By Donald Pfanz (this is a follow-up on Don’s writings on the burial of the dead at the Wilderness, which you can find here, and at Spotsylvania in 1864, which is here. Check out too our previous posts on the dead at the Alsop farm and Theodore Lyman’s postwar visit to the Bloody Angle.):
In June 1865, Federal authorities sent the First Veteran Volunteers to the Fredericksburg region to bury the dead on the four battlefields. They worked first at Wilderness, and then moved on to Spotsylvania Court House. Colonel Charles P. Bird and his First Regiment Veteran Volunteers followed the Brock Road—the same route used by much of Grant’s army in 1864. On the way it passed Todd’s Tavern, a ramshackle frame building that had been the site of some minor fighting in the campaign. The remains of eight soldiers lay within sight of the road. Colonel Bird and his men hastily committed the skeletons to the soil and continued on their way.
A little farther on, the First Regiment came to the home of Katharine Couse. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House the building had served as a Union field hospital, and for Landon its sight brought back vivid and unpleasant memories. “I well remembered the rows of wounded soldiers I had seen stretched out here as we bivouacked on the same spot but little over one year ago, and listening all the night long to the deep groans of the wounded and dying heroes and shrieks and curses of those undergoing the torture of the probe or keen blade of the amputating knife. Many a poor fellow’s bones rest here under the shade of the oak and pine,” he wrote a friend, “and few with boards to mark the spot.”
Across the road from the Couse house stood “Liberty Hill,” the farm of Captain John C. Brown, a War of 1812 veteran. Here the Second Corps had gathered its strength before assaulting the Muleshoe Salient on May 12, 1864–an attack that led to the most savage day of fighting in American history. Among the casualties on that bloody day was Landon’s old commander, Colonel John Coons of the 14th Indiana Volunteers. Landon found Coons’s grave after a three-hour search. Bending over, Landon pried open the coffin. Although the body had begun to molder, he recognized the colonel by his uniform, hair, and beard. A rough headboard over the grave confirmed the identity. With the help of another soldier, Landon transferred the Coons’s remains to a new coffin and buried it in the garden, beneath a small apple tree. He erected a headboard over that and other 14th Indiana graves that he found so that family members could later find the remains.
The First Regiment established its Spotsylvania camp in rear of the Confederate works, at a point on the battlefield where the carnage had been particularly severe. Landon remembered the site as the “Death Angle,” although it has come down to history as the “Bloody Angle.” Either name is appropriate, for it had been a site of indescribable horror. For 22 hours Union and Confederate soldiers had struggled there, often in hand-to-hand combat, the torn and mangled bodies of the dead piling up two, three, even four deep around the works. After the fighting had subsided, Union soldiers tossed the dead into the trench and kicked dirt from the adjacent parapet down upon them.
Moore and Bird found few men to bury at Spotsylvania. The Army of the Potomac had buried many of the dead at the time of the battle, and Joseph Sanford had taken care of the rest. Sanford owned the Spotsylvania Court House hotel and was the village’s most prominent citizen. In May 1865 he had made arrangements with General William T. Sherman, whose army was passing through the area en route to the Grand Review, to bury the remains of Union soldiers that still littered the ground. The innkeeper tackled the job with energy. By the time Moore and his party reached the battlefield just one month later, they found but few unburied. Moore intended to create a cemetery for these skeletons, as he had done in the Wilderness, but the summer heat rendered the remains so putrid that Bird’s men could not bear to handle them. Bowing to necessity, Moore ordered the men to bury the corpses where they lay.
The men of the First Regiment were not alone in looking for graves. Upon reaching Spotsylvania, they met a Northern woman who had been at the battlefield for three days searching for her dead son. On its final day at Spotsylvania, the burial party found the young man’s remains and consigned them to his mother’s keeping.
In the course of the expedition, the First Regiment had buried nearly 1,500 skeletons, erected headboards over the graves of 785 known soldiers, and marked as unknown the graves of many more. “Our ‘Skeleton Hunt’ has ended,” wrote Landon, “the heroes of the fierce and bloody battles of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania, who offered up their lives in defense of their country’s honor and her flag in those terrible conflicts, are now, at last, reposing in peace beneath the ‘sacred soil’ of the Old Dominion.”
Despite Landon’s rosy assessment, the expedition had not been a complete success. Moore himself admitted as much. Moore himself admitted as much. “Hundreds of graves on these battle fields are without any marks whatever to distinguish them,” he informed General Hancock, “and so covered with foliage, that the visitor will be unable to find the last resting places of those who have fallen, until the rains and snows of winter wash from the surface the light covering of earth, and expose their remains.” Bird took a more positive view of the matter. “…It may be that a few were passed over,” he admitted, “but from the extensive growth of weeds and underbrush, it was impossible to discover them.”