Seattle Civil War cemetery illustrates complex history of region’s Confederate, Union transplants

Aug 4, 2021, 6:25 AM | Updated: 12:24 pm

Richard Heisler will lead a free tour of the G.A.R. Cemetery in Seattle. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio) Music for "Sherman's March to the Sea" was composed in a Confederate prison by Justus O. Rockwell, who is buried in Seattle's Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery. (Library of Congress)

When the Civil War ended in 1865, thousands of men who had fought on both sides headed West, and many ultimately settled near Puget Sound. Now, a Bothell man named Richard Heisler has devoted himself to discovering and telling the stories of the former Civil War soldiers who settled in Seattle and King County, and who were laid to rest in local cemeteries.

Heisler, under the auspices of a group he founded called Seattle’s Civil War Legacy, will lead a free tour taking place on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

The place where Richard Heisler has focused much of his research is known as the Grand Army of the Republic (or “G.A.R.”) Cemetery. It’s located in what’s now a public park on Capitol Hill, and is across the street – to the north – from the much larger and much better known Lake View Cemetery.

It dates back to the 1880s and a private Civil War veterans group known as the Grand Army of the Republic. Veterans had moved to the Northwest by the hundreds and then thousands, and a need emerged to create a dedicated place for burials.

There are a total of about 500 Union veterans of the Civil War buried at the G.A.R Cemetery – along with several spouses. It’s been a city park for almost a hundred years, but it’s also been something of an orphan at times, and often has fallen into disrepair. For the past few decades, a group of neighbors has tended the grounds and worked with the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation and became the official “Friends of the GAR Cemetery” group to raise money and help improve the park through such initiatives as the addition of interpretive signage.

Despite the earlier challenges, and maybe because it’s so little known, the G.A.R. Cemetery is one of the most distinctive places in the city, or maybe even the region – with its setting, its look and feel, and, especially, the history contained there.

Thursday night’s tour guide Richard Heisler is a professional artist for his day job – and a very successful one – but he’s also spent the past few years doing deep research to learn as much as he can about each of the veterans buried on Capitol Hill.

And it’s the stories that are hidden there amidst the grave markers that make the tiny patch of land a pretty incredible place.

“One thing that’s distinct about this place and makes it special, and I think it’s only comparable to the Orting Soldiers’ Home Cemetery, or maybe the veterans cemetery in California, where the Soldiers’ Home was, is the diversity,” Heisler told KIRO Radio. “You have cemeteries with more Civil War veterans in Chicago or Cleveland or Pittsburgh, but they’re going to be mostly guys from Illinois or mostly guys from Pennsylvania.”

“Here, it’s an incredibly diverse grab bag,” Heisler continued. “There’s somebody from every single state, every single battle, every campaign of the war, every branch of service. Heavy Artillery. Cavalry. Navy. Marines. Infantry. Light infantry. Mounted infantry.”

“It’s all here,” he added.

On a preview of Heisler’s tour earlier this week, pretty much everywhere he turned there was an interesting story underfoot.

Heisler says that wealthy and well-known Civil War veterans buried in Seattle are more often found in places like Lake View Cemetery across the street. But he says the G.A.R. Cemetery has its share of notable local people, too – such as a local celebrity of a century ago named Tip Winchell.

“There’s a guy named Topping Winchell,” Heisler said. “Tip Winchell was his nickname. He was a bailiff for the Seattle Police Court, and pre-TV and pre-radio, the stories of the happenings of the Police Court were tremendous entertainment in the newspaper [and the subject of] a daily column.”

“Tip was apparently an enormous personality, super, super big, just a bigger than life guy,” Heisler continued. “And when he passed away, it was kind of a big deal. It was the biggest cemetery funeral ever to take place in here, because he was kind of a beloved figure for the people of Seattle.”

Heisler does have a bit of a personal connection to one of the soldiers buried at the G.A.R. Cemetery. His third great-grandfather was in the 97th New York Infantry, and so was an artist from New York City named Justus Rockwell. The two men likely were never acquainted, says Heisler, though they were both wounded around the same time at Fredericksburg in 1862, probably within a hundred yards of each other, and both were taken to the same hospital.

It turns out that Justus Rockwell – whose simply adorned grave is right there on Capitol Hill – was a pretty famous American songwriter, who wrote a popular wartime tune while languishing in a Confederate prison.

“He wrote a super, super famous song of the Civil War called ‘Sherman’s March to the Sea,’” Heisler said. “[Rockwell] was a musician before the war. So he has a really captivating story about how that song was written in Columbia, South Carolina, in prison on Christmas Day of 1864, when they got the news that Sherman had reached Augusta – the ‘March to the Sea’ had concluded, and they had no idea in this prison.”

Word of General Sherman having reached Augusta, Georgia, was smuggled into the prison by one of a group of Black men who were baking bread to feed the prisoners.

“They got the news and the place went crazy,” Heisler said.

Rockwell hurriedly composed the music, a fellow prisoner named Samuel Byers wrote the lyrics, and the whole thing came together over the course of several hours.

“They performed it for the first time [on] Christmas morning 1864,” Heisler said.

If that wasn’t enough, Rockwell and Byers smuggled the sheet music out of the prison inside of a fellow prisoner’s hollow artificial leg – he was about to be released – and the song was published and sold millions of copies.

