Share This Article

In the war’s aftermath, an unprecedented campaign was launched to locate and reinter the bodies of soldiers buried on battlefields.

Only a little more than three months had passed since Appomattox when Horace Bushnell addressed the annual reunion of Yale alumni in July 1865. His oration, “Our Obligations to the Dead,” sought to define the war’s meaning as inseparable from its human cost. In effect, he submitted to the reunited nation a bill on behalf of those who had paid the ultimate price during four years of conflict. Bushnell called Americans to account, demanding that the hundreds of thousands of lives lost be rendered purposeful, worth their expense of blood and suffering.

Bushnell’s remarks appealed to a widespread desire to translate commemoration into concrete action and to address what were seen as the enduring needs of the slain. Many soldiers lay unburied on battlefields across the South; still more had been hastily interred where they fell. Hundreds of thousands remained unidentified, their losses unaccounted for. The end of combat offered an opportunity to attend to the dead in ways war had made impossible. Information could now flow freely across North and South; military officials would have time to augment and scrutinize incomplete casualty records; bodies scattered across the defeated Confederacy could be located and identified; the fallen could be honored without encroaching on the immediate and pressing needs of the living.

Clara Barton eagerly embraced the new possibilities. Her care for wounded soldiers had always included supplying information to families about the men she treated at the front, and the end of hostilities seemed to bring only an increase in the numbers of letters she received in search of lost husbands and sons. Barton became determined to develop a way to relieve what she described as the “intense anxiety…amounting in many in – stances almost to insanity” of these petitioners.

In the spring of 1865, she founded the Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army to serve as an information clearinghouse, turning directly to the soldiers themselves for information about their slain or surviving friends. She would publish the names submitted by those in search of kin in hopes of soliciting news about them. Within days of her announcement Barton had received several hundred letters. By mid-June she had published the names of 20,000 men; by the time she finally closed the office in 1868, she reported that it had received and answered 68,182 letters and had secured information about 22,000 missing soldiers.

For the military, war’s end per- mitted the systematic assessment of losses. In July 1865, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs ordered every Union commander to submit a report of “all interments registered during the war.” These records became the basis for the Roll of Honor, lists of names and burial places of “soldiers who died in defence of the American Union” that Meigs would print in 27 installments, constituting eight bound volumes, as officers executed his order over the course of the next six years. But wartime records listed only 101,736 registered burials, fewer than a third of the estimated total of Union fatalities. Thousands of Northern soldiers lay in undocumented locations.

Official policy toward the dead evolved slowly over the next several years, but immediate action seemed imperative, as a matter of both decency and expediency. The longer bodies were left without proper burial, the more vulnerable they became to depredation and the less likely they were to be identifiable. In June 1865, Captain James Moore was ordered to the Wilderness and Spotsylvania “for the purpose of superintending the interments of the remains of Union soldiers yet unburied and marking their burial-places for future identification.” Moore found hundreds of unmarked graves, as well as skeletons that had been left for more than two years without the dignity of burial. “By exposure to the weather,” he reported, “all traces of their identity were entirely obliterated.” Summer heat and “the unpleasant odor from decayed matter” prevented him from removing all bodies to a central location, but he made sure all were carefully interred, with remains appropriately “hidden from view.” On these two fields he estimated that he oversaw the burial of 1,500 men, although the scattering of so many bones made an exact count impossible.

In late June 1865, former Andersonville prisoner Dorence Atwater contacted Barton, offering to help identify men on her published lists. A Connecticut soldier confined at the notorious camp for almost its entire existence, Atwater had been assigned to maintain a record of the dead— and had kept a hidden copy for himself. Andersonville had held 45,000 Union soldiers between its opening in February 1864 and the end of the war. The death rate from disease and violence reached nearly 30 percent. Atwater’s enumeration corresponded with numbered graves, offering the possibility of identifying a great many dead. When he learned of the existence of the list, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized an expedition to Andersonville under Captain Moore’s command and invited Clara Barton to participate.

The summer heat was almost unbearable, and a number of laborers became ill, including a “letterer” assigned to paint headboards, who died of typhoid—the “last martyr of Andersonville,” Barton noted in her diary. The expedition nevertheless documented 13,363 bodies and identified 12,912. All were reinterred in marked graves, and on August 17 their resting place was dedicated as the Andersonville National Cemetery.

