Grave of the Unknown Confederate Soldier

by Tim Gilmore, 4/22/2022

1. Cemetery Fiction

Here at the Grave of the Unknown Confederate Soldier, things are not as they seem, and not just because the word “Unknown” is misspelled. Hand-scrawled on a tall slab, the inscription reads, “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, seems to mark a single “Unknown Soldier,” no. 5, other questionable records indicate it may refer to five unknown soldiers. No actual evidence exists, however, despite the assertions of contemporary Confederate revisionist groups, that any unknown Confederates lie here at all.

A cemetery is a text, a One Thousand and One Nights, a compilation of creative nonfictions, elegies and outright untruths. We read the landscapes in which we live and those we set aside for death.

Evidence for the history created by Confederate revisionists here at Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery simply does not exist. Even its name is a fiction. In his history of the history of this place, “Civil War Jacksonville: Cedar Creek and Mooney Cemetery,” Andrew Nicholas shows how the United Daughters of the Confederacy seized upon a rural graveyard, appropriated a minor Civil War fight, and imposed their own mythology on the graves of a forgotten community.

A January 2003 article in United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine and a stone monument the UDC placed in the cemetery both say Confederate soldiers were “buried where they fell.” Not here, they weren’t. The line is a complete fabrication. The UDC gives no sources and has no evidence to back up its assertion. Basic facts about the fighting differ from one account to another, as is always the case with war, but the UDC Magazine article paints United States accounts as flat-out lies while referring to “heroic Confederate army defenders.”

As Andrew Nicholas, author of the photographic compilation Jacksonville in the 1920s points out, even the cemetery’s name is a fiction based on false United Daughters of the Confederacy assertions. Nicholas notes a March 22, 1864 report from a Confederate Major Atherton Stevens, Jr., dated three weeks after the skirmish that supposedly turned Camp Captain Mooney into a burial ground, referring to a “so-called Camp Moody.” [sic] A year earlier, on March 16, 1863, Confederate Captain Winston Stephens wrote his wife that he was “in Camp at Mooneys place 5 miles out from J.” The present-day Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery is about eight miles from Jacksonville’s city limits at the time.

excerpt from the report by Major Atherton Stevens, Jr.

The idea that a small fight, the “skirmish,” that took place as a “running battle” through the swamps and marshes around “Cedar Creek,” a nebulous tributary system off Cedar River, happened right here in this tiny plot that began as a family graveyard a decade after the Civil War is likewise absurd. “Where exactly this skirmish took place is unknown,” Nicholas says. Not only is the “buried where they fell” line complete fiction, but the first burials took place here in the late 1870s, 12 years after the end of the war.

As for Captain Jesse E. Mooney, whom the United Daughters of the Confederacy have tied to this cemetery they claim began as a battlefield, no historical evidence locates him in Florida at all. Andrew Nicholas notes the graveyard could also have been named for Mooneys who lived in the area, including George Mooney, who founded Mooney Machine and Engine Manufactory in the 1850s.

Mooney’s grave, for which the United Daughters planted a marker here, is conspicuously missing from Lucy Ames Edwards’s authoritative 1955 work Grave Markers of Duval County, Florida, 1808-1916. Nor does any mention of any Camp Captain Mooney occur in Dan Schafer’s comprehensive 2010 book Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida or Richard Martin and Dan Schafer’s 1984 Jacksonville’s Ordeal by Fire: A Civil War History. No primary evidence exists to prove Jesse Mooney fought here, died here, or even set foot in the state of Florida, nor that the cemetery was named for him. Why would it have been?

the oldest grave in the cemetery, dating from more than a decade after the end of the Civil War

Edwards accurately notes that the cemetery began as the burial ground for the Wamsley family. The oldest grave is that of Emma Wamsley, who didn’t quite make it to her third birthday in 1877. A more accurate and more respectful name then would be Wamsley Cemetery.

detail of 1885 map, which shows “Camp Moody,” courtesy Andrew Nicholas

In 1875, two years before the first burial, a newspaper called The New South mentioned two church camps in the area, one near Cedar Creek, the other two miles north at “Camp Mooney, on the plank road.” More than 50 years later a Baptist minister named Joseph Moody was buried here and area maps sometimes called the surrounding area “Moody.” Reverend Moody had left written instructions stipulating that he be buried, without funeral or flowers, before his death was announced, and the exact location of his grave in this cemetery is uncertain.