Richard Heisler has been doing a lot of research about the Union soldiers buried on Capitol Hill. Of course, it wasn’t just Union veterans who came to Seattle in the 19th century; there were Confederate veterans here, too.

Heisler says that the relationship between the two groups of veterans – for the most part – was different here in the Northwest than it would’ve been back in Tennessee, or Virginia, or other parts of the southern United States. The Northwest was more recently settled by Americans, so a different dynamic developed, with perhaps more cooperation in order just to survive in a new place.

“The general consensus was like, ‘We’re not going to fight the war anymore,’ and you really see it in the Spanish-American War and World War I,” Heisler said. “They’re all vocal. The Confederates, in particular, in Seattle are super vocal about, ‘We’re fighting under one flag now, our sons and grandsons are fighting under the stars and stripes, and the Confederacy, it is what it is. We still believe we were right, but that’s in the past.’”

“The Seattle Confederates really, really hold to that ideal,” he added.

Battles over Civil War history and commemorations of Confederate figures through statues, memorials, and naming of streets and military bases have all been at the forefront of public debate for many years – and in particular, since the deadly clashes of demonstrators at Charlottesville and the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020.

It’s these contemporary battles – along with calmer discussions and reasoned debates about what to do beyond simply removing a statue or a name – that give Heisler’s research and his efforts to share what he’s learned relevance far beyond Civil War buffs or history nerds.

And though it’s not directly covered on this tour, Richard Heisler is well aware of the Robert E. Lee monument that until last year was across the street at privately owned Lake View Cemetery — until the monument was vandalized beyond repair and then removed by the cemetery owners.

“I wished that there was a little piece of it left,” Heisler said about the Lee monument.

“Something to show that it was there, because now it’s just grass and that’s what makes it hard” to be able to properly and comprehensively interpret, he says.

“But if there had been some remnant that showed [how it looked] when it was flipped over and covered in spray paint and had the towing straps that they pulled it down with,” Heisler said, that would be a powerful teaching tool.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is intense. This is a pretty amazing piece of history here,’” Heisler said, recalling the vandalized Lee monument. “And I almost wish it could have stayed like that forever, because that’s when you bridge the generations, but without it, now you have to say, ‘Well, if you picture this,’ and so yeah, I wish there was some remnant of it.”

“I don’t need the whole thing, but a broken piece of it would be better for everybody involved than the whole thing being there or nothing,” he continued.

Meanwhile, Heisler has plenty of material to work with at Seattle’s G.A.R. Cemetery for Thursday’s tour – and there’s plenty more for anyone with an interest in learning or teaching about a pivotal chapter of American history.

“If there’s something that you want to teach about the Civil War, you could do it via the stories of the guys here,” Heisler said. “Everything from escaped slaves, to guys that served [in the military] for three months.”

“It’s a remarkable resource,” Heisler said.

If you go:

Seattle area Civil War historian Richard Heisler will lead a free tour of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Cemetery on Capitol Hill in Seattle on Thursday, Aug. 5, at 7 p.m.

Pre-registration is not required; more information is available via the Seattle’s Civil War Legacy Facebook page. The tour will last roughly an hour to 90 minutes.

The G.A.R. Cemetery is located in a public park at 1200 East Howe Street in Seattle. Parking is available along adjoining residential streets; please be respectful of neighbors’ driveways.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

MyNorthwest History

Image: From left, crash survivor Gene Casey shakes hands with then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott and reco...

Feliks Banel

Burien hero dies before receiving medal

Sharon Casey, wife of Gene Casey, disclosed that her husband died last week in Florida at the age of 87.

4 days ago

Thanksgiving Island...

Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: Thanksgiving Island mystery solved?

“The Mystery of Thanksgiving Island” – a ‘cold case’ about the origins of that name – may just have been cracked open by a KIRO Newsradio listener. 

5 days ago

Kennedy Seattle...

Feliks Banel

How Seattle reacted to JFK assassination 60 years ago

History, like politics, is local. So while the collective national memory of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 has been distilled to several seconds of color home movie footage of the motorcade in Dealey Plaza and Walter Cronkite choking up on CBS, a whole set of local memories is fading away.

6 days ago

lost wreck elliot bay...

Feliks Banel

Lost wreck from long-ago tragedy identified deep in Elliott Bay

Local underwater explorers revealed Thursday that they have identified the wreck of a vessel that went down in a deadly tragedy on Elliott Bay 117 years ago this weekend.

11 days ago

biden san francisco...

Feliks Banel

Biden’s APEC meeting in San Francisco has roots in Seattle history

As President Biden prepares to meet with President Xi of China at the APEC Summit, it also happens to be the 30th anniversary of the first held in Seattle.

13 days ago

These KIRO Newsradio folks don't run, especially when David Burbank and Colleen O'Brien are countin...

Feliks Banel

Washington statehood and the US flag – We’re Number 42!

You’ve probably always wondered, when Washington became a state 134 years ago this week – on November 11, 1889 – what effect did that “new star” have on the look and layout of the American flag? Old Glory these days has 50 stars, with one each for each of the states, of course. Throughout most […]

16 days ago

Seattle Civil War cemetery illustrates complex history of region’s Confederate, Union transplants