Burying the dead at Spotsylvania–1864

By Donald Pfanz [Don has done trememdous work on the creation of the National Cemetery. This piece, and the post to follow, are derived from that work. The whole will eventually be published in book form.]:

Unioni burial temas in 1864. An engraving made from a period photograph.

When the Confederates abandoned the Muleshoe Salient on the morning of May 13, 1864, Union forces occupied the contested ground, now thickly carpeted with blue and gray corpses. To make the position tolerable, the Northern soldiers threw the bodies of the dead in the trenches formerly occupied by their foes and kicked dirt from the adjacent parapet down on them. Thus, remarked one soldier, “the unfortunate victims [had] unwittingly dug their own graves.”

Burial of a Confederate soldier at Widow Alsop's farm.

Not all graves were so large and impersonal. At the conclusion of the Bloody Angle combat, William McVey took it upon himself to bury several friends in the 126th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. “A. M. Pollock was laid in first,” he explained to the father of one of the dead, “and your son, (T. Hervey) was laid on his (Pollock’s) right, and Arnold on the right of your son…and on the right of Arnold was two of company C, Wharten and Brushear.” A man named Thompson marked their graves with headboards, inscribing the names with paint made from a concoction of ink and gunpowder. McVey wrote two years after the event, by which time he could no longer recall how many headboards Thompson had erected. “I cant say wheather [sic] he put a board up to the head of each one or just to the heads of those that belonged to Company H, and one to the heads of those that belonged to company C, and then he hewed the side off a stump that stood near the grave, and wrote their names on it.” Thompson must have written Hervey’s, Pollock’s, and Arnold’s name on a single headboard, as they were later buried together in Grave #3039 in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Wharten and Brushear occupy unknown graves. Like so many others, their headboards must have vanished before burial parties transferred their remains to the National Cemetery.

The ground in front of the Bloody Angle today, looking east.

When the armies left Spotsylvania Court House on May 21, many of the dead remained unburied. A Confederate cavalryman wrote that “The dead Yankees are heaped up in piles half as high as a man, in front of our Breastworks, and all around on the Battlefield the dead yanks are lying just as thick as they can be, and none of them burried [sic],” adding, “they will all rotten on top of the ground.” Another Confederate—an infantryman in Ramseur’s brigade—remembered the ghastly upturned faces of the decomposing dead who lay between the lines. “Both parties seemed to be exhausted,” he thought, “so much so as to prevent them from interring the fallen braves.” A month after the battle, the First Maine Cavalry passed through Spotsylvania Court House and found “Federal and Confederate dead…lying around in all directions.” The regiment halted briefly to bury the dead, but it could not have interred many, for by nightfall it was at Guiney Station, fifteen miles away.

In his 1865 survey, Brevet Major Hiram Gerrish was able to identify 511 of 2,205 Union soldiers buried at Spotsylvania Court House–nearly twice the percentage of any other local battlefield. The higher rate—23.2 percent—may have something to do with the Army of the Potomac’s lengthy occupation of the ground.

Next up: Skeleton Hunt, 1865.

33 thoughts on “Burying the dead at Spotsylvania–1864

  1. John Dearlove was one of many casualties from the 111th New York during the II Corps’ action along the Po River on May 10, 1864. He was killed when he, along with other members of Company D, became separated from the regiment and fought along with the 52nd New York. Eight months later an inventory of Dearlove’s personal effects was provided to the Adjutant General’s office. Did the burial parties that removed the bodies from the Mule Shoe area make their way over to the Po River battlefield? Is it safe to assume that since an inventor of personal affects was provided that the Dearlove’s grave was located and identifiable? Is there any documentation where bodies from the Po River fight were finally interred?

    I appreciate any insight you might have.

