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


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19 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:


      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

    • Clive Howlett-Jones says:

      I’m afraid the Confederate soldiers were NOT American soldiers, dear. They were fighting for the Confederate States of America AGAINST the United States of America. They sought to destroy the Union of States. Robert E Lee, for example, was the military commander whose forces killed more American soldiers in combat than either Hitler or Hirohito. The enemies of the United States do not deserve to lie in our sacred ground, let alone be mentioned in the same breath.

      • John Eady Simmons Jr. says:

        Your comment is very offensive. You have no idea why the brave men of the Confederacy were fighting. All of the Confederates were in fact Americans. The united States of America as it was prior to 1861 no longer existed. The soldiers of what is called the Union were involved in a mercenary action against the people of the south led by Abraham Lincoln, No declaration of war was ever passed by the remaining members of the senate and house after the members from the south left never to return. After years of fighting, death, and suffering by the people on both sides, the war ended. This was in part because Robert E. Lee made the decision to stop fighting. There never was a peace treaty. The brave men of the Union who fought and died were misled by Lincoln into a war against their fellow Americans. My family was there at Gettysburg in the fight. They were Americans just as much as any brave soldier of the Union. My family lost two brothers in that fight.

      • Correct. Also, Lee stopped fitting because they were whipped. Pun intended. He was lucky he didn’t get hung for treason.

  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:

    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.

  5. Frank says:

    My question is what happened to all the rifles and pistols of the dead soldiers, both Confederate and Union when Lee retreated and the battle was over?

    • The Staff says:

      Weapons were gathered from the battlefield by details of soldiers immediately after the battle. Lt. John R. Edie, acting Chief Ordnance Officer of the Army of the Potomac, reported that 24,854 muskets and rifles were gleaned from the field, along with hundreds of sets of accoutrements, bayonets, and other items. These were then shipped to the Washington Arsenal for repair and cleaning before re-issue to the Army. Captured Confederate-made weapons were stored at the arsenal for later disposition. It’s not reported how many weapons were retrieved by ordnance officers of Lee’s command, but doubtless the discarded weapons in Confederate controlled areas were loaded into wagons and returned to Virginia for repair and cleaning.

  6. John Eady Simmons Jr. says:

    I appreciate all information I have seen here. I have a relative that must be among those buried there. He was a Lt. in the 47th Alabama that was involved in the assault of Little Round Top. His name was Henry D. Simmons. He was older brother to my Great-great-grandfather,TIllman S. Simmons and eldest son of my Great-Great-Great grandfather, John W. Simmons who were both also Confederate veterans. Henry and his brother Allen were in the same Company B. Henry was killed and Allen was captured and died at Ft. Delaware. I am sure that the lost to my family as with many countless other families in the North and the South was almost unbearable. I know where Allen was buried but have never been able to determine the resting place for Henry. He cries out through the veil of time to all generations of the family to return his remains to his native soil. If there was a way to do that for him I would do it. I visited the battlefield at Gettysburg in 2009. I stood on Little Round Top and looked down at the area below and in my mind could see all of those valiant sons of the South attempting to do what to them seemed impossible but with extreme bravery and fortitude gave their last full measure of devotion for their families back home and their comrades in arms. To you all that rest there I salute you.

    • John Eady Simmons Jr. says:

      In an update to my previous comments I believe that I am closer to learning where Henry D. Simmons was buried. I now through the assistance of the Alabama Division SCV Genealogist have an idea where he might have been buried. I now know better of the circumstances of his death. He was a Lt. in the 47th Alabama part of Law’s Brigade and was in the assault of Little Round Top. It was reported that Lt. Simmons was shot by a sharp shooter, The sharp shooter was most likely part of Berdan’s Sharp Shooters, From the book, “Wasted Valor The Confederate Dead at Gettysburg” by Gregory Coco, the Confederate dead from the engagements at the Round Tops and Devil’s Den were buried on the George Rose farm.

  7. Steve Cantway ( Grandmother was Naomi Maude DeSaussure says:

    My Great, Great Uncle , Col. William Davie DeSaussure …. Commander of the 15th S. Carolina was killed on day 2 near the Rose house and Peach Orchard.
    I have been told that he was buried there near the Black Horse Tavern. Do you know any information on this? He is now buried at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia SC.

    • The Staff says:

      Colonel DeSaussure was shot in the chest on July 2, 1863, on the George Rose Farm, “some paces in front of the line with sword drawn”. The 15th SC had just passed through one of Rose’s orchards and having cleared the adjacent meadow was entering the woods bordering the east side of the meadow when a fusillade of Federal small arms fire struck the regiment. Dozens fell, the colonel among them. The mortally wounded colonel was transported by ambulance to a CS field hospital established on the Francis Bream farm and mill on Marsh Creek, west of Gettysburg, where he died as a result of his injury that evening. DeSaussure was buried in a carefully marked grave at the farm, located just south of Black Horse Tavern. His remains were retrieved in 1871 for shipment to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, from which they were transferred to the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia.

  8. Barry Glen Martin says:

    Hi I was wondering if there were any other stories or facts out there about what happened to Wesley Culps body? Since someone wrote a comment on here about the Confederate soldiers not being Americans. He was from Gettysburg and moved South to work. So he felt compelled to fight for the South . These guys all were Americans and fought hard for what they believed in. That was their right. If anyone has any idea or knows what exactly happened to Wesley Culp I would love to here it.

  9. PHDedmon says:

    Hello, I was able to find an entry in Busey and Busey’s book, “Confederated Casualties at Gettysburg” for an ancestor. It stated that “his effects were given to his mother.” What would that imply with regard to the final disposition of his body? His name was Henry Clay and his mother back in Cleveland County, NC was Mary Huver Clay Neal. Thank you.

  10. Carolyn Ferrell says:

    William “Willie” McCulloch, 14th TN Infantry, died at Gettysburg and his body was placed in a pickle barrel by his comrades and sent home to Clarksville, TN. Any details on this would be appreciated.
    Carolyn Stier Ferrell

  11. Pingback: The Bloodiest Battle on American Soil: The Human Cost at Gettysburg | Padre Steve's World: Official Home of the Anti-Chaps

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