Memorial Day Honors for “Forgotten” Soldiers
By Dave Franzman
ROCK ISLAND, IL- When most people think of Memorial Day, what comes to mind is probably patriotic music, speeches and lots of American flags. But at the Rock Island National Cemetery, a number of eastern Iowans honored veterans who fought and died under a different flag on this Memorial Day.
Rock Island Arsenal, just across the Mississippi River from Davenport, is the burial site of 1,950 Confederate soldiers. They were part of the 12,000 Confederates brought to the federal island as prisoners of war from 1863 until 1865. Nearly one in five of the prisoners died from disease, malnutrition and other causes in the harsh conditions.
The Iowa Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans hosts an observance at the national cemetery every Memorial Day. The event draws Civil War re-enactors in costume, a working artillery battery that fires a salute and even some eastern Iowans and others who have relatives buried in the section set aside for Confederates. Volunteers decorate each of the graves with the “stars and bars” battle flag of the Confederacy.
One re-enactor, Duane Kromminga of Hopkinton, said a lot of people go “what?” when he explains what he does every Memorial Day and who he honors. “I think at first it seemed strange. But they were Americans. They were veterans. They were fighting for their states and it’s amazing the number of Iowans who left and went back to their home states—fought for the south—and then came back,” Kromminga said.
Dick Pohorsky of Cedar Rapids is the commander of the Iowa unit. He said a lot of people don’t know that the south actually originated the concept of Memorial Day. Union General John Logan issued an order three years after the Civil War ended asking groups to decorate the flags of the fallen with flowers. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. But Pohorsky said that order was based on what Confederate widows and others had done earlier—decorate the graves of their Civil War dead.
Pohorsky said it’s part of the mission of his group to educate people about how Memorial Day applies to all soldiers who died in service—even service under a different flag. “The Confederate veteran as well as the Union veteran is an American soldier. And they were all Americans who died in the Civil War,” Pohorsky said.
This Memorial Day event drew a crowd of about 100 along with the re-enactors. They listen to similar-sounding speeches about honoring the sacrifice of those who fell. But the uniforms were definitely different. And the strains of “Dixie”—the anthem of the old south—was a clear reminder this wasn’t a typical Iowa event.
Paula Annino and her brother William Rosson came all the way from Champaign, Illinois to participate. Their great, great grandfather was buried here after dying from smallpox while a prisoner. He served in a Tennessee unit and his burial marker misspells his name “Rossin.” Both plan to return and bring some soil from that part of Tennessee and sprinkle it on his final resting place. They also say it takes some explaining to tell people they have an ancestor buried in a prison of war cemetery on the Iowa border. “Yes, it’s a big surprise. I talk to a lot of people and they were surprised. They had no clue,” Rosson said.
Civil War re-enactors and other participants say they do it for people like Annino and Rosson—to show these largely forgotten soldiers aren’t forgotten by everyone.