Their Dust Dispersed on Many Fields: The Confederate Circle at Mt. Olivet Cemetery

by Terry Baker.

Eighteen-year-old Private Willis L. McWhirter of Adamsville in McNairy County was mustered into the 27th Tennessee Infantry, CSA, in September 1861. He would not survive the war. A little over three years after his enlistment he was hit by artillery fire at the Battle of Franklin. The missile caused severe damage to his right hip joint, and it is remarkable that McWhirter, by then a corporal, survived as long as he did.

The monument that graces Confederate Circle in Mt. Olivet Cemetery is a granite obelisk topped by a nine-foot statue of a Confederate soldier. Thirteen rows of graves surround the monument: buried in the first six rows are Confederate soldiers from other states; in the seventh row are unknown soldiers; and in the outer rows, the graves of Tennesseans. (photo from NHN collection)

When Hood retreated after the Battle of Nashville, McWhirter remained behind with the rest of those too seriously wounded to be moved. Taken prisoner on December 17, 1864, he was left in the care of Union Army surgeons at the U.S. Army General Hospital #1, on the hill near where Third and Lindsley now meet. McWhirter died of his wounds on January 31, 1865, and was buried the next day at Nashville City Cemetery.

According to his military records, the corporal was assigned two numbers, a hospital patient number and a grave number, the latter also appearing in Nashville mortician W. R. Cornelius‘s burial ledger. The letters “GSW” next to his name there represent the cause of death: “gunshot wound.” Cornelius had contracted with the Union military authorities to bury both the Union dead and their Confederate counterparts. His ledger contains over 15,000 entries, many of them unknown soldiers. 

In 1869 a movement developed to honor fallen Confederates by re-interring them at Mount Olivet Cemetery, in existence then for nearly 15 years. Twenty years later, in 1889, the monument at Confederate Circle was dedicated in a ceremony commemorated by photos in Confederate Veteran Magazine. In the early 1970s, owing largely to the work of the Reverend Florence Redelsheimer of the Mount Olivet staff, markers provided by the United States Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) were placed around the circle. Flat stones were chosen rather than the more typical vertical stones (which were pointed, allegedly to prevent disrespectful persons from sitting on them). Walking the northern face of the Circle, a visitor can see rows of markers for Alabama soldiers along with Corporal McWhirter’s, one of half a dozen Tennesseans whose markers lie on that side.

Not far from Corporal McWhirter lies the grave of one of only three women buried here. Mary Kate Patterson Davis Hill Kyle was an active member of a Confederate unit known as Coleman’s Scouts.  It was this company to which Sam Davis belonged at the time of his 1863 capture. The story of Davis’s hanging by the Federals is well-known to Middle Tennesseans. Mary Kate, whose first marriage was to Sam’s brother John, died in 1931 at age 97.

In at least one case, a husband and wife were buried together in Confederate Circle: William and Catharine Palmer rest together under upright stones. We see from the inscriptions that William lived to be one hundred years old, and Catharine survived until 1952. Behind an evergreen tree in the outer rows lies J.A. Hankin, a nurse who died in 1863.

It should be noted that Corporal McWhirter is buried under the name William, rather than Willis, as his service records identify him.  Many of the old records are difficult to read, particularly since styles of penmanship have changed; to complicate matters further, some of Mount Olivet’s microfilm records are almost illegible.  Not so the records of Mr. W. R. Cornelius, the mortician, whose hand was quite elegant.

Missing are the pre-1875 records for Mount Olivet, later supplemented by the discovery of some interment books in a building on the cemetery grounds. Also lost was a pre-1952 map, without which it was difficult for the staff to locate the known Confederate graves. Add to that the apparent indifference to standardized name spellings during the Civil War and the high illiteracy rate among rural soldiers, and one can begin to understand why so many names on the markers are oddly spelled.

Close to 1,500 Confederate soldiers are buried in thirteen rows, the overwhelming majority of the soldiers unknown. Those who died in hospitals and prison camps left records of their names, and these can be found on the inner row markers. Unknown soldiers were buried in a trench running completely around the Circle. In the outer rows lie men who died after the war, their names etched in stone for all to read. On the left side of the 45-foot-tall monument is a touching verse, which reads in part, “The muster roll of our dauntless dead is lost and their dust dispersed on many fields.” At least a part of that muster roll has finally been recovered.

This 45-foot monument stands guard over Confederate Circle in Mt. Olivet Cemetery (photo from NHN collection)

The author would like to thank Tim Burgess, researcher into Confederate deaths and burials, who has been instrumental in having markers placed at Confederate Circle in recent years. This essay was composed using material supplied by Mr. Burgess, along with microfilm records at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Notes from readers:

1. Mary Kate Patterson Davis Hill Kyle had a brother, Everard Meade Patterson, who was also a Coleman Scout. He, too, is buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Three other Coleman Scouts are also buried there. Everard died in 1932, being the last of the Scouts. My relative Joshua Brown was a Scout, and he, Mary Kate, and Everard are profiled in our new Civil War book, Shadow Soldiers of the Confederacy. (Talley Bailey)

2. I am named for John F. Wheless, First Tennessee Rock City Guard, who is buried in the Circle, He was a friend and business partner of my great-grandfather, Henry Wade, and godfather to my grandfather, Harry Wheless Wade Sr. (Harry Wheless Wade III, Nashville)

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