Wilderness Military Cemetery #2

From Hennessy:

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our staff has done immense and impressive work on the creation of the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg–indeed, his unpublished MS, which we intend to publish as part of our new publication series, is one of the most thorough studies ever done of the creation of any national cemetery.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.

11 thoughts on “Wilderness Military Cemetery #2

  1. Regarding the photographs included in this post, both were taken as part of a series I have been studying for six years now. These two would have been taken between April 11-13, 1866. The reasons for the dramatic difference with markers on the Carpenter Farm and those in Cemetery #2, is that they were not part of the June 1865 re-interment operation. Despite the date of the image, it does still represent the crude markers made in haste in May 1864, as you mention.
    Another point I’d like to make, and it is not a correction, just a point of interest, and that is regarding the concern or “outrage” mentioned in the North, that they anticipated Southerners would disturb or dishonor the Union remains. What is odd and disturbing in itself, is that the graves and remains of the fallen Confederates continued to lie in situ, while those of the Union soldiers were carefully gathered in June 1865 into the two Wilderness Cemeteries and assorted locations around Spotsylvania. In fact, the real disturbance and dishonor of remains was committed by a Union Surgeon, Reed Bontecou, who collected skulls of Confederate dead directly from the fields and woods in April of 1866, when this series of images was taken. The photographic series was taken as documentation of his and an entourage’s journey to the battlefields. Bontecou brought the skulls back with him to Washington, D.C. where they remain in a collection today. Further details of this were published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times, in an article I wrote as a preview of the upcoming book I am finishing about this trip and its photographic legacy. I am finally getting the book manuscript ready to go to the publisher. Stay tuned.

  2. The first marker in the Carpenter Farm photo is the grave marker of Ross, Richard Sergeant. Co.C, 40 NY. Age – 30. Enlisted at Brooklyn for three years and mustered into Co.H, 87 NY 24 Oct, 1861. Transferred to Co.K, 40 NY 6 Sept., 1862. Captured in action 2 May, 1863 at Chancellorsville. Transferred to Co.C, 40 NY 25 May, 1863. Paroled 9 Oct., 1863. Promoted to Sergeant (no date). Re-enlisted as a veteran volunteer 29 Dec., 1863. Killed in action 5 May, 1864 at the Wilderness (SR). Originally buried at Wilderness Battlefield, Spotsylvania (ROH). You can make out the Rank of Sergt., and R. Ross. and 40 N.Y.V.V. (New York Veteran Volunteers). Pretty cool.

    Looks like an article was already written about it.

  3. My husband’s great-great grandfather is James Young Miller was born about 1835 in PA. He served in the Army/military on 27 Feb 1864 -10 May 1864 in Co. F, 57th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers. He fought in the Battle of Wilderness and was shot in the arm on 5 May 1864 in the Battle of Wilderness. He supposedly died on 10 May 1864 in the field hospital, near the battlefield of Wilderness, VA. We live in Federicksburg and have searched high and low to try and find where James may be buried with no luck thus far. Can anyone advise me of where he is most likely buried or where to look for this information?

    • Tami: The 57th Pennsylvania fought as part of the Union Second Corps at the Wilderness and Private Miller was almost certainly wounded in the fighting along the Orange Plank Road, modern route 621. Indeed, a monument marking the spot where his brigade commander, Alexander Hays, fell stands along Brock Road north of its junction with the Orange Plank Road. The published roster for Pennsylvania regiments is unclear as to how Private Miller met his end. According to the roster, he was wounded and captured on May 5 and died “date unknown.” Given the immense chaos and uncertainty on the battlefield itself during and after the battle, any notations of that sort have to be taken with caution. Do you have information that indicates he died in a Union field hospital? It’s entirely possible.

      If he was in fact NOT captured and was taken to a Union field hospital, then it was almost certainly the hospital at the Carpenter Farm–the location of all the hospitals for the Union Second Corps. I have written about the farm here: https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/the-obscure-carpenter-farm-and-a-soldiers-grave/

      And our friend John Cummings has written about it here: http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/2012/02/hospital-burial-site-on-carpenter-farm.html

      I can tell you that James Young Miller (or anyone named Miller) appears on our roster of known burials at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where Union dead where re-interred after the war. Of the more than 15,000 men buried in that cemetery, nearly 13,000 are buried as unknowns. Whether Private Miller died at a Union hospital or in Confederate hands, it’s possible, perhaps likely, that he lies among the unknown burials in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. It’s also possible, of course, that his remains still lie on the field, near the site of his death.

      If you have more information that might help us piece together a more helpful response, we’d be happy to know more. I suspect this is not the response you were hoping for, but it is, unfortunately, the most common outcome for most of those descendants seeking the burial site of an ancestor killed in the battles around Fredericksburg.

      – John Hennessy

  4. My 3 x great grandfather Graham Sherret (67th NY Infantry) corporal, died on 6th May at the Wilderness and apparently was buried at the field hospital.
    I’d love to know if he has been re buried somewhere in Virginia in a military cemetery. Can you help ?

    • I can’t help you, I’m afraid – but I am researching the graves of Civil War veterans buried in the mainland UK – or their widows if, like Sherret, they did not return – and wonder if you happen t know where his widow isabella is buried – presumably in Brechin, from where she claimed a widow’s pension (I have transcripts of some of her pension claim papers).
      I’d also be most interested if you can fill in any relevant parts of his story – particularly why he went to America and enlisted.

  5. Hi Michael,

    As far as I know Isabella is buried in Brechin cemetery, she died on 22 Aug 1888 at 9 Union St.
    I have tried finding out where she is, but can’t find her lair.

    She reverted back to her maiden name of Milne in the 1861 census , and was living with her mother Biddy (Robina) and other siblings. On her death cert she is recorded as Isabella Sherret, widow of Graham (stonemason).

    Graham left Isabella soon after 11 Feb 1861 which is when his mother Christina died, and explains why he isn’t on the census with Isabella.

    Graham was a stonemason by trade, and usually because of lack of work probably travelled to find regular employment. I think he left Isabella as he was either fed up with lack of work or the excitement of joining up as a soldier. He joined up on 4 June 1861, in New York. I can’t find any record of Graham in the US apart from his military records. Can you tell me when he arrived in the states ?



  6. Hi Michael,

    I have found out where Isabella is buried.

    She is registered under the name of Elizabeth (Isabella is pet name) Sherret,
    and was buried on Aug 25 1888 in Brechin Cathedral churchyard East side compartment D, section 4, number 11.

    I hope that helps your research.



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