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.]:
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.”
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.
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.