Sunday, March 04, 2018

'Herculean task': How dead were recovered after Civil War

African-American workers collecting Union dead on the Cold Harbor battlefield in April 1865.
(Library of Congress)
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In the years immediately after the Civil War, the Federal government mobilized to locate and to disinter remains of Union dead for re-burial in 73 newly established national cemeteries. By the time the costly program was completed in 1870, nearly 300,000 remains had been recovered -- on battlefields, in prisoner of war camp cemeteries, private graveyards and elsewhere. Officially neglected, Confederate dead were mostly left to private organizations throughout the South to recover and to re-bury.

In the Frederick News on May 23, 1907,
 an account of the discovery of  the remains
of six Confederate soldiers near the
Antietam battlefield.
Unsurprisingly, recovery efforts for remains of soldiers from both sides weren't 100 percent successful. In 1887, fishermen from Charleston, W.Va., found the skeleton of a soldier and the blade of an officer's sword in a thicket on the Antietam battlefield. "There being no clew [sic] as to the identity of the remains," a report published in several newspapers noted, "the bones were interred by the fisherman where they were found."

Well into the 20th century, remains of soldiers were found on or near battlefields. While plowing a field near Antietam in the spring of 1907, two laborers discovered the well-preserved bodies of six Confederate soldiers buried side-by-side. A sword, epaulets and large buttons were found with one soldier, denoting the remains of an officer. A bullet was found in the skull with another body. "The clothing and shoes were intact until exposed to air, when they crumbled to dust," a Maryland newspaper reported about the discovery.

In 1927, also at Antietam, a farmer who was working on the foundation of a new silo discovered the skeleton of a Union soldier. His allegiance was confirmed by the pieces of uniform and brass buttons found with the body. A bullet was embedded in the poor soul's backbone.

In 1939, the skeleton of a Union soldier was discovered at the Railroad Cut at Gettysburg. Fifty-seven years later, a tourist -- a National Park Service employee from Oregon -- found remains of another soldier at the Cut. A forensic examination determined that the unknown soldier, probably a Confederate, had been shot in the head.

Charles Bertrand Lewis, 
a Union veteran, wrote 
about recovery efforts 
of Civil War dead.

As detailed in the following account, published on Christmas Day 1881 in the Detroit Free Press, recovery efforts of soldiers' remains sometimes were slipshod and unseemly. "It is an unpleasant reflection, but the contractors who exhumed and reburied the bodies were paid so much for each, and this led to base trickery and worse frauds," wrote M. Quad, pseudonym of former Union soldier Charles Bertrand Lewis, a popular newspaper writer after the war.

The passage of time often made identification of remains of soldiers impossible. But reckless and hasty burials during the war frequently were contributing factors to the burials of many soldiers under "Unknown" markers, Lewis wrote.

 "At least ninety-nine soldiers out of every hundred had note book, wallet, watch, key-tag, Testament, or something from which his name could be learned with little trouble," he noted, probably exaggerating to a degree, "and there was no excuse for burying him without a search."

Photographed in April 1865 by John Reekie, the collection of dead near Cold Harbor, Va.
(Library of Congress.)
Hardly had the civil war closed before steps were taken to establish national cemeteries adjacent to great battle fields for the reinternment of the Union dead; and Southern people, to their great honor, though impoverished, collected their dead as far as possible and gave the bones a resting place in grounds donated for the purpose. The sentiment of the country today would let the dead in blue and gray sleep side by side.


The idea of gathering all Federal dead together at certain points seemed at first an utter impossibility. Men had been covered by the sod in every State in the South, and there was not a highway in some of the States without a grave almost every rod of pike. But the work was long ago accomplished by both Union and Confederate hands, and the cities of the soldier dead, visit them where you may, are and always will remain points of deepest interest.


Of course the great portion of the dead at Antietam were killed right there on the battle-field, and the work of resurrecting the skeletons and transporting them to the graves in which they now rest was comparatively easy, although by no means pleasant, When those in the near vicinity had been removed wagons were sent out for a distance of twenty miles. Those who were buried at Halltown, Shepardstown, Hagerstown, and other points within reach were resurrected and conveyed to Antietam.


Burial site for 133 unknown Union dead at Florence (S.C.) National Cemetery.
It was generally supposed that all who fell in battle were identified by the burial parties, or at least the greater number, but such was far from being the case. Many of McClellan's dead at Sharpsburg were dropped into the trenches without the least effort to discover their identity, and hundreds more had their names written on  slips of paper pinned to their clothing. Time had reduced the paper to mold and dust, and unless a finger ring or a button could furnish a clue the bones had to be buried "unknown."

