Civil War History Marked in Stone
By Diane Euston
In Forest Hill Cemetery, located at 69th and Troost, 75 unmarked graves are a part of this area’s Civil War history. This Confederate burial ground wasn’t their first resting place; they were first buried where they fell, then moved to a small burial ground and finally made their way to an area marked with a monument.
Byrum’s Ford to the Gettysburg of the West
On 63rd St. north of the Kansas City Zoo is parkland dedicated as the Big Blue Battlefield Park. This place, also known as Byram’s Ford, is the gateway to the showdown that happened just south of Brush Creek. At the Battle of Westport, Confederate Gen. Sterling Price, with approximately 8,500 soldiers – some of which were bushwhackers- launched an attack against 22,000 men led by Union Gen. Samuel R. Curtis on October 22-23, 1864.
The numbers speak to the outcome; this was the end of Price’s Raid on Missouri and the last major Confederate military operation west of the Mississippi.
Gen. Sterling Price’s defeat at the Battle of Westport would have the bushwhackers following him south, thus virtually ending guerrilla warfare along the border. Around 1,500 soldiers were killed, captured and wounded in what many would coin “The Gettysburg of the West.”
Burial of the Unknown Confederate Casualties
The healing process post-war for those a part of “The Lost Cause” was to memorialize their memories in speeches and in stone. During Reconstruction, no one had the money to invest in the proper burial of so many that fell on the battlefields.
Around 1866, a local man named George W. Briant told some of his friends that if they would remove the bones of these Confederate soldiers from the trenches, he would give them a proper burial place.
Briant deeded a small fraction of his land to the Byram’s Ford Internment Association so that men hastily buried along the battleground could be placed in a proper cemetery. The cemetery was on the southeast corner of current-day Troost Ave. and Gregory Blvd.
On May 20, 1871, thousands gathered at the little burial ground to honor five bodies that had been removed from local farms that were part of the Battle of Westport. They had been interred without known names or ranks.
Joining these unknown soldiers at the Confederate cemetery was one colonel idolized for his service. Col. Upton Hays, a 30-year-old local man-turned-militant, had fallen in Newtonia, Mo. in 1862 with a bullet through the head. It was at his family’s wishing that he be re-interred at the Confederate cemetery. Those present when he fell were able to identify the grave, dig him up and carry him back to Jackson Co.
As the crowd gathered, words of honor were bestowed upon the fallen Confederate colonel. “Col. Upton Hays was a Missourian. He was a man that never knew an hour of fear. . . He was brave, generous, true, devoted, noble- a patriot.”
Confederate Cemetery in Danger
By 1890, as roads were being widened, the cemetery that had simple rocks marking those buried there was being threatened. It was proposed in the Kansas City Star that they “may move bodies to Forest Hill and erect an appropriate monument.” Forest Hill Cemetery, started in 1888, was just across the street from the infringed-upon cemetery and held 320 acres of land between Troost Ave. and Prospect Ave.
By this point, at least 70 unidentified bodies had been moved to the little space. Many of these soldiers were said to have served under Gen. Jo Shelby.
Rather fittingly, Forest Hill sat on the site of Gen. Shelby’s last battle against the Union troops. Today, there is a marker inside the cemetery commemorating “Shelby’s Last Stand.” It was stated that the Confederate cemetery held the remains “among the best and bravest in Shelby’s command.”
Between 1893 and 1894, around 70 bodies of Confederate soldiers along with Col. Hays were moved for a third and final time to lots donated by Forest Hill Cemetery.
The Movement for a Monument
The bodies had been moved together inside Forest Hill, but there still was no monument to mark them. At the turn of the century, the Daughters of the Confederacy moved to change this. They hosted balls, concerts and lectures to raise the $5,000 needed.
Dr. Jeremy Neely, Civil War and military history professor at Missouri State University, understands the influx of the movement for monuments during this time period. “I think that Confederate memorials say as much, and perhaps more, about the people who raised them and the period in which they were erected than the people of the Civil War generation,” Neely commented.
Memorial Day 1902, thousands gathered, including several hundred ex-Confederate soldiers, near the southeast corner of Forest Hill to see the monument “In Memory of Our Confederate Dead” unveiled. The project was backed by some of the most prominent men of the city.
They had talked of placing the monument on The Paseo or another spot on the battlefield; however, many men, including former mayor of Kansas City Turner Gill, believed Forest Hill was the most appropriate place because “that is where the bodies lie of the men whose memory it is proposed to perpetuate.”
The Monument Today
It’s hard to miss the monument inside Forest Hill Cemetery, yet so many don’t know it is there. Perched upon the top of a granite shaft high above the air is a Confederate soldier. Inscribed on the monument reads: Erected by the Kansas City Chapter, 149 UDC, to the memory of 75 Confederate soldiers representing the states of Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois who fell at the Battle of Westport, October 23, 1864.”
Dr. Neely believes that monuments are a part of our history. “Situated in highly public places, such as parks and cemeteries, monuments weren’t just history, a remembering of what had happened in a particular place, but a conscious celebration of one person, event, or part of the past that civic leaders decided were worthy of honor.”
Today, we know that only one side of history- the history of the Lost Cause- is represented on this monument erected in the shadows of the Jim Crow era. “One of the most glaring problems with these Jim Crow era monuments was that they reflected the values and nostalgia of only one part of the body politic–white former Confederates,” Neely said.
Unlike the monument removed in 2017 public land at 55th and Ward Parkway erected in 1937 to “the Loyal Women of the Old South,” this monument amongst fallen soldiers rests on private property. It’s not the only remaining marker to Confederate soldiers in the area, but it holds importance in the fight to save those unmarked graves of fallen men left in the trenches of the battlefield.