from The Chicago Tribune, September 8, 1931

References to the graveyard as Camp Mooney Cemetery date at least to the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the late 1950s, however, as Nicholas points out, that the United Daughters of the Confederacy created a connection between Jesse Mooney, with his “Saddlers Guards” of Louisiana, and this cemetery. The UDC created a new narrative and new certainty where only conflicting details and lost storylines existed before. The cemetery lay in disuse, unvisited, overgrown. The United Daughters’ goal, Nicholas writes, was not only “to ‘save’ this cemetery,” but “to further their agenda.”

Captain Jesse E Mooney’s fictional gravesite, image courtesy Andrew Nicholas

The United Daughters of the Confederacy planted a headstone for Captain Mooney here, without including his birth or death dates, and ignoring his lack of connection to the site. Perhaps never having “discovered,” Nicholas writes, “that Captain Jesse E. Mooney was never actually in Jacksonville or the state of Florida,” the UDC added the word “captain” and created “the fictional Confederate Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery out of Camp Mooney Cemetery.”

2. Cemetery Lies

Andrew Nicholas left the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2015. He left the group because, he says, “They’re more interested in advancing the Lost Cause than real facts.” The Lost Cause of the Confederacy is a historically revisionist narrative advanced by Confederate apologist groups that says the Civil War was not fought over slavery, that Confederate states in the South seceded from the United States as a valiant defense of state’s rights against Northern tyranny. But anyone who takes a quick glance at primary sources from the time of the Civil War, sources like Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech” or any Confederate state’s Ordinance of Secession, sees that Confederate leaders claimed slavery as the “cornerstone” of their new nation.

Dylann Roof posing for his website, 2015

The turning point for Nicholas was when Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. Roof had posted pictures of himself on his website, showing him with Confederate flags and standing in Confederate and slave cemeteries. Nicholas says the Sons of Confederate Veterans grew even more “nonsensical” then. “They’re so pro-Confederate,” he says, “they’ll believe any ridiculous thing, like the idea there were black Confederate soldiers.”

Nicholas first began researching the fictional narrative of Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery because he didn’t know exactly who Mooney was and couldn’t find records that said he was buried here. That curiosity, he says, “led me down into the weird and obscure Camp Mooney Cemetery / UDC Confederate Cemetery rabbit hole.” He hasn’t been able to find out where Mooney is actually buried, but suspects he might be listed as “J.E. Mooney” or that records might have him by another name. “His existence being mostly a mystery,” Nicholas says, “allowed the United Daughters of the Confederacy to use him and do whatever they wanted with him.”

In 1959, a local United Daughters of the Confederacy leader named “Mrs. J.E. Walker,” ordered new markers, including the misleading headstone for Jesse Mooney. Walker ordered markers with inaccurate and incomplete dates of birth and death. Even worse, the United Daughters ordered markers that memorialize Confederates who are buried elsewhere and planted them here in this particular cemetery.

“All of the Confederate veterans in Mrs. Walker’s headstone applications are actually buried elsewhere in Jacksonville,” Nicholas writes. “Walker occasionally listed another cemetery in the headstone application but the United States government was unaware she was just going to take the new grave markers and memorial plaques to the fictional Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery. Using the supposed existence of Jesse E. Mooney and his Saddlers Guards at the cemetery only served to ‘legitimize’ the cemetery as a Confederate cemetery that the UDC deemed had a number of Confederate burials.” Then, in 1974, a quitclaim deed transferred ownership of the abandoned community graveyard to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

It wasn’t Walker, however, who placed most of those markers. “They were later found stashed in a barn,” The Florida Times-Union’s Sandy Strickland wrote on May 6, 2006. For Confederate soldiers who supposedly “were buried where they fell,” Strickland writes, “Most of the grave sites were never found, nor were descendants of the deceased.” Strickland quotes Middleburg resident Faye Castile of the Florida Division of the United Daughters, who said she “didn’t want [the markers] left in [her] garage” and “wanted these gentlemen to be honored.” So, Castile said, “we decided to put a memorial plaque here.”

image courtesy Andrew Nicholas

That memorial claims that 500 United States soldiers “overran the 19 defenders of a small Confederate Army outpost known as Camp Captain Mooney.” No evidence the camp bore that name. No evidence the camp was here. No reason it would have been named for the Louisiana captain. The monument claims, “Seven were shot dead, Twelve were captured. The dead were buried where they fell.” The marker paints a narrative of noble “defenders” standing their ground against the onslaught of barbarian hordes. It mentions only Confederate casualties, ignoring United States casualties, and the last sentence, Nicholas writes, is “asinine.”

