What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead?

Gettysburg National Military Park Rangers, interns, and volunteers are frequently asked a series of questions by visitors starting with:  Where are the Confederate dead buried?  Many of these visitors have walked through the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where they noticed the markers of more than 3,500 Union soldiers, known and unknown, who were killed during the bloody days of early July 1863, yet they observed no burial markers for the approximately same number of Confederates who lost their lives on these identical fields. 

After learning from a National Park Ranger that the Confederates are not buried in the cemetery the visitors often ask a second, more concerned question: “Why aren’t the Confederates buried in the national cemetery, aren’t they Americans too?”   While it is true that many of the Confederates felt they were still Americans, they were fighting against the United States after having seceded from it three years earlier.  Hence when President Lincoln arrived to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in November 1863 it was for the Union dead only.  The Soldiers’ National Cemetery was set aside to be the final resting place for those who gave their last full measure to preserve the Union.  There was to be no room for those trying to destroy it.

Confederate dead on the Rose Farm.

Dead of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry lie in partially finished graves on the Rose Farm, the process interrupted on July 3 by the approach of Union troops. This photograph was taken by Alexander Gardner on July 5 or 6, 1863. (Library of Congress)

Shortly after the two warring armies retired from the Gettysburg, they left behind over 7,000 dead scattered around the battlefield. The sheer number of rapidly decomposing bodies posed an imminent health hazard, if not a ghastly scene.  As one Confederate soldier recalled passing over the fields northwest of Gettysburg on July 4, “The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable-corpses swollen to twice their size, asunder with the pressure of gases and vapors…The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.” 

The majority of dead from both armies were buried in shallow graves, placed beneath the soil by those unconcerned with the individual’s name or regiment and bent on completing this disagreeable task as quickly as possible.  However in less than two months the journey to the final resting place for the Union dead would commence as they were disinterred from their temporary graves to a place more fitting.  Not so for the men wearing butternut and gray.  They would remain in their scattered, poorly marked graves for nearly nine more years. 

Rufus Weaver in 1915

Dr. Rufus B. Weaver in later life. (Hahnemann Medical College)

Beginning in 1871, the first efforts to have Confederate remains removed to southern cemeteries was initiated by the Wake County Ladies Memorial Association in North Carolina. Similar associations in South Carolina and Georgia followed suit and Dr. Rufus Weaver was contracted to supervise the removal of the Confederate dead. This was a daunting task, given the forlorn condition of battlefield graves and the loss of grave markers, many of which had not been maintained or cared for by the farmers upon whose land the graves were located.

Using a journal of identified Confederate burials compiled by Dr. J.W.C. O’Neal (a Virginia-born physician who resided in Gettysburg), as well as his extensive knowledge of the locations of individual sites and mass graves, Dr. Weaver was successful in returning the remains of 3,320 soldiers, the vast majority of which were sent to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.  Fewer numbers of Confederate remains were delivered to cemeteries in Raleigh, North Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, where they were interred in town cemeteries. 

On a side note, recent research has found that at least seven Confederate soldiers, through cases of mistaken identity, were buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where they remain to this day. Among them is Major Benjamin W. Leigh, the assistant adjutant general of General Edward Johnson’s Division. Shot down in the final moments of the fighting at Culp’s Hill, Leigh’s bravery and courage in his final moments was witnessed by numerous Union soldiers, who provided the officer a decent burial on the hill side, going to far as to mark his grave with his initials and unit, though mistaken during the exhumation process for a Union soldier.

Then there is a final question. “Are there still bodies in the fields that have not been found?”   The answer to this is almost certainly yes.  Since the 1870’s and throughout much of the 1900’s remains have been uncovered. One noted historian stated that nearly 1,500 Confederate remains from the Gettysburg Campaign have been unaccounted for and there is a possibility that some are still buried at Gettysburg.  The most recent discovery occurred in 1995 near the Railroad Cut, the scene of bitter fighting on July 1, 1863.  The identity of this soldier and the army in which he served could not be readily identified during the archaeological excavation of the remains, but some battle experts believe he fought for the Confederacy and was most likely a Mississippi soldier.  

