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. *

[* UPDATE June 27, 2016: Our friends at Richmond National Battlefield Park recently came across an 1866 Richmond newspaper article describing the funeral arrangements for Major Benjamin W. Leigh in Richmond. His remains were disinterred in the national cemetery, properly identified, and sent with proper ceremony to Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond. The initial decision to move the Confederate officer’s remains from his field grave to the national cemetery- marked on the burial roll as “B.W. Laigh”- remains a mystery.]

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

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
This entry was posted in Burials, Civilians, Soldiers' National Cemetery. Bookmark the permalink.

6 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

  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. Ron says:

    Yes the body found at the rail road cut is more likely to be confederate cos his button say so

    • The Staff says:

      In the process of the 1996 archaeological recovery of remains discovered at the rail road cut, there was no physical evidence to identify the soldier’s remains to either the Union or Confederate army. The only button found with the remains was a glass shirt button, common to individuals in both armies who preferred civilian shirts over military issue shirts.

  4. Brian Heise says:

    here is the map of the confederate graves. notice a large amount at pickets charge area.
    https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3824g.cw0332000/

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