In the Western theater similar efforts were underway. On June 23, 1865, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, commander of the Department of the Cumberland, had ordered Chaplain William Earnshaw to identify and reinter soldiers scattered around Murfreesboro, Tenn., in the Stones River National Cemetery, established in 1864. Earnshaw undertook a wider, more systematic search, with the purpose of transferring Union bodies to an already existing national cemetery.

Only gradually in the years following South- ern surrender did a general sense of obligation toward the dead yield firm policy. Widespread and continuing public discussion about the dead gradually articulated a set of principles that influenced military and legislative policy. The experience of federal officials assigned, like James Moore, to begin the interment and identification of the slain shaped attitudes as well, as the actual conditions of wartime graves and burials became known.

In October 1865, Montgomery Meigs called upon officers to provide a survey of cemeteries containing Union soldiers. He requested details about the location and condition of graveyards, the state of relevant records, and officers’ recommendations for the protection and preservation of remains. He asked specifically for an evaluation of the appropriateness of each site and a judgment as to whether bodies should be left in place or removed to a “permanent cemetery near.” Moore in the East and Earnshaw in the West resumed their efforts under these new guidelines, and on December 26 Edmund B. Whitman, chief quartermaster of the Military Division of the Tennessee, was assigned “to locate the scattered graves of Union soldiers” across a wide area of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.

Like Barton, Whitman sought surviving witnesses who had the information necessary to enable him to locate and identify the dead. He composed a circular titled “Important Information Wanted,” and forwarded it to 300 newspapers and periodicals. It provoked an outpouring of responses. Relatives begged Whitman to find the remains of lost kin; other correspondents furnished “drawings and descriptions” indicating the exact spot where a friend or comrade had been buried. Often, Whitman reported, these proved “so minute and accurate in the details, that any person could proceed with unerring certainty to the very grave.” A letter from A.T. Blackmun, for example, explained that his brother had been buried in a cemetery five miles east of Vicksburg, in an orchard near the railroad: “The grave is under & to the South side of the fourth apple tree, in the third row of trees, counting from the side nearest Vicksburg.”

Whitman’s circular served as Gabriel’s trumpet, summoning the names and memories of the dead, raising them from neglect and anonymity, and ultimately returning hundreds of thousands of them to the nation. Whitman’s trumpet also uncovered an army of record keepers, waiting to be asked for the details they had carefully gathered and preserved.

On March 1, 1866, Whitman left Nashville on his mission, heading first to the site of the battle at Fort Donelson with a party of 10 clerks and soldiers, as well as a cook and a mule handler. The “entire country over which the war has extended its ravages,” he soon recognized, “composes one vast charnel house of the dead.” Whitman approached his work with the system and organization that marked him as an experienced quartermaster. In each locality he first visited battlefields, then the sites of former military hospitals, then private cemeteries.

In February 1866, General Thomas issued a general order forbidding desecration of Union graves and directing specifically that they must not be mutilated or obliterated in the course of the spring plowing season, which was about to begin for the first time since the end of the war. By April concerns about vandalism had reached Washington, and Congress passed a joint resolution requiring the secretary of war “to take immediate measures to preserve from desecration the graves of the soldiers of the United States who fell in battle or died of disease…and secure suitable burial places in which they may be properly interred.”

Whitman was to locate graves, mark and protect isolated burial spots, and “form some plans” about graves that should be moved and about sites to which they might be relocated. Whitman’s superiors insisted that bodies that had been decently interred should be left where they lay except when “a savage and vindictive spirit of the part of the disloyal inhabitants” suggested “a disposition to molest the remains.” Increasingly, Whitman was coming to regard such vengefulness as less the exception than the rule.

In the year since Appomattox the defeated white South had moved from stunned disbelief to a posture of growing defiance. In the summer of 1865, Southern legislatures passed restrictive and discriminatory Black Codes, designed to reestablish slavery in all but name; in the fall the recently rebellious states elected former Confederate military officers and politicians to represent them in Washington. Throughout the South white Southerners perpetrated and tolerated relentless violence against freed-people.

A particularly virulent outbreak of white violence in fact served as a direct cause of intensified congressional interest in Union graves. During the first four days of May 1866, Memphis erupted in what were generally designated as riots, although the death toll of 46 blacks and two whites suggests that those who wrote of a “massacre” were more accurate.