For further information on the Confederate dead at Gettysburg, we recommend the book Wasted Valor: The Confederate Dead at Gettysburg by Gregory A. Coco (Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, PA,1990)  For further information on the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, refer to Lincoln and the Human Interest Stories of The Gettysburg National Cemetery by Jim Cole and Roy Frampton (Sheridan Press, Hanover, PA, 1995).

 -Clyde Bell, Supervisory Park Ranger

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32 Responses to What Happened to Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead?

  1. During a recent visit to Gettysburg, only my second in my life so all the more precious, I was heartbroken by the disrespect shown by the Boy Scouts that were there and even worse the Leaders that allowed it. The sign “Silence and Respect” greets you when you enter the cemetery but they didn’t see it as they RAN around it whooping and jumping like they had just entered a ball field! That was bad enough since it was a designated resting place but equally offensive to me being of Southern ancestry was the fact that the battlefields got the equal amount of disrespect. The lost family members of countless Southerners are still out there! It is NOT a playground. It’s the final resting place of OUR loved ones who fought and died for what they believed in. I’m not debating right or wrong….it was a different time and a different belief. But that doesn’t over ride the fact that they died defending what they believed like ever other AMERICAN soldier. So PLEASE Scout Leaders. Teach your boys this. Silence and Respect. Show it to both sides please. They ALL deserve it.

    • The Staff says:

      Kathleen,

      We are visited by thousands of Boy Scouts each year. There are occasional groups that are unruly and disrespectful, but the overwhelming majority of scout groups treat this battlefield with the respect it deserves, and the leaders try to help their young scouts understand what happened here. When we encounter groups that are behaving inappropriately we attempt to engage them to help them understand why such behavior is unacceptable. We are sorry you had a bad experience with one of them.

      Scott Hartwig

      • I know it’s not all Scouts. I was a Scout Mom for years. My son is now 21. Unfortunately the weekend I was there it wasn’t just one or two troops behaving badly it was the majority.

  2. John Banks says:

    Clyde: This is good stuff. Appreciate this post. And Gregory Coco’s works on the battle are really good too. Here’s a post I did on my blog on an undertaker from Connecticut whose ghastly job was to find remains of Connecticut men killed at Antietam and return them home:

    http://john-banks.blogspot.com/2012/03/faces-of-civil-war-undertaker-william.html

    John Banks.

  3. Kurt Eberly says:

    With regard to the nationality of Confederates during the Civil War, from Abraham Lincoln’s point of view they were Americans and would never be anything else as long as he was President of the United States. Lincoln’s view was that the Southern states had not left the Union; he gave no validity to the idea of Confederate nationalism. He was actually fighting the war for the South and Southerners because it and they were part of the Union he swore to maintain. This does not mean that I think that Union authorities should have buried both Union and Confederate dead in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Lincoln was right when he said that the Union soldiers who died helped to save the Union. But the Confederate dead deserved respectful treatment as well. They were men who became caught up in a tragedy that very few of them had any involvement in causing.

  4. Andy Warnock says:

    In battle, soldiers on both sides did their best to kill each other. I have read of many instances during lulls that they would be quite amicable towards each other. Certainly the later reunions between North and South are proof of how they felt towards each other when not called to arms. A quote from Gen. Longstreet in the movie “Gettysburg” follows…. ” This war comes as a nightmare. You pick your nightmare side, put your head down and win.” Not sure if that is a true quote from Old Gloomy Pete…. I think it was Eisenhower who answered the question of what to do with the dead after Normandy…. “Mix em up…. They are all Americans.”

  5. Whenever I think of Gettysburg, I often think of the sad plight of the Confederate dead. I feel great empathy for both the boys in blue and the boys in gray, and the lack of respect shown to Southern victims greatly saddens me. When studying the battle I always remember to honor, respect, and mourn for the lost soldiers of both sides.

