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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17 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

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