THE FIRST CONFEDERATE CEMETERY?
When the War Between the States began in 1861 everyone knew there would be deaths. Of course, no one thought there would be many and everyone knew they would survive--the other fellow would be the one to die. As soon as training camps were established deaths began to occur and to occur in larger numbers than were anticipated. A great many of these dead were sent back to grieving families to be buried at local church or family cemeteries.
Combat changed the face of death. Instead of a few daily deaths in hospitals, hundreds of men were cut down in a few hours time in a fairly confined piece of real estate. Comrades hastily buried friends on the battlefield if they had time and opportunity while fallen foe were placed in burial pits as at Shiloh, Perryville, and numerous other places. Often local church or town cemeteries received the dead as happened with Confederates killed at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
In the Autumn of 1862 the little village of Tullahoma, Tennessee, was chosen as a location for hospitals by the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Influencing this decision was the common belief that the area of the Highland Rim, on which Tullahoma is located, was a "healthful location;" more pragmatically, the main line of the Nashville & Chattanooga rail road passed through the village facilitating the gathering of sick men & supplies for their treatment. Since the main armies were several hundred miles away, struggling for control of Kentucky, all inmates of the Tullahoma hospitals were sick, no battle casualties were being treated, yet death was a daily event.
Tullahoma was a very new town. It had been founded as a construction camp for building the Nashville & Chattanooga rail road in the early 1850's. Because it was so new the town, and its churches, had no established cemetery. A pressing issue for the Confederate hospitals, then, was where to bury the dead.
Serving with the Army of Tennessee was a semi-disabled officer, Colonel Mathias Martin. Col. Martin suffered from a cyst, called a hydrocell, in the groin area which one doctor described as "large as a grapefruit." Unable to lead troops in combat, Col. Martin stayed with the Army to lend whatever help he could as an Aide. The Colonel was located now in his own door yard for he owned extensive farms in the vicinity and held property in and around the village of Tullahoma. The need for a burial place moved the Colonel to action. Matt Martin invited the Army authorities to bury his deceased compatriots in one of his fields beside one of the roads leading out of town. The offer was gratefully accepted.
In January, 1863, Tullahoma became the Headquarters for the Army of Tennessee and would remain so until July, 1863. During this time the use of the cemetery created by Col. Martin increased. A modern investigation (1997) with ground penetrating radar, reveals few individual graves. It seems to have been the case that a trench was dug to accept the bodies with the trench being extended day by day as more room was required. It would have been in keeping with the common practice of the day if boards with the names of the deceased had been placed at the head of each body.
The Army of Tennessee evacuated Tullahoma on July 1, 1863. There is some evidence that Matt Martin's plot of land was used to bury prisoners who died while in the custody of the Union Provost Marshal but the site was generally neglected. In the years following the War local citizens made sporadic efforts to maintain the graves; the grounds, commonly, were cleared of brush once a year on June 3, Confederate Memorial Day, and crosses of cedar wood were erected. In August, 1889, only days before his death, Matt Martin deeded the burial plot to a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees who would head a group to be called "The Tullahoma Confederate Association." This group was to have perpetual control of the cemetery. In 1912 the Captain Calvin C. Brewer Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected wrought iron gates at the entrance to the cemetery.
By the 1920's other families were buying property outside the Confederate Cemetery to be used as burial plots. The surrounding area became known as Maple Hill Cemetery and, gradually, came under the care of the city. During the same decade the Trustees of the Tullahoma Confederate Association ceased to meet and the city began to maintain the Confederate graves to prevent the area from becoming an eyesore. The cedar wood crossed had mostly disappeared by this time and the graves were assumed to be those of "unknown" Confederate soldiers. The State of Tennessee even erected a historical marker on U.S. Route 41-A stating the cemetery was the last resting place for 407 "unknown Confederates." Here matters rested for about 40 years.
The Centennial of the War revived interest in local events and a committee was formed to revitalize the appearance of the old burial ground. A pipe and chair fence was erected, two flag poles put up, and a monument secured which, again, stated the burials were "unknown" Confederates who had died in hospitals at Tullahoma. Also, blocks of marble were acquired and were placed on the ground in a regular pattern, one for each of the men thought to be buried there. This arrangement would cause some confusion since later visitors readily assumed these marked individual graves.
This brief flurry of interest did not outlast the Centennial commemoration and the cemetery again came under the care of the city. But, in 1992, Raymond W. Watkins of Falls Church, Virginia, found a list in the National Archives giving a roster of most of the dead buried at Tullahoma. Suddenly the "unknown" Confederates had names! An application was made to the U.S. Office of Memorial Programs for an additional monument listing the names of the soldiers. Pursuing this goal would take three years.
Nineteen Ninety-Five was the Bicentennial of Tennessee's statehood. From the first, the state planners urged local communities to celebrate local history as a part of the wider celebration. A local committee was established at Tullahoma and a number of events were planned as part of the Bicentennial celebration. One of these events was to be a re-enactment of some events from the Tullahoma Campaign and a dedication of the new monument in the Confederate Cemetery.
As the week-end long celebration got underway some questions were raised about the propriety of the city maintaining the cemetery, especially there were questions about displaying the Confederate flag over the graves. It was agreed that flags were proper during the ceremony but not afterwards.
This decision caused a reawakening of interest in the history of the cemetery and a local attorney began to investigate the matter. It was found that under Tennessee law a perpetual trust does not expire through the death of its trustees; any person or persons willing to carry out the requirements of the trust may assume that role. So, in the Spring of 1996, the Tullahoma Confederate Association held its first meeting in seventy years, appointed Trustees, and assumed responsibly for keeping up the maintenance of the cemetery. One of their first acts was to raise the Confederate National flag, the Battle Flag, and the flags of the Polk and Hardee Army Corps over the graves of the men who had fought under these flags. In the Summer of 1997 the State of Tennessee awarded the Association a grant for maintenance of historic cemeteries and all work of maintaining the cemetery, from mowing the grass to painting the fence and flagpoles, began to be carried out by members of the Tullahoma Confederate Association. The cemetery is one of the stops on the Tullahoma Campaign Driving Tour promoted by the Tennessee's Backroads Heritage Committee.
Although Confederate soldiers were buried in existing cemeteries or on battlefields before Col. Matt Martin set aside his plot as the final resting place for his comrades in arms, the plot at Tullahoma may be the oldest cemetery in the nation created exclusively for the burial of Confederate soldiers. Today, the cemetery on Maplewood Avenue is a lovely, well maintained, and peaceful spot.
Written by Michael R. Bradley