  6. 3fates says:

    According to the US Military webpage, there was over 28,000 confederate soldiers killed at Gettysburg. Yet you say that only 3,320 remains were returned to the South for burial. That must mean that the other 25,000 are still buried in and around Gettysburg I would assume. I also understand that 1 out of every 4 confederate soldier killed in Gettysburg was from North Carolina. As a NC native, I did feel a bit of electricity as I walked out into the field around the NC memorial. Probably more ancestors than I know still there somewhere.

    • The Staff says:

      There were approximately 28,000 Confederate casualties at Gettysburg, which means killed, wounded and captured. The best source on Confederate losses is Robert K. Krick’s Gettysburg Death Roster. Krick’s research found 4,637 known Confederate killed and mortally wounded, but he acknowledges that his statistics for some units is incomplete. The actual number is probably around 5,000 to 5,500 but we may never know this number with precision. North Carolina suffered the highest number of losses of any state in the Confederacy at Gettysburg, with 6,124 casualties out of 13,980 North Carolina soldiers with the Army of Northern Virginia.

      D. Scott Hartwig

      • Jennifer Wisener says:

        Thanks, I need to check for my great, great, great uncle George Thompson of North Carolina. He was wounded in the hip at Gettysburg and died three days later.

  7. Tom Verenna says:

    This is probably not true, but on a battlefield ‘ghost tour’ someone mentioned that at Warrior Stadium a mass grave had been unearthed during its construction. Any verification to that or is it just a good story? I looked but could find nothing.

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    • The Staff says:

      That would be a highly unusual place for a mass grave, since few troops were killed in action in that location and it is quite a distance from any field hospital. I have also never encountered any evidence of a mass grave in the location of the stadium. I think this is probably part of Gettysburg’s folklore.

      Scott H.

  9. James K. Harrison says:

    About 20 years ago I paid a brief visit to Gettysburg hoping to find the grave of my Confederate ancestor Wayne Crockett Harrison (1842 – 1863) . When I enquired about the matter with a park ranger I was told rather abruptly that “there are no Confederates buried here.”

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  11. On April 8th, 2014, a few days after my WWII Marine Corps Veteran’s Father-in-law’s Memorial
    Service in North Carolina. My wife’s brother and his wife (who have all ready visited Gettysburg
    National Park more than two times) brought us to Gettysburg to see this American Historic Site.
    With relatives in my wife’s Family who served in the Confederate Army and unconfirmed relatives
    at this point who may have served in the Union Army. Helps us with a personal sense of U.S. History which is truly meaningful for us as Americans of today. In War, it is not possible for significant losses not to occur. All of these Brave Heroes gave up and laid down their lives for
    what they believed in during the times in which they served the Union and Confederate Armies.
    The Hallowed ground of the Battle of Gettysburg is Sacred to the Memory of the United States of
    America. After coming away from our tour of this famous place it inspires us to say, “God Bless
    America!” And ‘God Bless All of the War Dead of the Battle of Gettysburg, those veterans who
    survived the Battle of Gettysburg, and the residents of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania who endured
    the entire experience of this campaign from start to finish.’ We are the grateful generations
    of Americans who follow and continue in America: and we thank you for your service.
    –Joe Dipaola, Gail Morgan Dipaola, Keith Morgan, Paulette Morgan and Family . 4/09/14

  12. POP says:

    The confederate soldiers deserve every bit of disrespect they get. FIGHTING A WAR AGAINST THEIR OWN COUNTRY? TREASON! The same country that just won their independence about 90 years prior. They did not want to be citizens of the USA anymore. Fine. Get buried in shallow unmarked graves like the traitors they were. Yes, they were Americans but they were willing to fight and kill for the chance NOT to be anymore.

