Bury Them in Peace

The creation of the Soldiers??? National Cemetery in Gettysburg was designed to honor the fallen Union soldiers of the battle with a peaceful final resting place easily accessible for visitors. This was a difficult, costly, and momentous undertaking…

This post was first published on the Civil War Institute’s previous blog901 Stories from Gettysburg.
The creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg was designed to honor the fallen Union soldiers of the battle with a peaceful final resting place easily accessible for visitors.  This was a difficult, costly, and momentous undertaking, but its success is as important today as as it was in 1864. While only a small percentage of the total number of visitors to Gettysburg see the National Cemetery, it is important to recognize the hard work and dedication which went into its creation. Equally as important are those who were not buried in the cemetery, those who were left buried on the field until 1871, the Confederate dead.

After the initial burials of the dead soldiers of Gettysburg in July 1863, townspeople and officials noted a few problems with the grave sites: agricultural issues because bodies were buried on working farms, visitation issues for both known and unknown soldiers, shallow graves that failed to show the respect due for men who had died for their country, and the lack of a place  for communal remembrance. As a solution, Dr. Theodor Dimon, a relief surgeon sent from New York, suggested part of the Evergreen Cemetery should be purchased and turned into a national cemetery for the interment of the Union dead, as made possible by the passage of a law in 1862 allowing the Federal government to purchase land for use as national cemeteries. David McConaughy, president of the board of directors for Evergreen Cemetery, made a similar suggestion to the state of Pennsylvania to buy plots of land and bury all of the state’s dead there. Understanding the need for reinterment, David Wills, a prominent Gettysburg attorney, spearheaded the movement to purchase the land and create a national cemetery at Gettysburg for all Union men.

In total, seventeen acres of land were purchased from Evergreen Cemetery and adjacent property at $175 per acre. A contract was struck with William Saunders to design the cemetery.  His plan was for a simple affair that played upon the natural landscape and structures of the land designated for the cemetery. He did not want any large ornate structures of grandeur; this was to be a somber affair. Saunders particularly stressed equality in the graves. His design grouped men by state but did not separate officers from enlisted. Frank Biesecker was awarded the bid to re-intern the bodies at $1.56 per man. Samuel Weaver was hired to oversee the collection of complete corpses and identify the remains if possible.

The identification of bodies both in name and location on the battlefield was a challenge in itself due to the rapidity of the burials. Many men were buried where they fell without any markers to indicate there was a grave there. Thoughtful individuals, such as S.G Elliott, Dr. Dimon, Dr. Weaver, and Dr. John O’Neal, went out to the battlefield while the initial graves were being dug and mapped their locations either verbally or visually. These maps were without a doubt instrumental in identifying graves; however, they did not did not encompass all the bodies buried on the field, nor were they – in some cases – exact enough for definite confirmation that all bodies in the area had been located. Personal identification, noted when possible on the aforementioned maps, was more likely for Union soldiers than Confederate because Union troops were doing most of the burying and thus were able to identify more Union men. Personal effects found on the bodies, such as diaries and keepsakes, were also used in identification. Once identified, the soldier would be given a headboard to mark the location for friends and families. Materials used to mark graves varied from fence planks, floor boards, carvings on rocks or trees, even bullet cartridge boxes, or whatever was handy. Over time, the wind and rain wore markers down, either making inscriptions hard to decipher or erasing them entirely. Clothing was important in the identification of Union from Confederate, as only Union soldiers were to be placed in the National Cemetery.  The color of the material was most certainly a giveaway, however, after months in the ground, colors became difficult to determine. In actuality, the undergarments were Dr. Weavers go to item for distinguishing Confederates from Union soldiers because the South most often used cotton and the North wool.
The removal of bodies from the battlefield began on October 27, 1863, and was completed on March 18, 1864. The process was very structured. Coffins were brought out to where the current bodies were being exhumed. Corpses were placed in the coffin under Dr. Weaver’s critical supervision. He would later state that he saw every body that was removed to the Cemetery insuring that every bone and scrap of clothing made it into the coffin. For unmarked graves, Dr. Weaver also examined the individual’s pockets to see if identification could be made. David Wills reported that 287 packets of personal effects were turned in to him by the doctor for families or friends to later collect. Any headboards would be nailed to the coffin and then the remains were taken to the Cemetery where the final resting place was determined by Mr. Saunders. The exception to this process was for soldiers from Massachusetts whose state, for reasons still unknown, hired Solomon Powers to attend to the burying of their soldiers in the Cemetery.