But for the gross carelessness of certain officers it would now be possible to find the grave of almost every Union soldier who fell in battle. At least ninety-nine soldiers out of every hundred had note book, wallet, watch, key-tag, Testament, or something from which his name could be learned with little trouble, and there was no excuse for burying him without a search. In one part of the field at Antietam, the dead were placed side by side in the trenches, each one's name plainly written and inclosed in a bottle, and canvas covered over the bodies before the dirt was heaped on. These bodies were rapidly handled but in other cases the diggers had to search among the dirt and mold and bones for a clue even to the division to which the dead belonged. What is said here of Antietam applies equally well to other battlefields. A shameful neglect of plain duty has given up a big corner of every national cemetery to the "unknown" dead.


At Winchester are collected the dead from half a dozen of the battlefields in the valley, and from a hundreds skirmishes between Staunton and Harper's Ferry. The Federal cemetery is situated just out of town on the Berryville pike, and the Confederate dead are buried in the city cemetery close by. Both grounds shook with the turmoil of battle in the struggle between Sheridan and Early. Where the headstones have been planted for the Federal dead Early made a last fierce stand against Sheridan during the battle of Winchester. Where the Confederate dead sleep their last sleep and the marble figure of Stonewall Jackson overlooks all, bullets chipped the headstones of those who were buried there years before, and the soldiers rested their muskets on the grass-grown graves as they fought at bay.

Remains of soldiers on the Gaines' Mill (Va.) battlefield, probably April 1865. (Library of Congress)

Riding out towards Malvern Hill from Richmond, one finds the National Cemetery strangely located in the woods -- a dismal, lonely location, and one attracting but few sight-seers. Between the spot and the battlefield are a dozen beautiful locations for such a cemetery, and one can but wonder what influence passed them all by. Outside of the hundreds who fell at Malvern Hill, there are buried here hundreds who died at Harrison's Landing and other points, of disease and wounds. Indeed, some of the bodies were transported thirty miles


Granite blocks designating graves of unknown dead at the
 national cemetery in Fredericksburg, Va. Of the 15,243 
Union soldiers buried there, 12,770 are unknown.
Many of the dead of Chancellorsville were reburied at Fredericksburg, together with those who fell at Ely's and Germanna fords. From this point wagons were dispatched twenty-five and thirty miles to bring in bodies buried here and there by the roadside. Many a poor fellow, who gave up his life in a skirmish at some crossroads and was hastily buried while the column waited, has been resurrected to sleep his last sleep where his comrades lie thickest. One has but to walk up and down the graveled streets of these cities of the soldier dead to see what brigades and regiments were foremost in the fray. Here a captain of a New York company has grouped around him thirty -- forty -- even fifty of the brave men who followed him into the charge and fell beside him. Here is Michigan -- there Ohio, further on Illinois, and Indiana with their sacrifices, and the names of battles engraven on the marble stones will thrill the blood of him who reads them fifty years hence.

It is an unpleasant reflection, but the contractors who exhumed and reburied the bodies were paid so much for each, and this led to base trickery and worse frauds. Coffins were furnished for each "subject," and in scores of cases two and three bodies were made to fill from four to six coffins. In opening the battle-field trenches, "about so much" was averaged off to represent a corpse, and was duly coffined up and taken to the cemetery. One of the men who had assisted to resurrect over 6,000 corpses told me that he had often seen three skulls in one coffin. In other instances three or four coffins would be filled with bones and dirt. The idea was to hurry the work as fast as possible, and make as much money as possible, and it was not always that the diggers would stop to look for the identification of the skeleton before them. Military reports gave the names of those who fell in this or that battle, and there is cause to believe that they were called into use to give names to headstones covering no one knows what poor fellow's bones. The more corpses the more coffins; the more coffins the more headstones; the more graves the more pay. That was the scale on which all worked, and if all did not get rich out of their contracts it was not the fault of the government.

                            PANORAMA: Fredericksburg  (Va.) National Cemetery.
                                  Click at upper right for full-screen experience.


In uncovering the bodies the diggers found plenty of evidences of reckless and hasty burials. Many of the cemeteries have glass cases filled with rusty watches, rings, keys, medals, knives and other articles taken from the dead, and yet the cemeteries did not secure a hundredth part of these rusty treasures. Gold and silver watches, often in good order, were appropriated by the diggers, and in more than one instance the captured sums of gold and silver.


