Thursday, April 03, 2014

History revealed: Soldiers' Cemetery graves in Alexandria

This image of Soldiers' Cemetery, now Alexandria National Cemetery,  was 
probably shot by Andrew Russell between 1862-69.
Library of Congress collection
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By 1864, the 5 1/2-acre plot the Federal government had set aside in Alexandria, Va., for burial of soldiers was nearly full. Thousands of grave markers, neatly placed in seemingly endless rows, dotted the well-kept Soldiers' Cemetery in the town that served as a vital staging ground for Union troops throughout the war. Among those buried there were men who were killed in action at Cedar Mountain, North Anna River, Brandy Station and other battlefields in Virginia. Others perished from battle wounds or disease in government hospitals in Alexandria. Many buried there are unknown. 

Sometime between 1862-1869, a photographer shot an image in the cemetery of the sea of grave markers -- a minuscule portion of the massive Civil War death toll. In the original glass-plate image, which is available in .jpg and TIFF formats on the Library of Congress web site, the names on most of the temporary pine grave markers are indecipherable. Upon enlargement, however, the names as well as regimental and company designations for several soldiers are revealed. Here are snapshots of  who they were: 

Only 100 of the 400 soldiers in the 7th Ohio escaped unhurt at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on Aug. 9, 1862. It was a day so hot that a private in the 3rd Wisconsin later wrote that "[the sun's] burning rays stung and blistered our unprotected and upturned faces with all the fervor of a mustard plaster." 

The 7th Ohio, one of four regiments from the state that fought at Cedar Mountain, marched eight miles with little water to the battlefield, where some of its soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Rebels. "The little band of Ohio soldiers soon found themselves hemmed in by hosts of Rebels, who rose up on every side," a private in Company C of the 7th Ohio wrote. "To stand was impossible.  To run was not thought of.  Therefore they were obliged to take the only alternative, to fall."

Sometime during the battle, Benjamin F. Gill, a 26-year-old private in Company E, suffered a severe wound in his left leg, which was later amputated by Surgeon John E. Summers. From Erie Country, Ohio, Gill was transported 70 miles back to Alexandria, where he died on Aug. 29, 1862. Corporal Christopher Atkinson of Company F of the 111th Pennsylvania, whose grave appears to the left of Gill's, was also wounded at Cedar Mountain. He died at Alexandria General Hospital on Aug. 28, 1862 ...

... William H.H. Cook, a private in Company D of the 66th Ohio, was only 26 years old when he was killed at Cedar Mountain. Only 18 years old, Private John B. Cartwright of Company B of the 6th New York Cavalry died of unknown causes on Aug. 28, 1862. John Hillen, a private in Company I of the 8th Pennsylvania, died a day later when he drowned. He was from Waynesburg, Pa. ...

... Disease was, by far, the greatest killer during the Civil War. It is estimated that a little more than 60 percent of 625,000-plus soldier deaths during the war were caused by diseases such as dysentery and typhus. Joseph Rowan, whose barely readable grave marker is at left, was one such victim. A 20-year-old private in Company H of the 71st New York, he died of an unspecified disease on Oct. 18, 1862 in Alexandria. ...

... Compared to later battles at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Cedar Mountain was small in scale. About 24,000 troops were involved in the Culpeper County battle in which the Yankees were outnumbered 2-to-1, a rare occurrence during the war. But the fighting was a portent of deadlier battles that would occur in late 1862 and 1863.

"True, many of the (soldiers') wounds are mere flesh wounds, from which the patient will soon recover," a New York Times correspondent wrote eight days after Cedar Mountain. "But there is a larger proportion of serious and dangerous wounds than has heretofore been the case in the various battles in Virginia. About 80 per cent of the wounded will either die or be rendered unfit for service hereafter. So it will easily be perceived that the battle of Cedar Mountain has been the bloodiest and most desperate of the war." 

One of those wounded who failed to recover was Private John Nolan of Company D of the 8th Ohio. He died in Alexandria on Aug. 27, 1862. Peeking out from between the branches of a bush, a slender marker includes his name, company and regiment.  Today, the graves of all these soldiers are marked by white marble tombstones in what is now known as Alexandria National Cemetery.

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