It is an evocative though rarely used photograph: a man standing before an unkempt line of graves, the markers askew and unadorned. The image is known to have been taken on the farm of James and Elizabeth Carpenter (an elderly couple whose son Solon served in the Fredericksburg Artillery) on the Wilderness Battlefield, a now-forgotten area well behind the Union lines, about midway between NPS holdings at Wilderness and Chancellorsville.
Today the site of the Carpenter farm is home to the local chapter of the Isaac Walton League. Nobody that I know of has been able to identify the specific location on the farm of this view (or another less interesting image apparently from the same series). These don’t appear to be fresh burials, for the ground seems covered with a season’s worth of leaves and nature’s refuse–something consistent with its 1866 date (our friend John Cummings will have much more to say about this series of postwar images in an upcoming book).
The scene shows at least twenty-one graves, all but one of them seemingly marked by a stake or pole rather than a headboard. The method of marking the graves suggests this work was done in the aftermath of battle, rather than by the Union burial corps that came through the area in 1865. (We discussed and illustrated their method of marking graves in our post on Wilderness Cemetery #2, which you can find here.) No place else do I know of stakes being used to mark field burials, and the lone visible headboard in this view is radically different from the mass-produced, carefully painted boards carried and planted by the 1865 burial crews.The men buried in these graves are likely from the Union Second Corps, which suffered mightily in fighting along the Orange Plank Road on May 5 and 6, 1864. The huge Second Corps hospital was at the Carpenter farm. “The site was a good one, with good water, and two ambulance roads leading to the front, which was only a mile distant,” wrote the army’s chief medical officer McParlin. This hospital was closer to the fighting line than others, McParlin noted, and on May 5, 1864, about 600 wounded from the Second Corps were brought to the Carpenter Farm. Later, “the influx of patients was so rapid and their numbers so great that it was not possible to record all of them,” which may help explain the presence of unknown graves in the photograph. The image has a sense of desolation. The lone headboard brings relief to the graves of the men not so marked. Who were they? Did they sense they’d die the soldier’s nightmare–a nameless corpse on a nameless piece of ground far from home?
But look closely at the lone headboard.
Most striking and unusual is the art. Someone took the time to paint or draw a dove on this man’s headboard–an expression of affection uncommonly made under such circumstances. We can only surmise that a friend–and likely a dear friend–was by some happenstance with him when he died, or perhaps got permission to carry his body to the rear. I am no student of wartime burials, but I have not seen anything like it.
Under magnification the identity of the man in the grave becomes clear. While some of the board is illegible, the name clearly reads “R Ross” and below that 40 NYVV. This is the grave or Sergeant Richard Ross of the 40th New York, the famous “Mozart Regiment,” from New York City. Ross enlisted in the 87th New York Infantry early in the war, but with the remnants of that regiment was transferred to the 40th in 1862. Our region was unkind to Ross. He was captured at Chancellorsville, and a year and two days later killed at the Wilderness. Thanks to whoever it was that made the effort to properly mark his grave, Sergeant Ross is today buried in an identified grave (#3994) at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Those men buried around him in the image are likely buried there too, among the more than 12,000 unknowns that lie atop Willis Hill.
I’ll keep digging to see what I might be able to turn up on Sergeant Ross. But we wanted to share this in the meantime–a little burst of humanity amidst the pixels.