Congress promptly dispatched a committee of three members of the House of Representatives to investigate causes of the disturbance. Ultimately the legislators made re – commendations about controlling white defiance that played a significant role in the movement toward Radical Reconstruction. But the assistant quartermaster of the Division of the Tennessee, George Marshall, seized the opportunity provided by the congressmen’s presence in Memphis to impress upon them the importance of the effort to bury the Union dead and the danger in which many soldiers’ bodies lay. Whitman believed that this meeting led directly to the National Cemeteries Act that passed, along with a fifteenfold increase in appropriation, in the next Congress. But even before the bill became law, it was clear that the reinterment effort would assume a new and enhanced scope and importance.

As spring unfolded, Whitman proceeded through the battlefields of Tennessee. He encountered human bones scattered in “large quantities,” and he learned from nearby inhabitants that their hogs, customarily left free to forage, were no longer fit to be eaten “on account of their living off the dead.” A list of 315 gravesites that had been compiled by a U.S. Sanitary Commission agent just after the fighting proved of critical assistance, and Whitman’s party recorded and marked by compass points 178 different areas containing graves, including 21 burial trenches that held, he estimated, 250 bodies. Keeping in mind the idea of siting national cemeteries at points of great historical interest, Whitman selected a potential spot on the Shiloh battlefield.

Locating the many graves scattered beyond actual battlefields required Whitman to seek information from local citizens. When he arrived in Oxford, Miss., and called upon the town postmaster, Whitman received a warning. The postmaster declared that he would not dare tell a Yankee soldier about Union graves even if he knew of them. “I am informed,” Whitman wrote his commanding officer, “that a disposition has been shown in this vicinity to obliterate and destroy all traces of the graves union soldiers find scattered in the country.”

Farther south the Union dead seemed to be in even more distressing circumstances. Whitman discovered “immense numbers” of bodies in the area between Vicksburg and Natchez—perhaps, he thought, as many as 40,000. As Whitman pursued his explorations, 300 black soldiers at the Stones River National Cemetery continued to collect and rebury Union bodies from the wide surrounding area at the rate of 50 to 100 a day. Stones River represented a pioneering example of the comprehensive reburial effort that had come to be seen as necessary by the summer of 1866.

At the end of June Whitman proposed sites for national cemeteries at Fort Donelson, Pittsburg Landing, Corinth, Memphis and Vicksburg and presented his views about the future to the chief quartermaster of the Military Division of the Tennessee. He urged that in spite of the concerns his superiors had expressed about scope and cost, “the work be well and thoroughly done, with a true conception of its magnitude and significance.”

By the middle of 1866, a chorus of voices in the North had begun to advocate policies toward the fallen that reflected fundamental assumptions about the principles for which the war had been fought. With the passage of conscription legislation in 1863, the nation had, for the first time in its history, mandated the obligation of the citizen to fight in its defense; it had mobilized millions; now it had an obligation to those who had served.

In August 1866, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an article calling for a comprehensive system of national cemeteries to include all Union dead. Author James F. Russling defined treatment of the fallen as the sign and test of democracy, as well as the indicator of progress and modernity. Urging that the bodies of all Union soldiers should be disinterred and “brought speedily together into great national cemeteries,” Russling emphasized the mutuality of obligation between citizen and state.

Russling’s prescriptions soon became settled policy. Even before Congress passed formal legislation in February 1867, the effort to bury every Union soldier within the safe confines of a national cemetery began. During the summer of 1866, Whitman made plans for “commencement of the general work of disinterment” in the cooler weather of fall. He was acutely aware of both the dangers and the opportunities in relocating so many bodies. Moving a grave could mean losing an identity tied to a place or circumstance of burial; it might also provide a final chance to discover a name.

In early September Whitman set forth once more. By the end of his journey, he estimated he had traveled 30,000 miles in his search for the dead. With a “bill to establish and protect national cemeteries,” passed by Congress in February 1867, and the creation of 17 additional cemeteries in the course of that year, the federal government legally signaled its acceptance of responsibility for those who had died in its service. The locating and recording of graves that Whitman had undertaken in his 1866 expedition would be transformed into a comprehensive program of reburial, combined with acquisition of land for a system of government cemeteries.

