Memorial Day 2016

Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_7594I’ve been busy of late getting a new edition of my Smelterville book off to the binders and bouncing between Florida and Missouri. I’ve also been working with Curator Jessica and Carla Jordan on several exhibits for later this summer and fall. That’s the excuse I’m going to give for slacking off of late.

On this 2016 Memorial Day weekend, this sign at the Mound City National Cemetery came to mind. It was part of a longer story I did about the curious case of Sgt. Samuel Ginter. If you missed it the first time around, it’s worth visiting.

Previous stories about veterans and memorials


Mound City, Illinois

Mound City ILL 08-10-2014While researching the Saga of Sgt. Ginter, who is buried in the Mound City National Cemetery (as a sergeant, not as female camp follower in a Major’s uniform), I ran across some interesting tidbits of Civil War history about Mound City and Cairo, located about five miles apart on the Ohio River.

Mound City was the location of one of the largest Civil War hospitals in the western campaign. Even though no major battles were fought in the two cities, they received dead and wounded soldiers from Battles in Belmont, Commerce and Reed’s Point in Missouri; Fort Donelson and Shiloh in Tennessee; Fort Holt, Paducah and Columbus in Kentucky.

I was disappointed to learn that this brick building is all that’s left of what was described as one of the best administered of the military general hospitals.

Was also a naval depot

Mounds City ILL 08-10-2014The National Register of Historic Places listing of Civil War Cemeteries contains the following information about Mound City. If you are interested in the cemetery part, here is a link to the full register.

Mound City, Illinois, was founded at the abandoned settlement of Trinity in 1854. The city was located at the confluence of the Ohio and Cache Rivers. With the coming of the civil conflict, the riverfront became an extremely important Union naval facility for the Mississippi Squadron. A repair facility for the squadron was moved to Mound City due to the lack of space at Cairo.

Built three ironclads

Mound City ILL 08-10-2014Throughout the Civil War, the Mound City naval depot was the only repair facility for the Mississippi Squadron, a fleet that numbered 80 ships. In addition to repairing and refitting vessels, the Mound City naval depot also shared in the construction of three ironclad gunboats. These were the U.S.S. Cairo, Cincinnati, and Mound City.

Heavy battles along the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers necessitated the establishment of hospital facilities to care for the wounded. Mound City was in a strategic location and the city’s hotel and foundry were converted into hospital facilities. High death rates from wounds and disease led to the establishment of the Mound City National Cemetery.

Red Rover hospital ship

Mounds City ILL 08-10-2014On April 7, 1862, the gunboat, Mound City, captured a side-wheel river steamer named the Red Rover which had been used by the Confederates as a floating barracks. The Red Rover was taken to St. Louis to be refitted as a floating hospital for the Western Flotilla. The ship was assigned to the U. S. Navy Hospital at Mound City.

The Red Rover accompanied the flotilla through most engagements with the enemy, making many trips with wounded and dead to the Memphis and Mound City hospitals and cemeteries, treating the wounded along the bank of the Mississippi, scrounging for food and transporting medical supplies.

Important staging area

Mounds City ILL 08-10-2014Although Mound City and nearby Cairo, Illinois, were not in the combat theater of the Civil War, their location near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers made these areas important staging points for the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers for the Union forces. Three of the famous Eads ironclad gunboats were built at the Mound City marine ways and shipyard.

These specially designed shallow draft ironclads played an important part in the western campaign, giving valuable support to the Union troops on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and at Vicksburg.

One of largest hospitals in the West

Mound City ILL 08-10-2014In 1861, a large brick building in Mound City was taken over by the United States Government for use as a general hospital. In service throughout the war, it was one of the largest military hospitals in the west. Another large hospital was established at Cairo.

Roman Catholic nuns of the Order of the Holy Cross at Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, were utilized as nurses to staff these hospitals. The establishment of these large hospitals at Mound City and Cairo was a determining factor in the location of the Mound City National Cemetery.

The hospital at Mound City was able to accommodate from 1,000-1,500 patients and has been described as one of the best administered of the military general hospitals.

