“Look at an infantryman’s eyes, and you can tell how much war he has seen.”
Bill Mauldin, Up Front, 1945 (1921 – 2003 WW II cartoonist and infantryman)
Fort Sheridan Post Cemetery, Vattner Rd., Fort Sheridan, IL 60037
For more than 30 years I have passed the cemetery entrance on Sheridan Rd. without making the turn to go inside. This past Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, 2012, I went to the Memorial Day Service. It was well attended. An Army service member in uniform thanked visitors for coming. Many people thanked him.
Amplification was a bit soft where I stood. In his speech, the Post Commander mentioned this was originally known as Decoration Day. Following the American Civil War, the purpose was to remember those who died in service. The generally accepted date of the first observance was May 30, 1868. That date was selected since it wasn’t a battle anniversary. May flowers decorated grave sites. Wikipedia states the name of the holiday was officially changed to “Memorial Day” May 30, 1967. It is celebrated the last Monday in May.
Civil War veterans are buried in this cemetery. I wanted to seek out those graves. Surprisingly, the cemetery is an oval shape. The cemetery opened in 1889 with the first burial taking place in October, 1890. Edward Quinn of the 15th Infantry was that first burial.
A few key facts about Fort Sheridan should be mentioned at this point. The post opened in 1887 and closed in 1993. It is now an Army Reserve location. This is a Post Cemetery owned and operated by the US Department of the Army. The Federal Government holds perpetual ownership. Maintenance is done by contracted responsibility with the Lake County Forest Preserve District. There are more than 2,000 burials. Retired service members and their spouses, from any of the five branches of service, may be buried at this site.
Headstones are a snapshot of a person’s life. This is so much more to be known about the individual beyond the name, rank and dates. I asked some of the military personnel to direct me to the oldest part of the cemetery. I learned the man who kept the cemetery records was present and could help me.
Introducing myself to Mr. Joe Rafferty, Cemetery Supervisor, he graciously shared his knowledge. Mr. Rafferty was the last supervisor to exit when the post closed. He assumed a variety of duties including keeping the cemetery records. We made a short tour.
Veterans who fought for the Union are interred here. The majority of those graves are located in Sections 5 and 6. The Civil War shield on the monuments of that era are an easy identifier.
We walked to the south, to Section 7, to a headstone for Ervin C. Staples, PFC, US Army. The marker is the first on the left in the front row. Dates read 10-14-14 to 12-25-44. Mr. Rafferty told me more of this man’s story. It illustrated the high cost of war. During WW II, PFC Staples was at the Battle of the Bulge in Malmedy, Belgium. In addition to heavy fighting, the Malmedy Massacre took place on December 17, 1944. German captors murdered 84 US POWs. PFC Staples was killed in the bombing of the Hotel Nicolet in Malmedy. No remains or personal effects were recovered. Thus, when you look closer, you observe this is a memorial.
Knowing I had come to view Civil War graves and older burials, Mr. Rafferty asked if I was interested in the Battle of Little Big Horn. I said “yes”. The battle took place in Big Horn County, Montana on June 25th and 26th, 1876. Commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”, US 7th Cavalry members were combatants.
In Section 5 in the 3rd row from the front, 4th grave on the right is the gravestone of Michael Keegan, PVT CO L, 7 US CAV, Indian Wars. The single date reads “JUL 10 1900”. Mr. Rafferty said Pvt. Keegan survived the battle because he was guarding supply wagons about 50 miles away. Three other soldiers who survived this battle are also buried here. Their names are included in the short history at the entrance. I didn’t see those graves.
Lastly, in Section 13 in the back row are nine graves of German POWs. Most were captured in North Africa in WWII. During WWII, Fort Sheridan was the Administration Center for POW camps in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. On Memorial Day this row appeared very separate. American flags were stuck in the earth beside the gravestone of each US veteran. These were barren. It was a stark reminder there are two sides to every conflict and not all mortal remains are returned to a soldier’s homeland.
Information from Mr. Rafferty added the element of humanity to a solemn site. Today, volunteers enlist for military service. Freedom comes at a heavy price. We should honor veterans more frequently for all their sacrifices. This cemetery is well worth a visit.
Notes: Stop and read the information contained in the permanent displays to the right of the entry gates.
Parking – on the lanes in the cemetery.
More Information: Map and Facts – www.ftsheridancemetery.com
Lake County Forest Preserves – www.lcfpd.org
Lake County, Illinois, CVB – www.visitlakecounty.org
Hours: Open Daily: 8 AM – 5 PM Memorial Day: 8 AM – 7 PM