    Martin Husk

    • Martin: We have a list that indicates the location of about 800 of the dead interred at Spotsylvania by the First Veteran Volunteers in June of 1865. A scan of that list does not indicate that they visited any farms south of the Po River. Bear in mind, though, that the burials indicated here amount to only a fraction of the total buried at Spotsylvania. The list of reinterments done in 1866-1868 by the Federal government does include burials on both the Graves Farm (only six) south of the Po and the Pritchett Farm north of it, as well as a number of farm names that may well be south of the Po, though I am not familiar enough with the families in that area to be certain. Given that the Po River site was indeed a major clash, I think it unlikely that they missed the area.

      A search of those identified from that list does not show John Dearlove. It’s possible that his effects were recovered, his body buried and grave marked, and perhaps the headboard lost or destroyed. Such a fate was common–only 3,000 of the 15,000 men buried in the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg are known.

      I hope this is helpful. John H.

      • Hey John,

        This was very helpful. I get a lot of questions about the 111th, most of which I can answer easily. However, it’s nice to know I can turn to experts when I need to.

        Keep up the great work.

    • My great-great grandfather Anton Keitel was the Regimental Quartermaster Sgt. of the 52nd New York. I would be happy to discuss the battle with you. I have done quite a bit of research on the unti. I am amazed that he survived 3 brutal years with the regiment and was one of the few survivors. Ray Pfeiffer

  2. looking for joseph e galarno , union soldier with the 5th mich. inf. , reportedly died may 14th 1864 at spotsylvania. he is my third great uncle.

    • Jim – A search of the records for the Fredericksburg National Cemetery fails to turn up a burial location for Joseph E. Galerno. Of the 15,000 burials in the cemetery, only 17 percent are identified. It is possible that your third great uncle is buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, but as an unknown.

      – Eric Mink

      • Thank you for checking that for me. I am hoping to visit the cemetary in june this year, maybe I’ll find somrthing there. thanks again

  3. Great blog! I am trying to find anything I can on my great great grandfather Samuel Waughen. He reportedly died at Spottsylvania Court House on May 12, 1864. He belonged to Company F, 49th Infantry Regiment Pennsylvania. Volunteers.

    • Jill: I have looked through our registers of burials and reinterments at the National Cemetery, and I am sorry to say that Samuel Waughen doesn’t appear. But, his wife Sarah did apply for and receive a Widow’s Pension of $8 per month, plus two dollars for each of their two children, William (born July 1860) and Mary (born September 1863) until their 16th birthday. The effective date of the pension is given as May 10, 1864, which suggests that that was the date of his death. If so, he was likely killed in what we know as “Upton’s Attack” on the Muleshoe Salient that evening–one of the most famous Union assualts of the war, though it ultimately failed. I hope this is helpful. I found the widow’s pension documents on the website, Fold3–which includes a huge amount of Civil War-related data. John Hennessy

      • Thanks so much for all the info, and taking the time to look! I do have the pension info. I signed up for Fold 3 this week and found that info! Thanks for the info about Uptons Attack. I will look more into that. My husband and I belong to a civil war reenactment group and our battery was just at Spotsylvania last weekend. We personally haven’t been there and don’t know really anything about those battles, as we do Gettysburg. Thanks again!!

  4. I am looking for possible internment information about my relatives: Dorr Devendorf, killed at Spotsylvania May, 1864 and his brother, Sergeant Wesley Devendorf killed at Chancellorsville May, 1863. They enlisted in Plainfield, NY. Their death notices did not mention burial.

