Those Lost then Found at Culp’s Hill

In the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg, thousands of dead Union and Confederate soldiers covered the fields and hills surrounding this small Pennsylvania town. Workmen, soldiers, and townspeople sweated through the July heat to bury the dead, often in shallow trench or mass graves. These hasty, improper burials were more for the necessity of the living than the respect for the dead. By the end of July, however, an idea was proposed that would not only aid the fight against the spread of illness and disease from the dead and the poor burials, but also provide a more honorable burial for those Union soldiers that had “given their last full measure of devotion.”  From late October 1863 through March 1864, over 3,500 Union soldiers were disinterred from the battlefield and reburied in the newly established Soldiers’ National Cemetery atop Cemetery Hill.

The process of removing the dead and working to identify them now months removed from their initial burial was supervised by Samuel Weaver. As work progressed on the Soldiers’ National Cemetery for Union soldiers, Confederate remains were left on the battlefield for nearly another decade. Between 1871 and 1873, Rufus Weaver oversaw the disinterment of over 3,300 Confederate soldiers to cemeteries in the south, most to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Although his father, Samuel, had reburied Confederates upon the battlefield when they had been found during the creation of the National Cemetery, his records, when combined with those of Dr. John W.C. O’Neal, meant that many Confederates burials could still be located. The Hollywood Cemetery Memorial Association paid only a pittance of a few hundred dollars to Weaver, who was owed over $6,500 in labor and shipping fees. Ultimately, thousands of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, had been removed from the battlefield and reburied in cemeteries. Although the work of individuals such as the Weavers was carried out meticulously, there was no way for them to possibly find and remove every single soldier’s remains. This was especially true in the wooded terrain of Culp’s Hill.

LOC-32838v

Culp’s Hill, the anchor of the Federal right flank at Gettysburg, photographed a few weeks after the battle. (Library of Congress)

As late as 1899, large burial trenches were being found around Culp’s Hill and Spangler’s Spring as work to make the park more accessible continued. On September 19, 1899, the Gettysburg Compiler recorded “When digging a drain in the meadow near Spangler’s Spring last Thursday, battlefield workmen unearthed the bones of a Union soldier, about two feet below the surface of the ground. There were found also a U.S. plate (on account of which the body is supposed to have been that of a Union soldier), a knapsack, a cartridge belt and other articles.” Having been found near the meadow, it is possible that this soldier had served with the 2nd Massachusetts or 27th Indiana and been killed in their futile assault on the morning of July 3, 1863. Just a few days later, on September 23rd, a mass grave was discovered nearby. While widening and finishing the road now known as Geary Avenue near Spangler’s Spring, employees of the Farrell Brothers’ company unearthed the remains of seventeen Union soldiers. Somehow, they had been missed by the workmen carrying out re-internment of the Federal dead to the National Cemetery in 1863 and 1864.

ElliotMap Culp's Hill

Burial trenches at Culp’s Hill from the S.G. Elliott Map of the Gettysburg Battlefield,  published in 1864.  (Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/item/99447500/)

The Gettysburg Compiler reported “it is likely that, after the bones are put together by an expert surgeon, they will finally rest in the National Cemetery.” Unfortunately, the Compiler was only partially correct. Calvin Hamilton, the Superintendent of the National Cemetery, wrote to the Quartermaster Department in Washington recording that “The remains were put into two boxes by the U.S. Battlefield Commission, whose workmen found them, and brought to this cemetery for reinterment.” However, he noted “As the remains were put indiscriminately into the boxes… it is now impossible [to] preserve the identity of any single body,” and recommended that they be buried within one grave rather than individually. Having been laid to rest together for 36 years and gathered by workmen into two boxes, it was no longer possible to separate the men.

