Art

Commemorating the Civil War with Brooklyn’s Buried Dead

'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Two of the original zinc statues from the 1876 Civil War Soldiers’ Monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, part of the ‘To Bid You all Good Bye’ exhibition in the cemetery’s chapel (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

For 13 years, volunteers at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery scoured its archives for internments related to the US Civil War, whether soldier or civilian. They expected to find a few hundred. Instead, they discovered around 5,000, from a drummer boy who was Kings County’s first casualty to a Confederate general buried in secret for fear his grave would be desecrated. In To Bid You All Good Bye, currently installed in the cemetery’s chapel, the stories of 20 of these “eternal residents” are told.

'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
The Green-Wood Cemetery chapel (click to enlarge)

The exhibition is a collaboration with the Brooklyn Historical Society, which is hosting Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn, featuring material from its collections. Both opened to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end, and both coincide with Green-Wood’s launch of an online database of those 5,000 people the volunteers found, including nurses, soldiers, preachers, boat builders, and financiers. As part of the cemetery’s ongoing Civil War Project, around 2,200 unmarked Civil War graves were memorialized with gravestones or plaques from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The project began with the restoration of Green-Wood’s Civil War Monument, replacing the 1876 zinc statues with bronzes (a nearly identical, unrestored sculpture stands at Cavalry Cemetery, showing similar wear). The original statues overlook To Bid You All Good Bye, each representing a different branch of Army service. Filling just the small, stained glass–illuminated space of the chapel, the exhibition is modest but stretches beyond the limestone walls to the 478 acres of the cemetery. A map charts the 20 featured burials, such as the neighboring plots of brothers Colonel Clifton K. Prentiss in the Union Army of the Potomac and Private William S. Prentiss in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. In April 1865, fighting on opposite sides, they were fatally wounded just feet apart.

'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Map of the people profiled in ‘To Bid You All Good Bye,’ at the graves of the Prentiss brothers
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Tintype and carte de visite photographs

“More Civil War veterans are interred at Green-Wood than at any cemetery north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” writes Jeff Richman, Green-Wood’s historian, on the exhibition map. Yet despite this breadth, the exhibition has just one woman among the men: Abigail Hopper Gibbons, who offered her Manhattan home as a stop on the Underground Railroad and at 60 years old, when the war started, volunteered as a nurse. Each person’s story is paired with a photograph of their grave, such as 12-year-old Clarence MacKenzie, killed by a stray friendly fire bullet in April 1861, making him the first death of Brooklyn’s Kings County. He’s memorialized with a zinc statue, drumsticks in hand.

There’s also Brigadier General Strong, a white officer who led the 54th Regiment of predominantly free black men in July 1863, a time when they had only just been permitted to fight. Meanwhile, Confederate Robert Selden Garnett was the first general to die in battle, and in 1865 was secretly interred in his family’s Brooklyn plot; the burial was only revealed in 1959 and marked recently due to anxiety about vandalism in the wake of President Lincoln’s assassination. There’s also the anecdotal tale of Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny, a hero of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, who lost a right arm and would reportedly glove shop with his friend Phil Kearny, who lost a left; they’d then go as a pair to the theater to applaud as one.

Overall the tone is as somber as the war’s huge casualty count, estimated at 620,000 (compared to 644,000 for all other American conflicts combined). And the title comes from a letter by Captain Henry Sand of the 103rd New York Volunteer Infantry, wounded at bloody Antietam on September 17, 1862: “My wound is painful but not mortal I believe — however I send you these lines to bid you all good bye in case I never see you again.”

'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Bust of Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny by James Kelly (1914)
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Display for Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Carte de visite photos of Civil War officers of the 14th Brooklyn who are buried at Green-Wood
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
‘To Bid You All Good Bye’ in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Grand Army of the Republic markers placed at Civil War veterans’ graves
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Two of the original zinc statues from the 1876 Civil War Soldiers’ Monument at Green-Wood
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
A letter from William Wheeler to his sister Julia from September 2, 1863
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
‘To Bid You All Good Bye’ in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Grave of drummer boy Clarence D. MacKenzie
Grave of drummer boy Clarence D. MacKenzie
'To Bid You All Good Bye' in the Green-Wood Cemetery chapel
Banner for ‘To Bid You All Good Bye’ and the entrance arch of Green-Wood Cemetery

To Bid You All Good Bye continues in the chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery (500 25th Street, Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn) through July 12. 

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