    • Wendy: I have looked at the roster of known burials in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, and neither of the Devendorf men appear. The most likely reason is that they were left among the unknowns. Of the more than 15,000 men buried in the National Cemetery, more than 12,000 are unknown. Though this news is surely not a suprise to you, I find a certain sadness in conveying it, even 150 years later. John Hennessy

  5. Hello this is such an interesting topic. My great-great-great grandfather Joseph Gontz of the 53ird PA Inf. Co. D. was killed at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. I recently took a trip to the bloody angle battlefield and the guide was nice enough to look up where my grandfather’s regiment was dug in. I would be very interested to know any burial or other information you might know about Joseph. Thankyou
    Richard Locke

    • Richard – A look at the burial roster for the Fredericksburg National Cemetery fails to turn up your great-great-gradnfater’s name. When Union burial parties visited the “Bloody Angle” in June 1865, they identified the remains of 165 Union soldiers, including two members of the 53rd Penn. who died on May 12, 1864. They also located the remains of another 1287 Union men that they could not identify. It is possible that your ancestor was among the latter group. All of these men were ultimately moved into they Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

      – Eric

  6. Does anyone know where the Sanford farm would have been in 1864? My 3xGreat Uncle Barzillai Cook who died May 10th was originally buried there. Just wondering if anyone would know where this farm was?

  7. Hi,
    My great great grandfather, William Brown, died during the ill advised attack by Union forces against the new line established behind the old salient. Is there a marker for him in the Fredricksburg Cemetary

    Kathi (Brown) Witt

  8. I am looking for information on Frederick Eisenbraun ( Johann Freidrich) who was killed on May 10, 1864 at Spottslyvania per the Public Ledger ( Philadelphia ) of 28 Jun 1864. He was in Co F 9th Rgt P V – the clipping I found is not the best so Regt could be any that go with a ( th ) .

    • Peggy – I checked the roster for the Fredericksburg National Cemetery and did not find either name. It’s likely that he rests in the cemetery, but in an unknown grave. Of the more than 15,000 men buried in the National Cemetery, more than 12,000 are unknown. – Eric

  9. It is interesting to read of the few burials on the Pritchett farm. That would have been the farm of William Warner Pritchett (1801-1883). At the time of the battle, his son Benjamin Warner Pritchett was serving in Heth’s Division in the 55th Virginia Infantry.. On May 10, Heth’s Division was lined up on Shady Grove Church Road, now R E Lee Drive. This location was where BW Pritchett’s farm was located. I wonder if BW Pritchett was a guide for General Heth? Regardless, here is an instance where a Confederate soldier was fighting to protect his very own farm and the farm of his parents.

  10. My ancestor, Pvt. Frank J. Krug (sometimes spelled as Kruk) was KIA on May 12 1864 at the Bloody Angle. His death was documented but the disposition of his remains are unknown. A search of the national Cemeteries data base fails to reveal a documented burial under either spelling. Where would his remains be likely to have ended up? I am seeking a VA Memorial marker for him and just indicating “gravesite unknown” may not suffice. Is there anywhere where it is documented that such soldiers were buried in mass graves?

  11. I am looking for information on Pvt John T Anderson Co A 110 Ohio Vol Inf. reportedly killed 6 May in the Wilderness. My understanding is the 110th had only 3 killed in action that day (…and maybe some better records might be available with only a few losses that day?). Let me know if you have any information.

    Best Regards,
    Craig Anderson

  12. My great, great, grandfather was private Martin O’Brien of company K, 96th Pennsylvania regiment. He was killed in action on May 12, 1864 in the Wilderness battle. I would appreciate any information about his burial location.

    • Kevin: The 96th Pennsylvania suffered severely on May 12, 1864, in the fighting near the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania. Indeed, at least 30 identified men from the regiment are buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. I am sorry to say that Martin O’Brien is not among them. While Spotsylvania has the highest percentage of identified dead in the National Cemetery (more than 20% of the bodies from Spotsylvania were identified), probably a couple thousand lie in graves marked unknown. While we can’t be certain, it’s likely Martin O’Brien is among them. John H.

  13. My 5th great uncle, John Daniel of the 4th Georgia was evidently killed on May 5th at Wilderness. Any idea if he was likely interned at one of the cemeteries as an unknown, rather than left on the field, left in a mass grave, or consumed in the fire? I’ve seen maps of the 4th’s position on the battlefield but I’m unable to find one which identifies any markers like farms, etc. I understand that first day of fighting was mostly in the thick of the woods.

