The Civil War arrived at the Lexington Cemetery on Sept. 11, 1861.
That day, Benjamin Gratz, a cemetery founder and the namesake of Gratz Park, buried his son. Union Army Capt. Cary Gist Gratz, 32, had died a month earlier from wounds suffered in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, Mo.
During the next four years, 964 more Union dead, white and black, would join Gratz there. So would more than 102 Confederate casualties, including Gen. John Hunt Morgan, who was ambushed Sept. 4, 1864, in Greeneville, Tenn.
The Civil War split Lexington families and society like nothing before or since. In that time of crisis, the Lexington Cemetery literally became our common ground.
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In the years that followed, many Union and Confederate veterans found final resting places there, including John C. Breckinridge, the U.S. vice president, Confederate general and Confederate secretary of war, who before his death in 1875 broke with many of his comrades and denounced the Ku Klux Klan.
Decades after the war, at the height of the Jim Crow era, Confederate memorial groups sought to recast their war to preserve slavery as a noble “lost cause” that romanticized the Old South. As not-so-subtle statements of white supremacy, they erected dozens of monuments to Confederate heroes, including those on the Fayette County courthouse lawn to Breckinridge in 1887 and Morgan in 1911.
On Monday — 156 years to the day after young Capt. Gratz’s burial — the Lexington Cemetery’s trustees will meet to consider a request by Mayor Jim Gray to allow the controversial Breckinridge and Morgan monuments to be moved from the old courthouse grounds to Lexington’s common ground.
I thought this would be a good time to examine the Lexington Cemetery’s Civil War legacy. Besides, there are worse ways to spend a lovely afternoon than wandering around this remarkable place, which opened in an old-growth forest in 1849 and has become one of the nation’s most beautiful cemeteries.
Burton Milward’s 1989 book, “A History of the Lexington Cemetery” says the Lexington Cemetery Co. maintained strict neutrality during and after the Civil War. This continued during both Union and Confederate occupations of Lexington.
In addition to family plots, the cemetery trustees set aside soldiers’ plots along the West Main Street side of the grounds — one for Union dead, another for Confederates.
After the war, the cemetery donated the Union plot to the federal government, which bought additional space and created the National Cemetery. It has a plaque with the text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Another plaque has an excerpt from Theodore O’Hara’s famous poem “The Bivouac of the Dead.”
The still-active National Cemetery has grown with each subsequent war. It is now in the midst of a renovation to replace sod around the neat rows of white marble headstones.
The Southern soldiers’ plot, across a small valley and road from the National Cemetery, was sold for $1 in 1891 to the Confederate Veterans Association, which then bought additional space. It is a very different place from the symmetrical and rather sterile Union cemetery.
The Confederate plot has two large monuments. The Ladies’ Memorial and Monument Association of Lexington erected one in 1875 that was designed by local historian George Washington Ranck and was described by a leading national magazine of the day as “probably the most perfect thing of its kind in the South.” Breckinridge’s widow, Mary, helped lead the fundraising effort.
The monument shows a rugged log cross atop a pile of stones and a Confederate battle flag dangling from a broken staff. The back of the cross proclaims: “Our Dead.” It was said to have been inspired by a poem, “The Conquered Banner,” by Father Abram Joseph Ryan.
Many Confederate graves don’t have headstones, so the Confederate Veterans Association erected a monument in 1893. Its granite pedestal lists dozens of those buried around it. The monument is topped by a Confederate sentry carved from white Italian marble. Milward’s book says donors included “at least one Union officer who made a large contribution.”
Scattered around the plot are a few individual tombstones. Some are military-style, bearing the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Southern Cross of Honor; others are of unique design. Capt. Thomas Quirk, an Irishman who died seven years after the war, is remembered by his men as “Our Tom.” Likewise, the comrades of B.B. Bigstaff memorialized him in limestone as “a sinner saved by grace.”
Many Civil War veterans’ graves are mixed throughout the cemetery. Among them are Confederate generals Basil Duke and Randall Gibson, and Union generals Sanders Dewees Bruce, Henry Clay Dunlap and Gordon Granger. He is best known for proclaiming the end of slavery while in command of post-war Texas, setting off the first “Juneteenth” celebration.
Morgan and Breckinridge are buried in family plots are in adjoining sections separated by a small road. On each side of that road, the cemetery has placed small signs guiding visitors to their graves. On the afternoon I visited, there were several small Confederate battle flags and Bonnie Blue flags, as well as a Kentucky flag, at the foot of Morgan’s headstone, apparently placed there by admirers.
As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”