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.
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.
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