As news spread of the discovery of the mass grave on Culp’s Hill, various veterans wrote to park officials and the local newspaper claiming to know the identities of the men who had been found. David Monat of the 29th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry wrote to Col. John P. Nicholson of the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission:

Seeing an article in the press of yesterday in reference to the finding of the dead bodies on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg & which was supposed to be Union dead, I write and send a crude diagram…of my recollection of the place where we buried two separate lots of the Confederate dead on the morning of July 4. We also covered these bodies with our old blankets…. I do not know how the road runs where the bodies were found, but if it is any where near the spot I have designated, the other lot of bodies should be near by. There was one officer and 16 or 17 men in one lot and 13 men in the other.

Monat Map-Coco Collection 001

David Monat’s drawing of the location of burial trenches at Culp’s Hill. (Gregory Coco Collection, GNMP)

Monat’s sketch map placed the trench of men he helped bury near the intersection of Geary and Slocum Avenues, near the first monument for the 29th Pennsylvania. However, since these trenches were fairly obvious on the terrain and in a fairly clear location, it is likely that these dead had been removed to the South in the 1870s.

Additionally, Capt. Joseph Moore of the 147th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry shared his theory as to the identity of these men.  In a letter published in the Compiler, he wrote:

On our return up the hill, after crossing our breastworks on the crest, at a point near where the monument of the 28th P.V. stands, (back on level ground), probably 50 yards from our line of breastworks, I saw a deep ditch or long excavated series of graves dug, and a number of dead union soldiers laying ready for interment. They were covered with gray blankets. The ditch was about 50 feet long, and I think there were fully 17 dead bodies in the row. It occurred to me after reading this item, that these may be the same union soldiers, but it would be difficult to tell from which commands they were.

Moore placed this burial trench near the 28th Pennsylvania monument which is further north on Culp’s Hill. However, if he meant the specific breastworks of his regiment, the 147th Pennsylvania, when he wrote “our breastworks,” he may be describing a Union burial trench also near the 29th Pennsylvania monument. Although this conclusion is conjecture, this better fits the narrative of the first section of his letter, where he described collecting Confederate wounded and then heading back up the slope near that location. Unfortunately, the records of the Farrell Brothers finding the trench are not specific enough to note exactly where the soldiers had been found, meaning it is impossible to know for certain if the discovered trench was one described by Monat or Moore, or yet another one entirely. Although Monat had believed the grave to be that of Confederates, Calvin Hamilton had written that “The U.S. Plates, buttons, shoes, & etc. [found with the bodies] indicates beyond reasonable doubt that they were union soldiers.” It appears that the relics found with the bodies were abundant and uniform enough that Cemetery staff were confident in their identification as Union men. The abundance of Federal issue relics was also reported in the Compiler.

By the end of the September 1899, approval for proposed re-interment by the cemetery superintendent was received. These remains, buried in two boxes side by side, were then placed in the National Cemetery on September 30, under a headstone reading “19 Unknown Union Soldiers.” The number of bodies removed from the mass grave, however, varied from seventeen to eighteen depending on the source. Additionally, the Compiler article on the burial stated that a body found by workmen on Washington Street was added to the grave. Adding the additional soldier found during the drain construction near Spangler’s Meadow that may have also been buried in the same grave brings the total count of remains to nineteen.

These were not the final remains to be found in this area. In the early 1900’s, Samuel Robinson, a workman, found remains while working on the roads near Spangler’s Spring. He reported having found a portion of a skull, arm bone, and one leg with a U.S. belt plate, belt leather, parts of a cap box, loose percussion caps, and leather from a scabbard.

Robinson’s discovery was not the last. The most recent remains to be found on the battlefield was in March, 1996 in the famous Railroad Cut. But even after all these discoveries in the 156 years since the battle, there are doubtlessly more remains that still lie in the fields around Gettysburg. Although we cannot be sure how many soldiers still rest upon the battlefield today, they are a permanent reminder of the true cost of this battle and the American Civil War. This landscape will  remain, now and forever, hallowed.

-Jonathan Tracey
Seasonal Ranger, Gettysburg National Military Park

 

 

 

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This entry was posted in Aftermath, Battlefield Legends and Lore, Burials, Culp's HIll and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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