Meanwhile the memorial markers for Confederates buried elsewhere give the illusion of far more Confederate veterans being buried here. Not only did burials not begin until 12 years after the Civil War, but Confederate veterans later buried here originally had simpler, more objective epitaphs, not newer markers praising romanticized notions of Confederate valor.

image from a Sons of Confederate Veterans marker placed at the cemetery

A United Daughters of the Confederacy marker for Captain Holmes Steele planted in Mooney Cemetery belies the fact that he’s actually buried in Old City Cemetery. The UDC marker for First Sergeant Jonathan Spearing at Mooney ignores the fact that Spearing is buried on Willie Browne’s old land by St. Johns Bluff. The marker here has Spearing’s birth and death dates wrong, claiming 1816 to 1907, though Spearing actually lived from 1812 to 1879. The UDC marker for Isaac Silcox at Mooney Cemetery ignores the fact that he’s actually buried at Turknett Cemetery and includes the wrong death dates. The UDC marker for John H. Chase at Mooney ignores the fact that he’s buried at Dunn Creek Cemetery and gives the wrong death date. Other markers at Mooney Cemetery for Confederates buried elsewhere include Connor Roberts, also buried in Turknett, Private John Sauls, buried several counties away in Alachua, and Samuel Cook, buried at Old St. Joseph Church Cemetery. Nor are these the only problematic markers in Andrew Nicholas’s lengthy list.

There could be unknown Confederate dead in Mooney Cemetery, Nicholas notes, but no evidence supports the assertion. Nicholas sees “Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery” as a revisionist text created by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and imposed on an old community burial ground whose origins, like those of most such rural graveyards, had grown murky in time, overgrown, dislocated.

“Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery,” Nicholas writes, “needs to revert to its original name of Camp Mooney Cemetery.” Perhaps a name actually linked to one of the families who first used this ground to bury loved ones, a family like the Wamsleys, would be the best candidate. Nicholas says Confederate revisionist groups like the UDC should cease using the cemetery as a shrine for a false political narrative. The memorial plaques for those buried elsewhere, placed like grave markers here, should be removed. So too should memorial markers with fictional “facts.”

Since there’s no evidence of unknown Confederate graves here, Nicholas writes, any “Unknown Confederate Soldier” marker should be replaced by a notation that says, “‘Unknown grave’ and bear no mention of a Confederate soldier.”

Tombs of unknown soldiers are often cenotaphs, monuments to people buried elsewhere. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, one unidentified body was buried for World War I, one for World War II, one for the Korean War and one, later exhumed, for the War in Vietnam. Likewise I’ve stood at the monument for Shakespeare in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, though the poet’s remains lie in his hometown of Stratford.

Standing at the Grave of the Unkown [sic] Confederate Soldier stirs strange emotions. I come from the South; I do not come from the Confederacy. Here, I stand before a fiction. Worse. I stand before a lie. Today’s Confederate revisionists never admit openly what the creators of the Confederacy said they stood for.

1875 cabinet card portrait of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens with a former slave.

Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, said slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederate States of America, a nation built “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.” Praising the Confederate States of America in 2022, which seceded from and was defeated by the United States of America more than a century and a half ago, does not honor the South. It does the opposite. “Southern” and “Confederate” are not — are not — synonyms. To praise the Confederacy is to dishonor the South.

I stand before a cenotaph, a monument to a lie. I stand in a fictional cemetery, a disingenuous narrative imposed on the community who once lived here, on the church camp that met nearby and sang hymns here, on the graves of those buried here who often had no money for a headstone. Their remains lie in the roots of these pines. The fact that they couldn’t afford a headstone doesn’t mean apocryphal Confederates, who were not buried here where they did not fall, deserve stones in their place.