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Published September 28, 2014

Oakwood Cemetery’s Origins: Digging Up The Past

Almost 750,000 people were killed in the Civil War. That’s 2.5% of our total population at the time. Put in a modern perspective, if an equivalent percentage of Americans died today, we’d be losing over 7 million people. That tragic and dark War Between the States created a number of problems, not the least of which was finding a place to bury almost a million people.

While Raleigh’s infrastructure emerged from the Civil War physically unscathed, her citizens faced substantial loss and death. The war and its staggering consequences heaved many problems on our community. We had thousands of grieving families, whose sons’ bodies were sent home after the war, and Raleigh had no planned space to hold and honor the fallen.

But with a commendable bit of forethought, on July 17, 1862, Congress empowered President Lincoln “to purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in service of the country.”

RELATED: A Reasonable Look at the Spinning Angel of Oakwood.

Fourteen national cemeteries, including the most recognizable one in Arlington, VA, were established that year. Raleigh’s National Cemetery, on Rock Quarry Road, was established 3 years later. Raleigh served as a hospital site during the war, and the location of the National Cemetery was chosen because of its proximity to Pettigrew Hospital on New Bern Avenue.

Digging Up Oakwood’s Origins Birth Of A Raleigh Cemetery 1

Because of the ferocity of the battles and the magnitude of the casualties, there was often no time nor means to bury the dead properly. Impromptu grave sites, indicated only by makeshift markers, were strewn across farms and forests and were left to the mercy of changing landscapes and foraging animals.

After the war ended, efforts were made to return bodies to their loved ones for a proper burial. In 1867, a Federal officer came to Raleigh on one such mission. Upon learning that 500 Confederates had been buried in the city’s National Cemetery, he gave locals 3 days to exhume those bodies and remove them from that place; a place reserved for soldiers who died “in the service of the country.”

Digging Up Oakwood’s Origins Birth Of A Raleigh Cemetery - 3

Angered that so many Raleigh soldiers had no honorable place to be buried, Ladies Memorial Association of Raleigh petitioned a prosperous local farmer, Henry Mordecai, to grant them land to use as a cemetery for those who fought for The Confederacy. Mordecai generously granted their wishes, giving them 2.5 acres on Oakwood Avenue. Today there are 1400 Confederates, from NC, SC, GA, AL, MS, TX, and LA interred on that plot of land, 106 of whom are unidentified

RELATED: Death Isn’t Orderly: Nature Takes Oberlin Cemetery.

The House of Memory, erected in 1935, provides a peaceful setting for reflection on the sacrifice made by everyone affected by The War Between the States, regardless of whether they wore blue or gray.

Today, Historic Oakwood Cemetery has grown to 102 acres, 35 of which are still undeveloped. Guided Walking Tours take place on the first Friday of the month from April to October.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans will hold their annual Lantern Walk through the Oakwood’s Confederate Cemetery on Saturday, October 25th.

Find more information on all the events at the cemetery and download their app via their website,

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  • Michael Palko


  • Instructional designer, Photographer-in-Residence at Historic Oakwood Cemetery, and social learning evangelist. Oh, digital storyteller, too. I take pictures. Lots of them. Find me on Instagram: mpalko. All my articles.

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