November 19, 1863, was Dedication Day for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, made famous by Presidents Lincoln’s speech the Gettysburg Address. This auspicious moment, however, raised concerns for the first time about Confederate remains on the battlefield. Features from national news organizations were run in local Gettysburg papers such as the Adams Sentinel and The Compiler stating that rebel dead were still buried in the fields and should, as a matter of humanity, be buried in a proper cemetery (though most certainly not the National Cemetery) because the bones were beginning to show and plowing season was coming.  The numbers of people traveling to Gettysburg for Dedication Day brought new concerns, which were written voiced by Governor Andrew Curtin who stated “(men) just returned from Gettysburg… (have said) they noticed the exposed condition of the rebel dead on the battlefield. They propose to raise the money to have them interred before the 19th.”   This is indicative of concerns indicating that the condition of the Confederate dead was embarrassing and a poor showing Northern humanity.

John Seymour, brother of the governor New York, wrote to an acquaintance and lawyer in Gettysburg named Moses McClean in April of 1864 inquiring after the pricing for six acres of land to appropriately bury the Confederate dead out of a sense of human decency and so that after the war Southern friends and families would have a proper place to visit their dead. Seymour also wrote a letter to a prominent New York Democrat, Samuel Tilden who would later become governor of New York and run for president, asking for a private donation to the cause of a Confederate cemetery in Gettysburg. It is unclear how many letters of this nature were sent by Seymour, or to whom he sent them. Sadly his endeavor failed and after 1864 the matter of Confederate dead was largely dropped.

It was not until the winter of 1871 that the issue of the Confederate dead was addressed again. Newspapers across the South published articles alluding to the fact that sons of the South were still buried in the fields of Gettysburg and if their bodies were not removed before planting season their bones would be tilled with the earth. These remarks aroused Southerners to the cause of removing Confederate soldiers “from foreign lands where they rest beside strangers” and a general outcry ensued upon hearing the wretched state of Southern soldiers’ burials. Caroline Janney makes the argument that this, compounded with federally funded Northern efforts to retrieve their soldiers and intern them in grand national cemeteries, marks the first stirring of the Lost Cause. The unequal treatment of the dead made Southerners feel like second-class citizens.

In order to save their Southern warriors from becoming “crop feed” Ladies Memorial Associations (LMA’s) from Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina began raising funds for the return of soldiers’ bodies. The women hired Dr. Rufus Weaver, son of Samuel Weaver, for the collection of the bodies because he knew the people in Gettysburg, had helped his father make the burial maps and inherited them, and was a doctor making him well qualified to handle remains. Before the spring of 1872 the Virginia LMA decided to pay for the safe return of all the Confederate bodies to Virginia, to be interned in their native Southern soil in the Hollywood Cemetery. Dr. Weaver immediately began work.
On June 15, 1872, the first shipment of 708 confederate soldiers remains arrived in Richmond. A military funeral procession, the wagons carrying the dead draped in black cloth, left from the docks through Main Street bound for the cemetery. Behind them marched a thousand-plus veterans, official dignitaries, and men from Southern fraternal organizations. The veterans wore armbands baring the words “Gettysburg July 1863” and Arlington house displayed a banner entitled “They Died for Us”.  The dead were buried in a section of the Cemetery called Gettysburg Hill. After this initial sending it would take Dr. Weaver until October 11, 1873 to deliver all the soldiers south.

In total, 3,354 men 1,664 unknown by name 979 unknown by name and state were buried at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at a cost of $80,000. In Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery 2,935 men are interned 313 identified and 2,622 unknown at a cost of $9,536. These numbers alone illustrate the differences between the Northern dead versus Southern dead. However, they are not representative of the emotions and politics behind the burials. The differences in initial burial standards as demonstrated in Northern and Southern graves was directly related to the distance from Gettysburg and the quality of communications by visitors the battlefield. The initial burials occurred just after the battle when the nation was still at war and emotions were high. Thus, northerners felt compelled to honor their dead with a national cemetery. Southerners had little to no access to their dead until after the war. Northerners, upon hearing about the cruel burial conditions of the Confederates, attempted to give a proper burial to them, but money was an obstacle. At the conclusion of the war the South was dealing with the process of Reconstruction and an economic calamity and had neither the money nor the political wherewithal to concentrate on their dead. However, when reports reached the south about the conditions of Gettysburg graves action was taken. In the end the inadequate burials of Confederates was the result of timing and financial issues rather than Northern aggression or hate.  Similarly, it was a lack of knowledge about the state of graves in Gettysburg and a lack of funds to move the bodies home or to southern soil that prolonged the poor conditions of Southern burials.


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.

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