The city of Madison established Forest Hill Cemetery in 1857. The site chosen consisted of 140 acres east of downtown on a rise overlooking the city and the Mendota, Monona, and Wingra Lakes. Forest Hill Cemetery is an early example of a rural graveyard design, evident today in its curving drives, which follow the natural contours of the land, and plantings of trees and other greenery to enhance scenic vistas.
More than 1,000 years ago, late Woodland period Indians constructed burial mounds in the area of the cemetery. Several mounds, one in the shape of a goose, are located on the southern edge of the cemetery in Sections 15 and 35. Archeologist Charles Brown served as the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society and conducted numerous surveys and investigations on burial grounds. The area is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Although far from the front lines, Madison played an active role during the Civil War. The city hosted Camp Randall, a Union army training facility. Similar to other training camps in the Great Lakes region, the army established a prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers. The army also established a military hospital at the camp.
In a plot of just one-third of an acre wide in Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery,the U.S. military interred the remains of 240 Union soldiers who died while under care at the town’s hospitals. Although burials in the lot started in 1862, the Federal Government did not acquire the property until 1886 when the city of Madison donated the land. The soldiers’ lot in Section 34 also contains the remains of veterans from the Spanish-American War and World War I, and the graves of eight children orphaned during the Civil War.
Eight children are also buried in the soldiers’ lot. After the Civil War, the Soldiers’ Orphan Home cared for children of Union soldiers orphaned during the war or whose parents could no longer care for them. Eight children died while living at the home, and their remains were interred in Forest Hill Cemetery’s soldiers’ lot. In 1873, a marble obelisk was erected in the lot dedicated to the eight children, with each of their names inscribed on it.
At the center of the lot is a historic guy-wire supported U.S. flagpole. Directly behind the flagpole is a large granite boulder monument inscribed: “To the Unknown Dead — By Women’s Relief Corps No. 37 1891.”
Confederate soldiers are also interred in Forest Hill Cemetery in a section known as Confederate Rest. The majority were soldiers who died while held in the prison at Camp Randall. The lot contains the remains of 140 Confederate troops and is located north of the Union soldiers’ lot. Unlike the Union soldiers’ lot, however, Confederate Rest is not owned or maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Another veteran section, located near the burial mounds, contains veterans from the Spanish-American War and later conflicts. This section is also unaffiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The cemetery contains the graves of numerous Wisconsin politicians, business leaders, and other prominent citizens. Inventor and scientist John Bardeen, inventor of the transistor, is buried in the cemetery, as is William Freeman Vilas, who served as Secretary of the Interior under President Grover Cleveland.