously the subscription campaign was successful. The ladies raised between $7,000 and $8,000 through the sponsorship of fairs, bazaars, festivals and other public entertainments. Raising these sums was truly amazing, considering the hard economic times experienced by southerners after the war.
The lot was first enclosed by a combination cast and wrought iron railing. A nationally known sculptor, William R. O’Donovan (1844-1920) was commissioned to create the statue. A native of Preston County, VA, he was noted for his portrait busts and bas reliefs. The design was executed by Maurice J. Power of the National Art Foundry of New York. However, the granite did come from a North Carolina quarry.
The monument occupies the center of the lot and was first placed on an earthen mound. The bronze stature is of a life-sized Confederate soldier at parade rest. The infantry private is holding a rifle with the stock resting down in front of him. He is wearing an army overcoat, with a belt around the waist and a cartridge box attached to the belt behind. The buttons on the coat read, “C.S.A.” On the cartridge box are the letters, “C.S.” as well as on the plate of the belt in front. An ordinary fatigue cap, with the letters, “N. C.” on the front is on his head.
On the east and west faces of the base are two bronze bas reliefs, representing the heads in profile of Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, each surrounded with a wreath of myrtle. On the east and west faces of the base is the modest inscription, “To the Confederate Dead.”
In the mid 1890s, a new organization, the United Daughters of Confederacy was formed in Nashville, Tennessee, dedicated to perpetuate the memory of those brave souls who served in the Confederacy. On March 6, 1895, the third chapter established was that of the Cape Fear Chapter #3 in Wilmington, The organizing president was Mrs. William M. Parsley (Eliza Nutt), a Confederate widow. Two years later in 1897, the Ladies Memorial Association merged with the Cape Fear Chapter. The Association’s last project was furnishing one half of the funds for placing a marker on the grave of the Honorable George Davis (1820-1896), the attorney-general of the Confederacy, who is also buried in Oakdale. All of the books, papers, etc. belonging to the Association were placed in the Veterans’ Room of the W. L. I. Armory.
In 1908, the Cape Fear Camp of the North Carolina Confederate Veterans requested that the Cape Fear Chapter permit burials in the Confederate lot “for such few remaining Confederate Veterans whose circumstances may render it necessary to have a resting place provided.” The camp was not certain that the privilege would ever be needed. The chapter approved this recommendation and it was only used one time. The chapter approved the interment of James P. Walker, who became the 367th and last Confederate to be placed on the lot on November 1, 1909.
Charles Watson Yates, a Confederate veteran, died on April 10, 1915. He bequeathed to the Cape Fear Chapter, UDC, funds which made possible the protective brick wall around the Confederate lot. This project was completed in December 1952.
Another addition and alteration to the Mound took place in 1958. The earthen mound was replaced with a permanent foundation of six circular steps. The Bryan Winslow Newkirk family gave monies to erect the foundation steps in memory of their grandfather, Captain Abram Newkirk, M. D., Confederate States of America.
The Cape Fear Chapter #3, UDC, the successor to the Ladies Memorial Association continues to maintain the Confederate Mound. Each year on the Sunday nearest Confederate Memorial Day (May 10th) appropriate services are held to remember those who served in the Confederacy
At the time of the erection of the monument, the Confederate lot faced the main cemetery entrance, which was off of Miller Street, one block north of Red Cross Street. Anyone approaching the cemetery through the cemetery gates could not help but be impressed by the towering monument at the top of the hill. The soldier atop his pedestal completely dominated the surrounding area. This dominance was removed somewhat when the entrance to the cemetery was changed back to the original entrance on North 15th Street in 1915.
Written by Ann Hewlett Hutteman