Across the Military Division of the Tennessee, Whitman reaped what he described as a “Harvest of Death,” reporting that by 1869 he had gathered 114,560 soldiers into 20 national cemeteries within his assigned territory. Each body was placed in a separate coffin, its original burial site recorded and its final destination documented by cemetery section and grave number. Reinterments cost an average of $9.75 a body, with $2 to $3 of this for the coffin. Ultimately each reburied soldier would also be marked by a name—if it was in fact known—for in 1872 Congress at last yielded to Montgomery Meigs’ insistence upon such commemoration. In December 1868, Meigs had written to the secretary of war in terms that suggested the growing importance of public opinion—the sentiment of the “friends” of the fallen—in shaping governmental policy toward the dead.

“I do not believe,” Meigs declared, “that those who visit the graves of their relatives would have any satisfaction in finding them ticketed and numbered like London policemen, or convicts. Every civilized man desires to have his friend’s name marked on his monument.”

As Whitman supervised the removal of tens of thousands of bodies to national cemeteries in the Division of the Tennessee, the work begun in 1865 by Moore and Earnshaw continued in other parts of the South. Charged with responsibility for burials in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., Moore collected more than 50,000 bodies into national cemeteries.

When the reinterment program was completed in 1871, 303,536 Union soldiers had been buried in 74 national cemeteries, and the War Department had expended $4,000,306.26 on the effort to gather the dead. Quartermaster General Meigs reported that 54 percent of the men had been identified as a result of careful attention to the bodies and their original graves, as well as extensive research in military hospital records, muster rolls, casualty reports and documentation gathered by the Sanitary Commission.

The reburial program represented an extraordinary departure for the federal government. “Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment,” Whitman observed, “the world has never witnessed.” But this transformative undertaking included only Union soldiers. The absence of official concern for the Confederate dead stood in stark contrast, even in the eyes of some Northerners. John Trowbridge, a New Englander writing for the Atlantic Monthly, traveled through Virginia battlefields in 1865 soon after Moore had completed the initial phase of his work. Accompanied by a local resident, Trowbridge stumbled upon the unburied remains of two soldiers at the Wilderness. He was “appalled” because he had heard— and had hoped—that the work of reinterment “was faithfully done.” His Virginia guide examined the uniform buttons fallen from the clothing of the rotted corpses and informed Trowbridge, “They was No’th Carolinians; that’s why they didn’t bury ’em.” Trowbridge was still more horrified to learn that the bodies had been left to rot as a matter of policy rather than simple negligence.

Trowbridge’s sense that federal burial efforts should include the Confederate dead placed him in a minority, especially as Congress and the North assumed an increasingly radical position in regard to Reconstruction. In early 1868, The New York Times documented a dispute among three Northern politicians on the question of the Rebel dead. Governor Reuben Fenton of New York had counseled humanity in the treatment of slain Confederates and in vain urged their inclusion in the Antietam Cemetery, dedicated in 1867, and in the national reburial program more generally. But Governor John White Geary of Pennsylvania, who had fought for the Union and whose soldier son had died in his arms, and Pennsylvania’s Radical Republican congressman John Covode, who lost two sons in the war, embraced no such generosity, insisting on the “personal guilt of the individual soldiers of the rebel army.” Most veterans were more forgiving of their former enemies, but they had just waged a long and destructive struggle against these rebellious Southerners; it seemed unimaginable that those who had tried to destroy the Union should be accorded the same respect as those who had saved it.

This differential treatment of the dead had powerful, and seemingly unanticipated, effects. Southern civilians, largely women, mobilized private means to accomplish what federal resources would not. Their efforts to claim and honor the Confederate dead—and the organizations they spawned—became a means of keeping sectionalist identity and energy not just alive but strong.

It did not pass unnoticed in the South that during the five years that followed Appomattox, more than $4 million of public funds would be expended exclusively on dead Northerners. The April 1866 joint congressional resolution proposing the national cemetery system provoked an outraged response from white Virginians. Northerners were wrong, the Richmond Examiner proclaimed, to think that the Confederate was “less a hero because he failed.” Calling upon Richmond’s women to assume responsibility for Virginia’s fallen, the paper underscored the irony of defining Southerners as outside a nation with which they had been forcibly reunited. If the Confederate soldier “does not fall into the category of the ‘Nation’s Dead’ he is ours—and shame be to us if we do not care for his ashes.”

