As Americans we cling to our past, our cultural heritage, and the things that define us as individuals and as a nation.
We laud our ancestral achievers and the sites of their accomplishments, and we remember them by marking their importance. We remember by returning to those places to revisit the past, for closure, introduction, and commemoration.
Madison County has 38 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, which isn’t many considering there are more than 85,000 recognized structures and districts nationwide. Those on the list of the Register range from the ordinary to the unusual, from chapter houses in Alton and Edwardsville to the giant Brook’s Catsup Bottle Water Tower in Collinsville.
The most recent site to join the list in Madison County is the Alton National Cemetery. Added in 2011, the cemetery is neatly tucked behind the Elijah P. Lovejoy Memorial and Fast Eddie’s Bon Air. The three criteria to be listed on the National Historic Places are age, integrity and significance. The cemetery has been in use as a burial site since the 1870s and it looks basically the same as it did from that time, except for the addition of headstones, memorials and a permanent rostrum.
As far as significance, the National Cemetery is the perpetual home to 522 soldiers and family members dating back to the Civil War. In 1938, as part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration agreed to build a permanent structure with the condition that it be constructed so Memorial Day observances could be properly held on site. The rostrum stands behind the concrete entrance on Pearl Street, up a flight of steps, and faces the cemetery.
And that may be the most important element of the cemetery, its rostrum. The Lovejoy Memorial is a grand structure worthy of its eponymous abolitionist’s sacrifice and the unique citizens’ gravesites attract much attention. A Civil War era cannon points at the graves below. But it’s the tiny Arlington that adorns the hill, seemingly being protected by that cannon in the back of the cemetery, that proves the cemetery’s historical importance. From the rostrum we mark many epochs as we speak to the reconciliation after the Civil War from the structure built by the New Deal during the evening vigils on Memorial Day, commemorating the sacrifice of the soldiers buried there.
From the rostrum, we remember.