    • Kathleen Brenner says:

      You mean the same way we all as original British citizens fought to have the right to NOT be a part of England anymore? You mean like that? Funny how that makes those Americans…Patriots but a Southerner is a “traitor”. I think you need to learn your history a bit better.

      • Scott McDaniel says:

        Kathleen: An act of “treason” over a 1% levy, at that. Still, not the whole picture. Kind of violating the common law was the key in the whole argument. People nowadays have no idea of the philosophy of English Common Law and the rights of man under that philosophy.

    • Scott McDaniel says:

      This is why we can’t have civil discourse about this. I could say the same thing about “war criminals” who intentionally burned the homes, foodstuffs and means of food production, committed theft and rapine of white and both free and unfree black Southerners to deprive civilians of the basic necessities of life in Billy Sherman’s army group and in the Shenandoah. Famine and disease knows no protected class. Then again, it was the same manner how the Indians were handled because it worked. I would recommend that we citizens of this republic learn from the vast deluge of blood that happens when people confuse “convictions” with “conceit.” If anything, those who paid for the arrogance of politicians with their lives would probably agree. It certainly wasn’t the script to “Star Wars.” A bit more complicated than that.

  13. Art says:

    By Pop’s logic we should try and convict the current president for treason as he is waging a war against America and all it stands for.

  14. Jack Kunkel says:

    The National Cemetery was on Union soil, built by the Union population, and intended from the beginning to be convenient place to bury Union soldiers. And it was done at a time with the South was killing Union soldiers so as to leave the Union. It’s not surprising that, under the circumstances, there was never the slightest intent to include Southerners in the National Cemetery, least of all by the thousands of grieving mothers, wives and children of Union dead.
    That’s about all she wrote! And it’s a little late at this point to be suggesting that we should bury Confederates there, since by now we’re pretty much out of Confederate bodies unless some suddenly turn up somewhere on the field.
    My understanding is that in the years after the war the various Southern states went to Gettysburg and tried to find and ship home the bodies of their fallen, but I’m sure it was a very haphazard process and almost undoubtedly there might still be bodies on the field. On the other hand, the burial of Confederates after the battle was also pretty haphazard, in shallow graves, and it’s likely that most of the bones have long ago been plowed up by farmers or dug up by animals or washed away by erosion.

    • Kathleen Brenner says:

      Nobody is suggesting that the Confederate dead be buried there NOW. It’s sad that few people know enough if the History to realize that only Union dead are buried in the cemetery. Also because of how and where the Confederate dead were buried there are thousands that were never shipped home. YES dug up and thrown about by animals, dug under by farmers, etc. Therefore the entire battlefield is Hollowed ground and is a burial place for our soldiers.

  15. Jack Kunkel says:

    By the way, it’s not just a few Boy Scouts who treat Gettysburg with disrespect – like a visit to Disneyland. I’d guess that’s true for a good percentage of all the visitors, young and old. At least the young have an excuse; they’re too young to understand the terrible things that happened there. But it’s also true for many of the adults, who mainly just want to be able to say “they visited Gettysburg,” on their way to Florida or wherever. But riding around the park or taking a bus tour and gawking at statues for half a day, before racing off to shop for fake antiques in town, or dine at the Longstreet Cafe, or take a ghost tour, or a horsey ride, by the time they leave they don’t really know any more about what happened at Gettysburg than when they arrived.

    • Kathleen Brenner says:

      Absolutely right Jack!! What was even more disturbing than the Boy Scouts behavior was the lack of correction from the leaders. They were just as clueless. I heard one boy of about 14 say “so is this part of Pearl Harbor?”. And NO adult answered him.

      • Art says:

        Jack, do some research. There are thousands of Southerners who’s bodies are still buried on the battlefield but not in the National Cemetery, in unmarked and unknown graves
        . Lincoln said the nation was INDIVISABLE. Using that premise the Confederate soldiers were still Americans. They fought and died bravely. Their sons and daughters are among the most patriotic Americans today. The South is just as much America as any other part of the country and in many ways, more so. After all these years we should come together as a nation. Maybe a separate but equal Confederate Cemetery would be a good idea at Gettysburg. After all there are monuments marking Confederate leaders and battle places. Why keep the war going?

