by Tim Gilmore, 4/15/2022
1. “Cries of Glee” to “Screams of Terror”
More than 4,000 mourners spread across the small graveyard as 24 pallbearers carried the caskets of the four drowned sisters to their newly dug graves. The Silcox girls were 18, 14, 12 and 10 years old.
If the cemetery were hemmed in then, as it is now, with industrial buildings of corrugated metal and expanses of concrete, that crowd of thousands would have pressed, cheek by jowl, together in tight confinement.
On June 26, 1927, the Associated Press reported, “The four sisters, clad in bathing suits, were occupants of a small row boat. It capsized as they rocked it in fun. Cries of glee turned into screams of terror as the overturned boat hurled them into the lake and toward their deaths.”
The boat reached the middle of Clearwater Lake in this rural and sparsely populated neighborhood called Jacksonville Heights. The Florida Times-Union took a scolding tone, explaining how the girls “engaged in what they believed to be the fun of rocking the boat.” At least it failed to name the parties to blame. “Two of the girls were able to swim and gave their lives in an effort to save their sisters.”
Now lie the sisters beneath the faded green walls of Air Solutions Heating and Cooling at the dead end of Ernona Street. The alarm of a forklift in reverse bleats over these four graves under two double headstones. On one stone are the names of 10 year old Emma and 12 year old Dora, while the other commemorates 14 year old Mary and 18 year old Frances. Frances, who’d married Noah Norton, had given birth to a stillborn child, buried beneath the epitaph “Infant Daughter Norton,” October 6, 1925 – October 6, 1925, in Gravely Hill Cemetery, two and a half miles away.
When the boat overturned, the A.P. reported, “Mrs. Benjamin D. Silcox” tried desperately to flee the riverbank and swim to her girls, but Keneth O’steen, “a neighboring youth,” held her back. “She fell prostrate on the bank when the screams of the girls ceased.” Presumably, the “neighboring youth” held her back to keep her from becoming a fifth “victim of the lake,” but if Keneth wouldn’t permit “Mrs. Benjamin” to swim out to the middle, why didn’t he make the effort himself?
The remains of “Mrs. Benjamin,” whose actual name was Leaty Ann, lie nearby. She died in 1941, 64 years old. Benjamin’s body, however, lies north of Downtown in Evergreen Cemetery. He was 92 when he died in 1957.
Ada Padgett, meanwhile, was barely 13 years old when she gave birth to Leaty Ann the day after Christmas, 1877, and died the year before the four Silcox daughters, the year after “Infant Daughter Norton,” in whose proximity she lies buried in Gravely Hill.
Headstones here claim the remains they honor lie at rest. Butterflies flit in light breezes. Toppled headstones lie in the leaves. Depressions in the earth mark otherwise unmarked graves.
This forlorn little graveyard, once part of Ellis Dairy, which gave its name to the Westside’s Ellis Road, certainly was not named for Confederate Captain Jesse E. Mooney, who, despite a 1950s United Daughters of the Confederacy narrative and a memorial arch over the entrance, never set foot in Florida.
Not only does Lucy Ames Edwards’s authoritative 1955 work Grave Markers of Duval County, Florida, 1808-1916 make no mention of Jesse Mooney, but Edwards accurately notes that this cemetery began as the burial ground for the Wamsley family. A more accurate and more respectful name would be Wamsley Cemetery.
Atop a stone lily sculpted in 1913, letters arc’d in a crescent spell out, “We loved you so.” It’s as lovely an epitaph as can be. They did. I know. They loved him so. Even its past tense, rather than the usual present, makes the epitaph more poignant. More than a century later, this testimony to love abides, though impinged upon by the tall walls of Dyal Power Train, LLC and Adrenaline Performance Auto Repair Shop, by the pop twang of a country song about strawberry wine, by the constant roar and automotive flatulence of Interstate 10 a block away overhead. At least the mingled pines and palms absorb noise in their gracious green as best they can.
2. “Slavery Subordination” and the Rewriting of a Graveyard
Someone’s pierced the sponge of this earth with small plastic Confederate flags. A Confederate flag and an American flag snuggle up side by side, as though the Confederate States of America never seceded from the United States, as though Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens never explained that his “new government” was founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” and “that slavery subordination to the superior race is [the negro’s] natural and normal condition,” as though more than 600,000 men didn’t slaughter each other for one flag against the other.
Standing over these plastic flags, I hear the last lines from Wordsworth’s “After Visiting the Field of Waterloo” — “While glory seemed betrayed, while patriot-zeal / Sank in our hearts, we felt as men should feel / With such vast hoards of hidden carnage near, / And horror breathing from the silent ground!” Certainly horror exhales from the soil. How should we feel, if true to the facts and to our humanity?
Hand-scrawled into one tall slab by the long corrugated backside of an automotive transmission shop is the inscription, “Unkown [sic] Soldier 5 Confederate States Army Killed in Action Mar. 1st, 1864, Battle of McGirts Creek at Camp Capt. Mooney.” While its wording, never mind the misspelling of “unknown,” seems to mark a single “Unknown Soldier,” no. 5, other questionable records indicate it may refer to the grave of five soldiers. No actual evidence exists, however, that any unknown Confederates lie buried here.
