“Burying the Dead “Burial Parties were sent out, and those who could get away from their commands went out to view the scene of carnage, and surely it was a scene never to be forgotten. Upon the open fields, like sheaves bound by the reaper, in crevices of the rocks, behind fences, trees and buildings; in thickets, where they had crept for safety only to die in agony; by stream or wall or hedge, wherever the battle had raged or their waking steps could carry them, lay the dead. Some with faces bloated and blackened beyond recognition, lay with glassy eyes staring up at the blazing summer sun; others, with faces downward and clenched hands filled with grass or earth, which told of the agony of the last moments. Here a headless trunk, there a severed limb; in all the grotesque positions that unbearable pain and intense suffering contorts the human form, they lay. Upon the faces of some death had frozen a smile; some showed the trembling shadow of fear, while upon others was indelibly set the grim stamp of determination. All around was the wreck the battle-storm leaves in its wake—broken caissons, dismounted guns, small arms bent and twisted by the storm or dropped and scattered by disabled hands; dead and bloated horses, torn and ragged equipments, and all the sorrowful wreck that the waves of battle leave at their ebb; and over all, hugging the earth like a fog, poisoning every breath, the pestilential stench of decaying humanity”
This gruesome account of the Gettysburg battlefield on July 4, 1863, after the end of fighting, comes from an unnamed New Jersey soldier. The stark reality of death in the aftermath of battle and the necessity of burying the dead is a topic not widely written about when compared to political aspects, military strategies, or the home front. Yet the descriptions of the fallen and their burial have been most frequently cited as memories that never left the soldiers. The process of soldier burials was widely considered inhuman – even by those men who did the work – and yet they recognized it was all they could do given the physical and emotional pressures of the time.
The first burial parties were sent out at dusk on July 4th and the men were instructed to say out until midnight, burying Union and Confederates alike wherever they had fallen. When night fell the soldiers used lanterns to work in the night. Another unknown soldier from New Jersey related his account of the night burials and how he had tripped while walking and landed on a corpse. When the lantern was relit and lifted the man discovered the bodies of seventeen Union soldiers. The soldier stated, “how we buried these seventeen bodies you would not care to know”. During the day and night of the Fourth, men who were not assigned burial duty went out into the fields looking for fallen brothers and comrades. At night, a thunderstorm provided flashes of lightning to light these searches. If found, all due care was given to their burial in deep graves with markers to bear the deceased name. There are accounts of some men washing the blood from their friend’s uniforms before placing blankets around the bodies and burying them.
In the first day or so after the battle, bodies were buried where they were found, regardless of which side they had fought for. However in the subsequent days, when the burials became more organized, a new procedure took place. Burial parties consisted of three men, two to carry the stretcher and one man to work the Pike Pole, the instrument used to push the bodies onto the stretcher. Should a body be too decomposed to handle easily fence posts were slid under it to get the remains up. The men would then be carried to a burial trench and laid out in lines or immediately placed in a grave depending on the progress of the trench. These trenches were dug in front of the lines of corpses. The corpses were then moved into the trench and a second trench was begun where the first bodies had been. The dirt from the second trench was used to cover the first row of bodies. The heads of each soldier would be placed in the same direction and Confederate and Union soldiers were separated for burial. Dr. John Briton, on special duty for the Surgeon General, remarked upon the orderliness and uniformity of the graves and headboards of the soldiers who had been identified. He had seen many internments after battles, but the work at Gettysburg astounded him because of the efficiency and competence not usually shown when confronted with such a large number of dead (7,058) left on the field and an average of 50-100 men dying daily in the hospitals. A surgeon and volunteer officer named Thomas H. Bache is credited with the organization of these efforts.
