Today, 150 years after the Civil War, there are countless remains of soldiers buried on battle sites around the country. For many, a shallow grave near where they fell was the best they could hope for as an eternal resting place. The numbers were simply too great for much more than that.
Some, however, were returned to more familiar ground to spend eternity. This was usually done one soldier at a time by family members who saw to their loved one’s return. After the Battle of Gettysburg, though, there was a mass removal of Confederate dead from the battlefield to have their remains returned to the South.
The following article, detailing the removal of the Confederate dead, was originally published in Issue 2 of The Gettysburg Magazine in January 1990. It is presented here in two parts. Part two will be published Thursday, June 28.
The Removal of the Confederate Dead From Gettysburg
by Edward G. J. Richter
In shallow graves, in trenches, and in what were described as “pits,” the Confederate dead from the fighting at Gettysburg and vicinity lay buried. At one time, there were more than 3,300 of them resting there, but today they are gone, and sleep in the soil of their beloved Southland. This is the story of the removal of their remains to the South.
To understand the overwhelming nature of the work involved in the removal, we must first look into the circumstances and conditions of the original burials. Many of these dead had been killed outright or had died on the field of their wounds before they could be removed to a hospital, and were buried on the battlefield. Hundreds of others had died at their division or brigade hospitals, or at Union hospitals after their capture, and were buried there. Some had died in the cavalry actions at Hunterstown and Fairfield. A few more were killed or mortally wounded in the rearguard skirmishes at Fairfield and Monterey Gap as the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew over South Mountain into Maryland.
Of these Confederate dead, 1,100 were buried in marked graves and their location recorded by two Gettysburg residents, Dr. J. W. C. O’Neal and Mr. Samuel Weaver. Dr. O’Neal made a second listing in May, 1866 of Confederate graves still marked. In some cases they had been buried and their graves carefully marked with headboards by loving friends and comrades. Those buried at the various Confederate or Union hospitals also, for the most part, had their graves marked. The majority, however, were hastily buried by details from their own army or the Union army, and the graves were unmarked. Over the years from 1863 to 1871, many of these graves lost their identity, some graves being leveled or ploughed over by farmers on whose land they were located.
During the period October 27, 1863, to March 18, 1864, Mr. Samuel Weaver superintended the exhuming and removal of the Union dead to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. He also at that time examined the graves of more than 3,000 Confederate dead. He was able to identify the remains as those of Confederate soldiers by the burial locations, and then by the color, gray or brown, and the material, cotton, of the uniforms, the style of the shoes, and even by the undershirts, all of which were different than those of the Union soldiers. He stated that it was his belief that not one mistake had been made in determining to which army the deceased soldiers had belonged. At this time he found that those bodies improperly covered and exposed to the elements or buried in well drained soil, had decomposed rapidly. Those buried in heavy soil, or other areas such as marshes, with little or no drainage, were still well preserved. By 1871, all had probably been reduced to skeletal remains.
Probably the first body of a Confederate soldier removed from Gettysburg was that of Col. Isaac E. Avery, 6th North Carolina, commanding Hoke’s Brigade of Early’s Division. He had been mortally wounded on July 2 in the attack on Cemetery Hill, and had died on July 3. His body was carried back to Williamsport, Maryland, and buried in the Public Burial Ground there. His remains were later removed to Washington Cemetery, the Confederate section within Rose Hill Cemetery at Hagerstown, Maryland, and buried there in a marked grave in the North Carolina section.
The body of Maj. Benjamin Watkins Leigh, Assistant Adjutant General of Johnson’s Division, who was killed on July 3 in the attack on Culp’s Hill, may be buried with the unknown Union dead in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. He was originally buried in a marked grave on Culp’s Hill near some Union graves. In O’Neal’s list of Confederate graves still marked in May, 1866 this burial is not shown. In “A list of articles taken from the bodies of the soldiers removed to the National Cemetery,” in the “Unknown section,” is listed “B. W. Laigh, $10, Reb money.”
During the years 1863-1871, the bodies of several high ranking Confederate officers, and a few others, were removed from Gettysburg individually. The bodies of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, commanding a brigade in Pickett’s Division, and Col. Lewis B. Williams, Jr., 1st Virginia, both mortally wounded and captured on July 3 in Pickett’s Charge, were shipped in 1863 to friends in Baltimore. The body of Brig. Gen. William Barksdale, commanding a brigade in McLaws’s Division, mortally wounded and captured on July 2, was also removed individually. Another body, that of Col. John Bowie Magruder, 57th Virginia, who was also mortally wounded on July 3 in Pickett’s Charge and captured, was placed in a metallic coffin and sent to his father in Richmond under a flag of truce by a fraternity brother. One body, that of Col. John A. Jones, 20th Georgia, who was killed on July 2 in the fighting near Devil’s Den, and buried originally on Slyder’s farm, was removed and lost at sea. Until 1871, however, most of the Confederate dead still lay buried in their temporary graves at and near Gettysburg.
Soon after the end of hostilities in 1865, Ladies Memorial Associations were formed throughout the South. Their purpose was to honor the Confederate dead, to locate and identify their graves, and to make certain that the graves were properly cared for. Despite the chaotic conditions and destitution in much of the South after the war, these ladies were undaunted in their efforts. They faced lack of funds, unfriendly and uncooperating Federal and state governments, at least at the beginning, but they persevered in their determination to honor their dead. They were the embodiment of the most noble virtues of Southern womanhood. It was felt in the South, that the Confederate dead buried in Pennsylvania were in an unfriendly country, where in life and in death they were considered rebels and their sacrifice for their cause was looked upon with disdain.
Originally the Ladies Memorial Associations contracted with Mr. Samuel Weaver of Gettysburg, who had superintended the removal of the Union dead to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, for the work. It was felt that Mr. Weaver was sympathetic towards the Confederate dead. Before the work could be started however, Mr. Weaver died and his son, Dr. Rufus B. Weaver, took over the contract. There were some obstacles in the way of obtaining permission to remove the remains from certain places, some farmers even demanding payment to release the remains. But the determination of the ladies prevailed, and permission was finally granted, in one case with the help of the farmer’s wife, before the work could begin.
Please see Part 2 of the article, which will be posted Thursday, June 28.
About the Author:
The author is a retired lieutenant from the Nassau County, New York Police Department, having served for 33 years. He served in the U.S. Army Infantry for three years prior to that.