In the spring of 1864, Confederate soldiers dotted several small picket camps around the outskirts of the city. Two primary sources refer to a “so-called Camp Moody,” [sic] and, a year earlier, a “Camp at Mooneys place” [sic] located about three miles from this graveyard. In the late 1950s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy connected this Camp Mooney Cemetery, origins of its name unclear, to a Louisiana militia captain named Jesse E. Mooney who never even set foot in Florida. As Andrew Nicholas writes, in his history of the history of this cemetery, “Civil War Jacksonville: Cedar Creek and Mooney Cemetery,” the UDC neglected to mention they’d added the word “Captain” to the cemetery’s name. That one word meant worlds of difference.
In 1864, small fights dropped men dead west of town and the “running battle,” really just a scattering of small hostilities, later took on various names like the Skirmish at Cedar Creek or the Skirmishes at Cedar and McGirt’s Creeks. Though United Daughters of the Confederacy memorials here claim, “The dead were buried where they fell,” there’s no evidence whatsoever that Confederates died right here. Nicholas, a former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, calls the notion “asinine.” Several markers here actually name Confederates who are buried elsewhere.
In the marshy earth around Cedar Creek, United States soldiers and Confederates clashed in weary frustration and hatred. Union forces had just suffered the loss of the Battle of Olustee in Baker County. The numbers of Confederate and Union dead from post-Olustee skirmishes vary according to different accounts. Confederates remained in the woods west of town for the rest of the Civil War while Union forces held Jax. In a single day, according to the false narrative the United Daughters of the Confederacy created in the late 1950s, Camp Captain Mooney became a battleground and then a graveyard.
The surrounding rural community first began burying its loved ones here 12 years after the Civil War and continued to do so through the era of Jim Crow. Confederate soldier Louis Wamsley, who died in 1915, lies here, but so do the innocent Emma Wamsley, not quite three years old when she died in 1877, and Maud B. Wamsley, seven years old when she died in 1885. The remains of little Emma, not those of some unknown Confederate soldier, “buried where [he] fell” here in battle, were the first here laid to rest.
And who was Mrs. Wimberly, whose hand-scratched epitaph follows her name with a question mark, as though questioning her very identity instead of just her birthdate, a second question mark following the assertion that she died in 1923? Didn’t she feel as much in her life as you and I in ours? Even when the world becomes too much to bear, we fail to notice most of our lives and remember, as time passes, almost nothing. Of almost everyone who ever has lived, no trace remains. Mrs. Wimberly at least gets a question mark.
On April 10, 1875, a newspaper called The New South reported two small “sabbath schools,” one church camp near Cedar Creek, the other two miles north at “Camp Mooney, on the plank road, near the home of J.H. Gardner, Esq. This school,” it reported, “has […] an average attendance of 55. Good order, good attention and an intense interest were manifested to learn to sing and read the scriptures.”
More than 50 years later, in September 1931, a Baptist minister named Dr. Joseph Burnley Moody was buried here. His written instructions stipulated he be buried, without funeral or flowers, before his death was announced. Early maps sometimes also called the area “Moody.” Exact whereabouts of Reverend Moody’s grave in this graveyard are undocumented and now forgotten.
Five years before Moody’s death, a subdivision called Mooney, “Addition to Buenes Aries,” [sic] was platted on 40 acres, cemetery in the southeast corner, a year before the Silcox daughters drowned and thousands of mourners attended their funeral.
New granite headstones, ordered by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, prop up the leaning and collapsing old marble stones of Confederates behind them. Thus does Private John T. Anderson of the South Carolina Infantry, Confederate States of America, seem to stagger and trip over Private John T. Anderson of the South Carolina Infantry, Confederate States of America.
Several new bronze plaques commemorating this Confederate and that – a Gillen, a Cook, a Roberts – lie discarded against a back fence by a reservoir pond. Every several years, Confederate revisionists and apologists congregate here with blank-firing cannons and rifles, women standing around in hoopskirts.
3. Compost Salvation
One plot entirely surrounded by old iron fencing, the Air Solutions Heating and Cooling Building looming overhead, contains not one single headstone that hasn’t been eroded, defaced, erased. Who lies here? Who, as that other inscription declares, loved him so? What pain and joy and tragedy and farce and ecstasy endured those whose bones lie in this ground, those whose bodies have fed these tall trees these decades?
In 2005, a 93 year old man tried to find his father’s grave here. He’d last visited the graveyard in 1935. An amateur genealogist named Jon Ferguson contacted city historians for help, but none could be had. Lester Williams had been buried in an unmarked grave “between the road and a large yellow pine tree,” but 70 years had elapsed, the road had shifted and the trees had grown, seemed even to have taken steps.
Now I’ll watch for these trees when I drive Interstate 10. I’ll recognize the bodies in these trees. I’ll pay homage to all that those bodies experienced. I’ll celebrate lost birthdays. I’ll offer neighborly advice, 161 years ago. I’ll note the Grave of the Unknown Confederate Soldier, as I name the cause, a stillborn nation whose cornerstone was slavery, for which he — whoever he is, however many he is, wherever he actually lies — died. I’ll remember the Silcox girls, how their laughter turned to screams.
Beside oak trees, behind chain link fences topped with barbed wire grown through with vines now dead, doors in corrugated metal walls stand back of graves. As though one empties into the other, a door into a door.
The trees don’t mind. They clean up after us. They compost up our sins and our stupidities. Every tree is a grave marker, every forest a graveyard, all vegetation the making us whole. Plant a tree in this story. A tree always will make a story right.