A curious story is told of a body uncovered at Chancellorsville, The poor fellow had crawled into a thicket to died of his wounds, and though the Confederates held the field and buried our dead, they did not discover the body in the bushes. Only when Federals, years after, were gathering up the dead for reburial did one of the party stumble upon the moldy blue cloth covering the wasting skeleton. A gold watch was the first valuable secured, and upon opening the back case this much of a will was found written in pencil, and perhaps during the darkness of night:

"If my body is found by Federals I want my watch and money sent to my wife."

"Who was the wife? Who was the soldier? Had the body been discovered directly after the battle the name would doubtless have been found with it but now there was nothing left but blackened bones and moldy fragments. There was no money, but there was a handful of black mold which had once represented greenbacks -- perhaps a large sum.

Unburied dead on the Gaines' Mill battlefield, photographed by John Reekie on April 15, 1865.
(Library of Congress)

Few soldiers are sanguine enough to believe that all the Federal dead were gathered into the cemeteries, although the contractors had every inducement to hunt them out and bring them in. Every highway in Northern Virginia has its forgotten graves of men suddenly stricken down and hastily buried by those who could not have recognized the spot a week afterwards. The same is true of portions of Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, and other states. And those riddles by canister and shattered by shell and buried in one horrible mass of blood and shreds -- what of them? The Potomac River has never given up a tenth of its dead. So with the Mississippi and other streams.

And yet it was a grand, noble thought alike in Union and Confederate, to search out the dead of war and give them burial in some sacred spot, over which men may walk with uncovered heads as they remember the fierce cries of war and realize the blessings of peace. They sleep peacefully and well, whether there is a name on the tombstone or not, and only to be awakened on that day when the names of men shall count for nothing.


-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Baltimore Sun, July 2, 1997
-- Elizabethville (Pa.) Echo, Aug. 18, 1927.
-- Frederick News, May 23, 1907.
-- Los Angeles Times, Aug. 20, 1887.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. These are very interesting and thoughtful ideas on the matter. I suspect every soldier lamented the fact that they may lie unburied , undignified and unknown. I terrible fate indeed.

  3. Very sad for the soldiers, and for their families...

  4. Grant always regretted his decision to order a frontal attack here at Cold Harbor. The loss of life was terrible and this battle fought just outside of the Richmond capitol was a non-factor in defeating Lee's army.

  5. All this work to bury the dead with dignity and honor and now we have lunatics desecrating their gravestones and monuments. How far we have fallen!

  6. Very interesting.

  7. Thank you! An excellent afterword for a history of the Civil War

  8. many dead are buried as "unknown" at Shiloh battlefield, near my home, my wife's cousin being one from the 3rd Mississippi infantry!

  9. This is a good read of a very tragic time in our history. This war of northern aggression would not have happened had saner heads prevailed.

  10. Awesome read, thank you. Our family lost seven in the war fighting the South. It was war, to this day we have no love for the Stars and Bars but we respect it. The Stars and Bars is about heritage, culture and history. Not hatred. Stay strong Johnny Reb. Signed the family of a Blue Belly Midwest Yankee and proud of it. Cheers.

  11. Look at your then and now section. Brilliant sir. Thank you for all the hard work. Bruce

  12. Thank you for that information it was incredible and all this should be remembered should be taught back in schools sacrifice of both sides

  13. Everyone who read this should also watch the fine PBS American Experience "Death and the Civil War", which explains how the loss of over 7000,000 dead young Americans brought anguish to so many. It also describes the burial efforts of North and South in the post-war years, noting that when the US Government sent searchers to the South to search for the Union dead, they often found that Negroes had collected the bodies, respectfully buried them and maintained the graves in their church cemetaries, in one instance over 1134 bodies in well-tended graves!

  14. And sadly, knowing. RNger at Antietam, they and parts of the litter the ground in the hard to reach spots. There simply is no money for it. Hopefully Trunps paycheck gift last year will help.

    1. Sorry I wish I could edit the above. I have personally found battlefield remains in the Shan. Valley. Called the local authorities and historian (that man beat the police ) that was that.

  15. What’s almost just as sad is the destruction of civil war battlefields especially in VA. Cold Harbor and Richmond are small patches of epic fighting that saw tens of thousands killed. At cold harbor where grabs’ some regret took place and 7.000 men fell in 15 minutes barely any is left. It is a suburb of Richmond. It’s a disgrace. My family fought on both sides and when I see destruction like that I want to vomit

  16. What’s almost just as sad is the destruction of civil war battlefields especially in VA. Cold Harbor and Richmond are small patches of epic fighting that saw tens of thousands killed. At cold harbor where grabs’ some regret took place and 7.000 men fell in 15 minutes barely any is left. It is a suburb of Richmond. It’s a disgrace. My family fought on both sides and when I see destruction like that I want to vomit