First patients came from Battle of Belmont

Mounds City ILL 08-10-2014The first patients at the Mound City General Hospital were the wounded from the Battle of Belmont, Missouri, November 7, 1861. Heavy fighting at Fort Donelson, February 13-16, 1862, and at Shiloh April 6-7, 1862, brought many more patients to the Mound City and Cairo hospitals.

The death rate from wounds and all prevalent diseases was high in the hospitals of the Civil War period.

Other bodies were removed from Cairo and its vicinity in Pulaski County; in Missouri from Belmont in Mississippi County; Reed’s Point and Commerce in Scott County; in Kentucky from Fort Holt in Bailon County, Columbus in Hickman County, and Paducah in McCracken County.

There are 2,759 unknown soldiers buried in the Mound City National Cemetery, as well as 27 Confederate soldiers who died in the wartime hospitals of the area.

Photo gallery of Mound City

Mound City, like Cairo, has seen better days. I was fascinated by a 1905 hardware store on Main Street. I was even more fascinated when I saw the roof had fallen in and the inside was returning to nature. Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move through the images.

The Saga of Sgt. Ginter

Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_85084[Editor’s Note:  The following is taken from April 5, 1894, Obituaries and Death Notices of The Cairo Citizen. I have preserved the spelling and grammar of the original piece, including the curious practice of inserting subheads in the middle of sentences. I usually place long quotes in italics, but I’m reserving that font for my comments this time. The photos were taken in the Mound City National Cemetery. Click on the images to make them larger.]


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_7545After Thirty Years a Grave Gives up Its Secret.
Curly Kate” Story at Last Explained

It has been truly said that “truth is stranger than fiction.” The recent discovery that Sam Ginter of the 61st United States colored infantry was buried as “Unknown” at the beautiful national cemetery at Mound City, is but another exemplification of that old adage.

The fact that the identity of an unknown soldier has been discovered after a period of thirty years’ burial, is in itself a remarkable occurrence, but when that soldier’s grave has been surrounded by speculations, hatreds, and slanders, base and cruel, the story of its occupant’s life and death is doubly interesting. The facts and circumstances surrounding the grave of Sam Ginter have already made a sensational chapter in the history of Cairo, but the tale itself should be again told, in order that the reader may see the force and meaning of subsequent events.

The City of the Dead

Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_7594In the early spring of 1889, the present fairgrounds were still sacred as the city of the dead. But in the summer of that same year the old graveyard, with its solemn and sacred stillness, was turned into a place of frolic and merriment.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 25th, 1889, while exhuming the bones of the silent inhabitants of the old cemetery, the workmen came across a fine metallic coffin, of the character used during the late war. It was of cast iron ________ in the style of a bath ___, the top being bolted to the lower part, and the seam made tight by lead packing.

There was a glass top to the casket, and through this, by the aid of reflection, it could be seen that the body was that of a Union soldier. It looked as though there was a double row of buttons upon the coat, and the body was immediately called that of THE UNKNOWN MAJOR.

Body was taken to National Cemetery

Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_8574The casket was taken in charge by Warren Stewart Post No. 533, G. A.R. and a committee consisting of Rev. J. W. Phillips, Judge J. R. Robinson and Capt. N. B. Thistlewood, were appointed to re-inter the body at the national cemetery at Mound City. On the afternoon of Thursday, June 27th, 1889, the body of this unknown soldier was again laid to rest.

The description as made out through the beclouded glass, was thought to be that of a “young man, about five feet nine inches in height, fair, rather light complexioned, light hair, eye tooth on the left missing, dressed in the uniform of a major of the infantry, gold buttons on his shoulder straps, while the gold leaf at each end was clear and distinct, as well as the blue ground that indicated the branch of the service.”

At this point the story might have ended, but the editor of a local daily paper, who is now connected with the Chicago Inter-Ocean, decided otherwise. On the morning of Sunday, July 14, 1889, in a four-column article he dilated on an alleged mystery under the headlines


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_7578“Can Curly Kate be buried by mistake in our national cemetery?”

