This headboard has just gone on permanent display at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center in a new exhibit, “A Family Shattered,” which tells the story of a single family whose patriarch, John Patterson, was killed at the Wilderness. His death in turn led to a disastrous thread of events for his family back home. The point of the exhibit is to show how what happened on our fields reverberated across the American landscape. The headboard shown here marked Patterson’s grave on the Wilderness Battlefield before his body was returned to his hometown cemetery after the war. The board was put up by burial crews in 1865, undoubtedly replacing a cruder headboard that had marked his burial place since his death in May 1864.
Here’s an image of what some of the marked graves at the Wilderness looked like before the burial parties arrived in 1865 and installed new headboards. This view is on the Carpenter Farm, probably not far from where Patterson was originally buried.
The Patterson headboard is the only surviving example of the mass-produced, hand-painted grave markers that stood over Union graves prior to the creation of the National Cemetery in 1866 and 1867. In my view, it is one of the most compelling artifacts we have. We are grateful to Patterson’s descendant, Bill Phillis of Michigan, for making it available for display. If you can get to Chancellorsville VC, take a look.
Take a look too at this image of Wilderness Military Cemetery #2 (below). While Patterson was buried elsewhere, you can see instantly that the headboards in this view are virtually identical to the Patterson marker (click to enlarge).
Which brings me to our point today: Not only does the headboard offer an entrypoint into telling a vivid personal story, it is also a link to a largely forgotten aspect of the park’s history: the postwar burials. Donald Pfanz of our staff has done immense and impressive work on the creation of the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg–indeed, his unpublished MS, which we intend to publish as part of our new publication series, is one of the most thorough studies ever done of the creation of any national cemetery. An essential (and I must say fascinating) part of his work is his examination of post-battle and post-war burials, and their ultimate relocation to the National Cemetery. The disposition of the dead presented an immense challenge not just to the Federal government, but to the community as well. Haphazard burials and steady degradation caused by the passage of time and weather caused outrage in the North; persistent fears that Southerners would dishonor or disturb the Union dead spurred calls for the creation of the National Cemetery.
The Patterson headboard is a tangible reminder of this period of confusion, fear, and bitterness. Another reminder lies in the woods south of the Orange Plank Road, rows and rows of depressions mark all that remaines of Military Cemetery #2. The cemetery was created to bury the remains of Union soldiers who were found unburied in by burial crews in 1865(those whose graves were already marked, like Pattersons, were left in place, the marker replaced with one of the new headboards). I counted 56 depressions on the site of the cemetery today; sharper eyes may spot more. The number makes sense. There were somewhere over 500 burials here, all but five of them unknown. The unknowns were buried ten to a coffin. This cemetery existed for about a year, when the graves were disinterred and reburied in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Today, only the depressions remain.
One of our readers recently queried about the prospects for investigative archeology on the slave cabins at Ellwood. I responded that that sort of “archeology by choice” is expensive and uncommon within the NPS. But, one site we DO have some funding to investigate is Military Cemetery #2 at the Wilderness. We desperately need it. We’ll not be rushing in to dig the place up. But we will use remote sensing to define the extent of the cemetery and try to determine if any remains were overlooked in 1866. In other words, we need to understand the place far better than we do. Once we do, we can make a plan to, perhaps, mark and interpret the site to the public on a wide scale. As it is, we interpret the site somewhat obtusely–though on special occasions we do bring special groups there. Indeed, as part of our History at Sunset series this summer, Greg Mertz and Frank O’Reilly will be doing a walk on the ground south of the Orange Plank Road on July 16. Military Cemetery #2 is on the itinerary. (For the full schedule of our very popular History at Sunset series, click here. In fact, the schedule includes several programs that will give visitors an uncommon chance to visit some of the sites that we have or will discuss on this blog).
The management of a site like Military Cemetery #2 represents another one of those difficult conundrums we wrestle with constantly. By making it known and accessible on a wide scale, we risk someone invading the place with malice (as happened to a similar site at Manassas in the 1980s–one, I am sorry to say, that was desecrated just a couple days after I showed it to a group of visitors for the first time). Our hope is that our investigation of the site and the development of a plan for managing it, securing it, and interpreting it will one day soon permit us to make this evocative place accessible to every visitor who wishes to discover it. We hope to get the investigation of the cemetery started soon, and we’ll keep you posted on our progress.