Rufus Weaver and Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead

Dead in the immediate vicinity of Culp???s Hill, though not in danger of the farmer???s plow, had been buried in shallow, mass graves. Culp???s Hill had been the site of fierce fighting on July 2nd and 3rd as Confederate troops sought to dislodge the Ar…

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Dead in the immediate vicinity of Culp’s Hill, though not in danger of the farmer’s plow, had been buried in shallow, mass graves.  Culp’s Hill had been the site of fierce fighting on July 2nd and 3rd as Confederate troops sought to dislodge the Army of the Potomac’s right flank.  The above photograph is illustrative of the manner in which Confederate dead were interred by the Union burial parties beginning on July 4th.  On July 5th, civilian Clifton Johnson visited the hill and bore witness to the economized strategies of these men.  At that point, burial parties were hurrying to deal with bodies that had been lying out for up to three days:

I went over to Culp’s Hill Sunday.  They were burying the dead there in long narrow ditches about two feet deep.  They would lay in a man at the end of the trench and put in the next man with the upper half of his body on the first man’s legs and so on.  They got them in as thick as they could and only covered them enough to prevent their breeding disease.

J. Howard Wert was more impressed with the burial methods at Culp’s Hill, but was nonetheless descriptive of how Confederate dead were piled in trenches.

The dead here were more carefully interred than on almost any other portion of the field.  Deep, wide trenches were made in which the corpses were placed side by side and well covered.  On an adjacent oak the burial parties would hew off the bark from one side and place in lead pencil the number buried in the trench; thus ’73 rebs buried to the right’: ’45 rebs in this trench,’ etc.  There were seventeen of these trenches on a space not exceeding five or six acres, in which the numbers varied from a dozen to 70 or 80.

Though the precise location of the trench shown in the photograph is not known, it was located at the eastern base of Culp’s Hill.  In that immediate vicinity, 394 Confederates were buried in a similar manner.

Dr. Weaver examined this trench in the fall and winter of 1863 to 1864 as he helped to exhume Union dead for the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery.  In one specific case, a break in the burial pattern resulted in misidentification.  Major Benjamin Leigh, the adjutant general of Edward Johnson’s Confederate division, was thought to be a Union soldier despite the jean cloth material of his uniform and the Confederate notes found in his pockets.  He had been buried in an individual grave that had been carefully dug and marked with a headboard.  The effort required for this sort of identification was usually reserved only for fellow Union soldiers.  Those who had killed Major Leigh on July 3rd, however, had been so impressed by his courage that they took special care of his body.  With no knowledge of this story, Weaver was understandably confused by this burial anomaly.

In 1872 and 1873, Weaver returned to scour Culp’s Hill under contract with the ladies of the HMA.  During this time he removed the remains interred in the trench visible in the photograph, which had been taken several years prior to his arrival.  These bodies were part of the almost 3,000 that Weaver had shipped south when he finished his work in October of 1873.  By that time, however, he had only been paid by the HMA for one-third of his total bill.  It is unclear whether or not Dr. Weaver received word of the HMA’s difficulties in raising funds while he was still working.  Regardless, he continued with his work with the expectation that he would at least be paid eventually.  That he was never paid in full – and what he did receive was never in a timely fashion – was almost cruel considering the circumstances.  The majority of Weaver’s total bill of $9,536 was shipping costs rather than what he was charging for his services.  His bill also did not take into account the fees, ranging as high as $50, that farmers often charged Weaver in order to dig up remains on their property.  Shouldering all of these costs was a significant issue because Weaver had put the majority of his savings into the financially-plagued medical college at which he taught.  Even after a protracted struggle of 20 years with the ladies of the HMA and appeals to both their conscience and the court system, he was still owed over $1,000 of the original bill.  That his work for the HMA proved to be such a burden was certainly not a fitting end for a man who had been skeptical of working for former Confederates in the first place.  Another irony to the story is that most of the Gettysburg dead, upon arriving at the Hollywood Cemetery, were once again piled into mass graves where they still lie today.


For further reading:

Descriptions of Weaver’s involvement with the dead of both sides after the battle:

Patterson, Gerard A. Debris of Battle: The Wounded of Gettysburg. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997.

On Weaver’s involvement and protracted struggles with the Hollywood Memorial Association:

Janney, Caroline E. Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

The portrait picture of Rufus Weaver is courtesy of the Special Collections of Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.

 

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