“Skeleton Hunt”–Spotsylvania 1865


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.):

Union graves near the Bloody Angle, 1866.

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.

Laurel Hill, the home of Katherine Couse.

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.”

The Brown house at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield

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.

Though they had orders only to bury Union dead, the burial teams in fact buried Union and Confederate alike. These are the graves of Mississippi soldiers near the Bloody Angle, bearing the very same headboards that adorned Union graves.

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.”

The First Veteran Volunteers nailed this stanza from the Bivouac of the Dead to a tree near the Bloody Angle. Theodore Lyman saw and wrote about this maker during his visit the following year.

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.”

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14 thoughts on ““Skeleton Hunt”–Spotsylvania 1865

  1. Excellent post, Don. Grisly work, but thanks for reminding us that when the battle’s finished, it’s far from finished. I’m just as glad my great grandfather was a prisoner during this battle, or he might never have lived through the war.

  2. Grisly work and what it likely means is that the souvenir hunters are finding stuff that with the fellow when he died.

    In a way – I wonder if the NPS Interpretation of Bloody Angle were more “real” if it would actually be a turn-off to visitors.

    It certainly is not a pleasant thought when walking there knowing the horror of that place where thousands lay dead and dying.. and a month later, the dead still lay where they died.

  3. Have any remains been discovered on the area’s battlefields in recent time, or since the NPS took control of those fields?

    • Stu: Working from my memory here, so excuse me if the dates are off a bit…but I think I am right: The remains of, if I remember correctly, a Union soldier was found at Fairview in the 1930s–he was reinterred in the National Cemetery (we have a photograph of this soldier in his original grave). Another Union soldier was found near the Chancellorsville Visitor Center in the 1970s. Once the grave was discovered, it was left in place and marked. Indeed, we placed a new marker over that grave about five years ago. I am unaware of others, though prior to the creation of the park, the discovery of graves was a fairly common thing–reported faithfully in the local newspaper. John Hennessy

      • John H., You state that the Union soldier buried near the Chancellorsville VC was discovered in the 1970s, but surely you are mistaken. A photograph of the white plain wooden cross that used to stand over his grave appears in The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton first published in 1960. (The book was republished in 1994 but inexplicably omitted the picture). I was told by a park ranger years ago he was first discover by road crews when widening and paving Route 3 in the 1940s.

  4. A bit of a macabre subject but for a place like Bloody Angle – we know how many likely died. Do we know where an equivalent number are buried?

    I’m reminded of one of the last scenes in the movie Platoon where the next morning after the tremendous battle the night before where large numbers of people died – bulldozers had dug pits and the dead (of both sides?) interred en mass.

    It was a fictional account (not without real instances) but I suspect during the civil war that only hand implements were available anyhow but it is curious (if I’m reading correctly) that at Spotsy CH that the dead were gathered and buried and a mile or so away, they were left unburied for some time.

    Was it a simple matter that most of the able bodied men were involved in soldiering and simple a lack of people to deal with burials?

    How does all of this relate (or not) to what is known as the “Confederate Cemetery” at the CH? ( I know that civilians are buried there also and from recent times).

    Are there any other formal burial sites in the area besides Fredericksburg?

    Sorry if this is too many questions and if covered in previous posts.. the URL would be sufficient.

  5. “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.” This story really seized my attention. I can hardly imagine what this woman must have gone through during her time while looking for the remains of her son. I don’t really wan to imagine it either.

    • >>I don’t really wan to imagine it either.<<

      Stating such indicates you have already done so. People seek out that which revolts them. It has ever been such, and thus it shall always be. Embrace it or it will embrace you.

  6. My third-great-grandfather was with Company B of the 1st Veteran Volunteers, following a three-year term of service with the 37th Illinois. He kept a diary of his time with the 37th which has survived, but my family has no knowledge of how he felt about his experiences with the 1st. May I ask what source material you reference in these pieces about the burial parties at Spotsylvania and the Wilderness? Thanks!

  7. I own what was know as Crukshank Farm in Spotsylvania CH. I had been previously owned by the Queesenbury Family and the Flyth Family. The house was used as a hospital during the battle of Spotsylvania CH. We have been searching for any information about the farm during the war. Anyone know about the place?

    Thanks
    Ed

  8. After reading this I wonder if you be able to help me. Where were the soldiers who died in the “field hospitals” buried? How many field hospitals were there for the Spotsylvania battle?

    My 3rd great grandfather was listed as “death due to gunshot would during Spotyslvania Battle. Died in field hospital.”

    Is there a way to find out what field hospital and if he was actually buried and where?

    • Karen, Those who died at Field Hospitals were usually buried at field hospitals. But the records for individual field hospitals (which moved frequently during the battle) are sparse. If you can give me his name and regiment, I might be able to give you some additional information…. John H.

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