The dimensions of graves are particularly distressing. Most graves were no deeper than 12-18 inches and were just over six feet in width. The length of the trenches would be determined by the number of bodies to be placed in them, which was typically between 30 and 70 bodies; however some did contain many more. It has been suggested that corpses were tied together for either easier transportation or to combat the effects of rigor mortis so that the bodies would be straight and flat, thus increasing the number of corpses per trench. Such inhumane treatment of the dead seems shocking, yet men who worked in the burial parties seemed to explain these ghastly works as merely the result of war. Steven Osborn from the 145th Pennsylvania said after a corpse fell from a litter “[t]his was more than Linn and I could stand and we gave vent to our grief in a roar of laughter…it wasn’t best for us to look at that side of the question (if it was wicked) or go without a good laugh too long at any one time”. Similarly, Private Robert Carter recollected that when “they slid into the trenches, (they) broke apart, to the horror and disgust of the whole party, and the stench still lingers in our nostrils. As many as ninety bodies were thus disposed of in one trench…most of them were tumbled in just as they fell with not a prayer, eulogy or tear to distinguish them from so many animals.”
Having to confront the evil of war in the heat of battle is quite different than confronting the horror of death afterwards. For the soldiers on burial duty or those seeking to bury their friends the stark reality of death and destruction was so intense that it was as all a man can do to swallow his grief and carry out one small act of kindness by burying the dead, even if the burial was not entirely proper. There was a complete recognition by the soldiers that These wartime burials were wholly inadequate, but there was another variable to which the group was beholden, time.
Soldiers and officers recognized the aspect of time and that they only had so much of it. The necessity of getting the bodies into the ground for health and sanitary reasons was coupled with the fact the there was still a war happening. Often, those involved with the burying of the bodies were Pioneer Brigades, nearby infantry units, citizens, and prisoners of war. With the exception of the citizens, these groups were only temporally located in Gettysburg. Infantry units needed to be relocated as soon as possible to continue in the war efforts and where there is more fighting Pioneer Brigades will be needed. Prisoners of war also need to be relocated to camps that can adequately provide for their basic needs in a way that the already stressed citizens of Gettysburg cannot. Also for parole and trade purposes the prisoners needed to be moved. Therefore, the internment of 7,000 plus dead needed to occur quiet rapidly; in fact by July 11, 1863 the vast majority of Union soldiers were interned.
The internment of Confederates happened at a much slower rate for two main reasons. First, when the Confederates had control of the town and the battlefields from July 1st through the 5th there were no large-scale efforts to bury bodies. The reasons for this are numerous, but the effect was singular; after the Confederate retreat, the number of bodies left on the field for those left behind to bury after the Confederate retreat was significantly increased and the level of decomposition of the bodies were much higher as they had been exposed to the elements and animals longer. All of this resulted in an increase in the labor and time of the Union burial parties. This is not to say that the Confederates buried none of their own. Graves dug by Confederates were found, most of them for individuals, and some partly finished, larger, trenches were discovered by Union forces as well.
Secondly, at the end of the fighting, the Union held the field and were, understandably, concerned mostly with the burial of their own. To this end most of the burials of Confederate dead were in mass trenches. While most of these were in the same style as the Union trenches, there were a few cases of other burial methods and those were due to conditions around the bodies. For example, around Little Round Top, Confederate bodies were piled into a valley and partially covered with rocks and brush. There is no doubt that Union forces handled the Southern bodies less delicately than those of their comrades. However, it has also been documented that Confederate prisoners of war did not put forth much effort, in many cases, to bury their own. It was documented that they dug the trenches only ten inches deep and when they buried the bodies, parts of the feet and heads were often still showing.
All and all the task of burying the dead was daunting. Over the first twelve days of work the total number of Confederates buried was 3,903, and the total for the Union buried was 3,155. The burial of friends and comrades are described by the men as scenes that will never leave them because of the grotesque nature of the event, but also because of the emotional toll of seeing humanity so broken leave behind. The experiences of soldiers in the heat of battle are no small event, but neither is the work necessitated by the resulting death. The costs of war were experienced by all Americans but the face of death was seen only by those who lingered on battlefields after the last shots ring out.
Coco, Gregory A. A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg : The Aftermath of a Battle. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1995.
Frassanito, William A. Early Photography at Gettysburg. Gettysburg, Pa.: Thomas Publications, 1995.
Janney, Caroline E. Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Krowl, Michelle. “”In the Spirit of Fraternity”: The United States Government and the Burial of Confederate Dead at Arlington National Cemetery, 1864-1914.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 111, no. 2 (2003): 151-186.