In this article the editor claimed to have received a letter from Cincinnati, signed “Nellie,” in which the writer said that the “dead major” was none other than “Curly Kate” a noted courtesan, who flourished in Cairo during the war. In this alleged letter “Nellie” said that she and Kate had been companions in Cairo, but owing to their forcible ejectment from the city by the commanding officer, in the interests of morality, they had returned in soldier’s uniform and were compelled thereafter to go about in that garb.

One evening Kate, in the uniform of a major, went out boating with a gentleman who is now one of our leading businessmen, but never returned; the “writer” alleging that Kate had been murdered by the male companion who confiscated $5,000 which she had on her person. This sensational article created intense excitement and


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_8604the gentleman so basely slandered naturally being very angry. The paper, which published this libelous and sensational article, stood alone, the balance of the press fighting it at every point.

Matters finally became so complicated that an order was obtained from the authorities at Washington to re-exhume the body and examine it. Late in the afternoon of August 4, 1889, a deputation of citizens went up from Cairo to the national cemetery and the body was again unearthed.

The excitement was intense and men crowded around the grave to get a glimpse of the mysterious unknown. A committee of physicians consisting of Dr. Casey of Mound City, and Drs. Stevenson, Sullivan, McNemer, Rendleman, and Malone, of Cairo, examined the wasted and sunken features and then made further and more critical examination. It took but a moment for them to discover that


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_8568The final and minute examination of the body gave birth to the following description: Five feet ten inches high, seventeen or eighteen years of age; well built and rather stocky, good symmetrical features which were small and well shapen, intelligent face, high forehead. Eyetooth missing on left side. Flaxen, auburn hair, with a tendency to ringlets. Covered with a common gray army blanket from the waist down. Feet tied together with a hempen string. No papers or any mark of identification on the body. Uniform of a common soldier.

The body was not that of “Curly Kate.” But whose was it? What common soldier could have been buried at such expense, and then forgotten? These questions puzzled everyone acquainted with the story, and have even to this day.


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_8589In the same issue of the Chicago Record of March 9th, this year, there appeared an article from Mason, Ill. State’s Attorney Butler, who is a subscriber for that paper, read the account and became very much interested. The story is substantially as follows: Dr. W. B. Dennis, of Effingham, Ill. was hospital steward of the 61st United States colored infantry at the time the following events took place. Under command of Col. Sturgis the regiment was ordered to leave Memphis by transfer boat for the upper Tennessee River.

Near Paducah the boat was signaled by two men on shore who were supposed to be Union couriers. They were taken on board and delivered dispatches to the commanding officer, presumably from the federal general. The dispatches ordered the regiment to proceed to a place called Eastport. There to disembark and march inland about four miles where they were to destroy a bridge, and thus cut off the retreat of the Rebel General Forrest.

Those two men were in reality, Rebel spies, and the object was to lead the Federals into an ambush. The place of destination, Eastport, was a hamlet of about fifty people, in Tishomingo County, Miss. This county is in the northeast corner of the state, the Tennessee River cutting off the northeast corner of the county and forming the border of the state.


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_7574On October 10th, 1864, the regiment reached Eastport and about two-thirds were landed. They had scarcely reached the shore before they were swept down by a withering fire from two sides. Sixteen were instantly killed and twenty wounded. In great disorder they rushed for the boat, which had broken from its moorings and was floating down stream. Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_7564Less than half of those who landed reached the boat. Dr. Dennis and a comrade of the name of Sam Ginter were endeavoring to pull a cannon up the gangway, when a shell burst and both fell apparently dead. Ginter receiving many wounds. They were both carried into the stateroom.

A deck hand prowling about for plunder discovered that Dr. Dennis was alive and so reported to his superior officers. Dr. Dennis had not received a scratch, but the terrible concussion had so affected his brain that he could recall none of the circumstances of the battle. The officers of the regiment made up a purse of $360 for the purpose of embalming Ginter, and sending his body to his widowed mother, who lived near Bloomington, Ill. Dr. Dennis was granted a furlough to visit his relatives in Ohio and was also selected to accompany the remains of Ginter to Bloomington.