On May 3, 1866, a group of Richmond women responding to the Examiner’s call gathered to found the Hollywood Memorial Association of the Ladies of Richmond. As Mrs. William McFarland, newly installed association president, acknowledged, the former Confederate capital was “begirt with an army of Confederate dead.” Thousands of men lay in neglected graves in Hollywood Cemetery or in Oakwood, its counterpart on the eastern edge of the city.

The association began repair of the 11,000 soldiers’ graves dug at Hollywood during the war. Nearly all needed remounding and returfing, and few had adequate markers. The ladies worried too about the bodies scattered through the countryside. With the help of farmers from battle sites on the outskirts of the city, the association arranged for the transfer of hundreds of bodies to new graves in the Richmond cemetery during the summer and fall of 1866. Across town the Ladies Memorial Association for the Confederate Dead of Oakwood determined to mark and turf the 16,000 graves in its care.

The ladies of Richmond supported their efforts through private donations, through contributions from the legislatures of other former Confederate states whose soldiers lay on Virginia soil, and through fund-raising activities that involved the broader community in the care of the dead. In the spring of 1867 the Hollywood Association sponsored a two-week-long bazaar that included the sale of such items as inkstands carved from the bones of horses killed in the war and the raffling of “Stonewall” Jackson’s coat buttons.

Caring for the Confederate dead became a grassroots undertaking that mobilized Southerners in ways that extended well beyond the immediate purposes of bereavement and commemoration. To respectfully bury one’s neighbors and kin was a personal and private act; to honor those who had risen up in rebellion against the national government was unavoidably public and political. Honoring the slain offered women a claim to prominence and power in the postwar South.

In the early 1870s the attention of a number of Southern memorial associations turned to the thousands of Confederate soldiers who still lay neglected on Northern soil. A sizable number of Southern dead were scattered in unprotected and unmarked locations throughout the Pennsylvania countryside. Several Southern legislatures offered funds for moving bodies to the South, and memorial associations urged prompt action.

At Gettysburg Samuel Weaver, who had supervised reinterments at the national cemetery, had come into possession of lists of Confederate burials compiled both by soldiers and by local residents. Although Samuel died in 1871, his son Rufus, a young physician beginning a medical career, was persuaded to respond to the entreaties of the ladies associations for aid.

During the spring and summer of 1871, Rufus Weaver disinterred and shipped 137 Confederates to Raleigh, 101 to Savannah and 74 to Charles – ton. In the fall the Hollywood Memorial Association contacted Weaver, first about the Virginia dead, then with a request that all remaining Confederates be sent to Richmond. By the end of 1873 he had sent 2,935 Confederates to the Hollywood Association.

The goal of returning every Southern soldier to the South was never realized. But the ladies memorial associations led a voluntary, improvisational, de – centralized effort that overcame extraordinary obstacles to bring tens of thousands of soldiers into cemeteries where they could be recognized for their valor and sacrifice.

Some historians have argued that memorial activities in the immediate postwar South did not possess the explicitly partisan intentions of later commemorations, those that occurred after the founding of the United Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy in the last decade of the 19th century. Tied to that era’s virulent politics of Jim Crow, disfranchisement and states’ rights, Confederate memory became in the 1890s a force that effectively undermined the emancipationist, nationalist and egalitarian meaning of the war. But the earlier activities of the ladies memorial associations were themselves explicitly sectional, intended to proclaim continuing devotion to the Confederacy, as well as to individual husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

Gathered together in mass cemeteries with graves marshaled in ranks like soldiers on the field of battle, the dead became a living reality, a force in their very presence and visibility. They were also, paradoxically, a force in their anonymity. The postwar burial movements in both North and South made it possible for many bereaved families to identify kin and to visit or ornament graves. These reunions of the living with their dead were, of course, about ending anonymity, restoring names, and marking them on stones and monuments for posterity. But the lack of individuality of the Civil War dead had its powerful significance as well.

Civil War cemeteries—both national and Confederate—were unlike any graveyards that Americans had ever seen. These were not clusters of family tombstones in churchyards. Instead the Civil War cemetery contained ordered row after row of humble identical markers, hundreds of thousands of men, known and unknown, who represented not so much the sorrow or particularity of a lost loved one as the enormous and all but unfathomable cost of the war.


Excerpted from THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust. Copyright © 2008 by Drew Gilpin Faust. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. Turn to “Resources” on P. 71 for additional reading.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here