  16. Jack Kunkel says:

    Art: “Thousands of Southerners buried in unmarked and unknown graves”? If they’re unmarked and unknown, how do you know there’s thousands of them? And how do we find them to rebury therm? Actually, there were only 3,900 Confederates killed outright in the battle, although there were many more who later died of wounds. A large percentage of that 3,900 dead were killed in Pickett’s Charge. The dead there and everywhere else, were generally stacked in rows and then buried one after another. Their burial location was pretty obvious. As far as I know, there were no “mass graves”, meaning that hundreds or thousands of bodies were thrown in a pit somewhere.
    I’m sure there are some unknown Confederate graves scattered around the battlefield, but not “thousands.” All of this leads back to my original premise: The original intent of the National Cemetery was to bury Union dead, not Confederate dead. And it’s great that by now we’ve healed our nation’s wounds and all, but by now there are no known Confederate bodies to bury in the National Cemetery. So what’s the problem?

  17. Art says:

    Jack
    There is only one problem. Some people can’t / won’t read. This is copied and pasted from the above material.
    Beginning in 1871, the first efforts to have Confederate remains removed to southern cemeteries was initiated by the Wake County Ladies Memorial Association in North Carolina. Similar associations in South Carolina and Georgia followed suit and Dr. Rufus Weaver was contracted to supervise the removal of the Confederate dead. This was a daunting task, given the forlorn condition of battlefield graves and the loss of grave markers, many of which had not been maintained or cared for by the farmers upon whose land the graves were located.

    Using a journal of identified Confederate burials compiled by Dr. J.W.C. O’Neal (a Virginia-born physician who resided in Gettysburg), as well as his extensive knowledge of the locations of individual sites and mass graves, Dr. Weaver was successful in returning the remains of 3,320 soldiers, the vast majority of which were sent to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Fewer numbers of Confederate remains were delivered to cemeteries in Raleigh, North Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, where they were interred in town cemeteries.

    On a side note, recent research has found that at least seven Confederate soldiers, through cases of mistaken identity, were buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where they remain to this day. Among them is Major Benjamin W. Leigh, the assistant adjutant general of General Edward Johnson’s Division. Shot down in the final moments of the fighting at Culp’s Hill, Leigh’s bravery and courage in his final moments was witnessed by numerous Union soldiers, who provided the officer a decent burial on the hill side, going to far as to mark his grave with his initials and unit, though mistaken during the exhumation process for a Union soldier.

    Then there is a final question. “Are there still bodies in the fields that have not been found?” The answer to this is almost certainly yes. Since the 1870’s and throughout much of the 1900’s remains have been uncovered. One noted historian stated that nearly 1,500 Confederate remains from the Gettysburg Campaign have been unaccounted for and there is a possibility that some are still buried at Gettysburg. The most recent discovery occurred in 1995 near the Railroad Cut, the scene of bitter fighting on July 1, 1863. The identity of this soldier and the army in which he served could not be readily identified during the archaeological excavation of the remains, but some battle experts believe he fought for the Confederacy and was most likely a Mississippi soldier.

    For further information on the Confederate dead at Gettysburg, we recommend the book Wasted Valor: The Confederate Dead at Gettysburg by Gregory A. Coco (Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, PA,1990) For further information on the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, refer to Lincoln and the Human Interest Stories of The Gettysburg National Cemetery by Jim Cole and Roy Frampton (Sheridan Press, Hanover, PA, 1995).

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  19. Will says:

    I have an ancestor that was left for dead on the battlefield and later died of pneumonia in a hospital at Chambersburg – Anyone have any suggestions for where I might begin to look for his gravesite? He was a confederate soldier from Georgia.

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