Saturday, June 23, 2018

'Their eyeless skulls seemed to stare steadily at us'

Unburied remains of soldiers in Federal lines near Orange Plank Road in the Wilderness. 
 (Library of Congress | CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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More than 150 years after two Union soldiers died at Second Manassas, their skeletal remains were unearthed from a limb pit near the infamous Deep Cut on the battlefield. Recently published stories about the grisly finds -- a leg bone with amputation saw marks, an Enfield bullet embedded in a severely fractured femur, Yankee buttons among bones -- fascinate many of us. Horrify some of us, too.

Which brings us to the excerpt below from the book Recollections of a Private Soldier by Union veteran Frank Wilkeson, a gifted writer and storyteller. In early May 1864, he was a 16-year-old private in the 11th New York Light Artillery. A day or two before the Battle of the Wilderness, Wilkeson and his comrades camped near the Orange Turnpike on the Chancellorsville battleground, where a year earlier, on May 2, 1863, Stonewall Jackson's flank attack there led to a crushing Union defeat. As Wilkeson and another Federal soldier walked the old battlefield, they discovered gruesome remains of that day -- leg bones, arm bones, skulls, a "grinning, bony, flesh-less face."

Later than evening, Wilkeson and his comrade were joined by "many infantrymen," perhaps, like some of us, also drawn to the horrific aftermath of battle.

'Many polished skulls lay on the ground'

"In the evening, after supper, I walked with a comrade to the spot where General [Alfred] Pleasanton had massed his guns and saved the army under [Joseph] Hooker from destruction, by checking the impetuous onslaught of Stonewall Jackson's Virginian infantry, fresh from the pleasures of the chase of the routed Eleventh Corps. We walked to and fro over the old battle-field, looking at bullet-scarred and canister-riven trees. The men who had fallen in that fierce fight had apparently been buried where they fell, and buried hastily. Many polished skulls lay on the ground. Leg bones, arm bones, and ribs could be found without trouble. Toes of shoes, and bits of faded, weather-worn uniforms, and occasionally a grinning, bony, flesh-less face peered through the low mound that had been hastily thrown over these brave warriors.

1865 image of unburied soldiers south of Plank Road in Wilderness.
(Library of Congress)
"As we wandered to and fro over the battle-ground, looking at the gleaming skulls and whitish bones, and examining the exposed clothing of the dead to see if they had been Union or Confederate soldiers, many infantrymen joined us. It grew dark, and we built afire at which to light our pipes close to where we thought Jackson's men had formed for the charge, as the graves were thickest there, and then we talked of the battle of the preceding year. We sat on long, low mounds. The dead were all around us. Their eyeless skulls seemed to stare steadily at us.

"The smoke drifted to and fro among us. The trees swayed and sighed gently in the soft wind. One veteran told the story of the burning of some of the Union soldiers who were wounded during Hooker's fight around the Wilderness, as they lay helpless in the woods. It was a ghastly and awe-inspiring tale as he vividly told it to us as we sat among the dead. This man finished his story by saying shudderingly: 'This region,' indicating the woods beyond us with a wave of his arm, 'is an awful place to fight in. The utmost extent of vision is about one hundred yards. Artillery cannot be used effectively. The wounded are liable to be burned to death. I am willing to take my chances of getting killed, but I dread to have a leg broken and then to be burned slowly; and these woods will surely be burned if we fight here. I hope we will get through this chapparal without fighting,' and he took off his cap and meditatively rubbed the dust off  of the red clover leaf which indicated the division and corps he belonged to.

"As we sat silently smoking and listening to the story, an infantry soldier who had, unobserved by us, been prying into the shallow grave he sat on with his bayonet, suddenly rolled a skull on the ground before us, and said in a deep, low voice: 'That is what you are all coming to, and some of you will start toward it to-morrow.' "

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


  1. Thanks John for a fascinating story. Surely these men walked thru the valley of death.

  2. Anonymous7:29 PM

    Thanks for the story. My ancestor was captured at Chancellorsville. 1st Mass Inf Co. F. Ephraim H. Hall.

  3. I read this book and was so taken with just how much rancor there was between the Volunteers and conscripts and was amazed at how commonplace thievery was among all the troops. Also the pure depth of evil displayed by bounty jumpers... such violence, etc, just plain scum!!

    I was really kinda shocked how he and other Union Soldiers flat out robbed from one another, with such silly justifications... They sounded so juvenile, like oops, "Pvt So&So fell asleep so I took his kit, guess that means he didn't want it," esp rationalized when it was a new recruit. Really just awful.

    His descriptions of the grapevine among Soldiers was great and his combat descriptions eye-opening and not covered with the sentimental tone you often get, much more 'modern ' sounding and realistic!!