    Any info you might have would be helpful. Thank you!

    • From John H.: I dug around a bit. In the Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg is buried a man named John Daniel, but he is assumed to be of the 27th Virginia, and given the location of his body when recovered, was killed at Chancellorsville. I am afraid we have no record of the burial of any other man named John Daniel. It seems likely that he either still lies on the field or is buried an unknown in either the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery or one of the other cemeteries that hold Confederate dead locally. I wish I could offer you better news that that, but in my many years at this business, I must say that I have encountered probably fewer than ten people looking for a Confederate grave who actually found it.

  14. GGG-Grandpa Co. E VA. 5th died there on the 12th, I think they marked his grave but when they went back they couldn’t locate it. They said you could walk across the whole courthouse lawn on the dead and never touch the ground.

  15. My GGUncle, Goodman L. Mitchell, was killed at Spotslyvania May 10, 1864. The grave in the National Cemetery marked G L Mital is believed to be him. He served with Company E “Concord Rangers” of Forsyth & Dawson Counties, 21st Georgia Infantry, Doles’ Brigade, Rodes’ Division, 2nd Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, C.S.A. Can you tell me how I can find records pertaining to the burial in Spotsyvania?

    • Mike: You are correct that the headstone in the Spotsylvania Confederate Cemetery marked G.L. Mital is presumed to be your ancestor. A fellow named Dan Janzegers (“Big French”) has done by far the most work on identifying the dead, and he is the fellow who did the very thorough listing that appears on Find-a-Grave. His work is invariably right on. I will see what I can do to put you in direct contact with him…. JH

  16. I’m looking for a grave for a Jeremiah Hines (my Great Grand Uncle) who was killed at Bloody Angle, Spottsylvania on 12May1864. Any information would be appreciated. Thanks, J. Hamlet

    • From Hennessy:

      So far as the grave of Captain Burhans goes, I’m afraid I don’t have good news for you. He is not identified as one who lies in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where the vast majority of Union dead from Spotsylvania were reburied in 1866 and 1867. The most likely fate of his body is that he is among the unknowns buried in the cemetery. Captain Burhans was killed in the fighting around what is today known as Doles Salient, the scene of a famous attack led by Colonel Emory Upton on May 10, 1864. While the US troops managed to break through the Confederate line, the success was brief, and the Union lines soon retreated, leaving behind their dead.

      I checked the claim for a pension filed by his mother, Rachel, in 1865, and it includes a couple of references that help explain things. The summary of the claim reads:

      “Private Hoog states that when the regiment fell back the Captain was lying on his back with arms extended, to all appearances dead. Lt. Col. Terrill states that there is no doubt but that he was killed on May 10, 1864….”

      An affidavit signed by Capt. Terrill says:

      “…there is no doubt of his being killed….that said Capt. David Burhans was seen to pitch headforemost over the inner line of the enemy’s works into the ditch (or rifle pit) beyond, and, when the regiment was forced to retreat, many members of the regiment averred that they saw his body lying in such a position that indicated death; that said David Burhans’ body was left in possession of the enemy for man hours, until the lost ground had been recovered, when burial parties were sent out; that from peculiarities of dress (he never wore an officer’s uniform, or any insignia of rank beyond sword and belt, and that these latter were always stripped from bodies by the enemy), he must have been buried with the rank and file, as on one has ever heard of or saw him thenceforward…”

      The body was, however, probably recovered when reburial crews returned to the fields after the war. Of the more than 15,000 soldiers buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, more than 12,500 of them are unknown. There remains a smaller chance that he lies still on the battlefield.

      Perhaps you are familiar with the website maintained by the Division of Military and Naval Affairs. It includes an excellent compilation of material on the 43d.


      Captain Burhans was from Bethlehem, my home town. I know the name well.

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