It might here be stated that the regiment was composed of colored soldiers, and although Ginter was a private, being a white man and detailed to special duty, he had only associated with the officers who were, of course, white. The officers had conceived a great liking for Ginter, and when he was killed, made up a purse for a decent burial, in order that they might testify to their appreciation of is worth.

Dr. Dennis


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_8520and standing for a moment on the levee to wave a farewell to his companions. He then turned to go up the hill to have the body embalmed. After this he remembers nothing; his mind is a perfect blank as to the following two weeks. He has no recollection of what he did with the body. He even lost his own identity for that period.

The next thing he remembers, he was walking up the streets of Memphis, clad in new clothes. One of the negro soldiers recognized him and offered to carry his valise to headquarters. When questioned about his trip and the disposition of Ginter’s body, he could remember nothing—knew nothing of what they were talking.

He was then questioned about the $360, which had been left in his care, for the purpose of having Ginter’s body embalmed. He had no recollection of this incident, but upon searching his clothing, the money was found intact, in his inside vest pocket. Gradually the incidents of the battle and his trip to Cairo became more firmly impressed upon his mind, but recollection as to the subsequent two weeks was then a blank and remains so to this day.


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_8542Upon reading this article, Mr. Butler became convinced that alleged to have been “Curly Kate.” As he was personally acquainted with Dr. J. N. Matthews, the Mason correspondent of the Record, Mr. Butler wrote to that gentleman a full description of the body found in the old graveyard, and related the “Curly Kate” episode.

Dr. Matthews immediately left for Effingham and laid the letter from Mr. Butler before Dr. Dennis. Dr. Dennis was dumbfounded. After thirty years of silence he had discovered where Ginter’s body had been placed, and furthermore said that Mr. Butler’s description of the unknown soldier


Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_8566In his mind there is not the slightest doubt but that the body of Ginter, surrounded as it has been by sensations and occurrences stranger even that the most sensational romance, has at last been discovered. Dr. Dennis’ theory of this strange sequel to his remarkable experience, is as follows:

“Having reached Cairo and engaged the undertaker, I purchased the casket while still able to transact business, paying a certain guaranty from my own pocket book, and arranging to settle the rest of the cost when I called for the remains, after the embalming process. And then my mental aberration growing worse, I wandered off and never returned, leaving the body to be cared for by strangers. Being an officer, I had money of my own, and this probably accounts for my not using the money contributed by my comrades.

“I am considerably exercised over the disclosures, but my own whereabouts and condition at that time, beyond theory, are as much of a mystery as ever. The description given Mr. Butler of the corpse disinterred at Cairo, tallies in every particular with that of my comrade, Ginter, and I have no hesitancy in pronouncing this to be the body of my long lost comrade.”

The story is ended

Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014DSC_7559The story is ended. It has been told without a single addition or embellishment, but we believe that a romancer never wove a fancy, more exciting or more unreal than this tale of the war. After thirty years of agony, Dr. Dennis can write to that widowed old mother and tell her that the body of her son lies sleeping in a soldier’s grave beneath the peaceful shades of the beautiful trees at the soldiers’ cemetery. The hatred and malice of men tried even to malign him as he slept there, but they failed, and though his ashes were rudely disturbed, the evil that was intended has ended in a blessing.

(A marker at Grave 3396 Section E in Mound City National Cemetery reads: Sgt. Samuel Ginter U.S. Army Oct. 17, 1864.—Darrel Dexter)

[Editor’s note: Thanks to Darrel Dexter for transcribing the Obituaries and Death Notices of The Cairo Citizen for the period of January 4, 1894 to December 27, 1894. They are fascinating reading. I referred to some in my post about the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. Mound City’s cemetery isn’t the only National Cemetery with a mystery grave: check out the story of Dennis O’Leary in the Santa Fe National Cemetery.]