By Peter Maugle
The officer stood over the freshly exhumed grave with a pencil and ledger in his hands. He told others to search the remains as he struggled to decipher the crude etching on a weathered piece of wood. The lettering was faded and worn, but seemed to read, “W.A.W.” A worker called the officer’s attention to a hat badge that indicated the deceased was from New Hampshire. The other workers shook their heads to signify there was no additional identifiable information to be found. The officer then recorded in the ledger book, “Grave # 1221, W.A.W., NH, removed from O’Bannon’s Farm.” A pile of bones and decayed clothing was then placed into a rough wooden coffin for transport to the newly established Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
The aforementioned scene was repeated over 15,000 times in Fredericksburg and Stafford and Spotsylvania counties from 1866 to 1868. During this period, United States Army reburial details scoured the region cataloging and reinterring the remains of Union soldiers. Sadly, over 12,000 of the graves were simply marked, “Unknown.” It was the result of no standard issue identification for the soldiers, no protocol for properly identifying or marking graves, and the sheer magnitude of casualties incurred on a landscape that witnessed four of the costliest battles of the Civil War.
However, in some instances, surviving soldiers took it upon themselves to identify and mark the graves of their comrades. This would likely be a difficult process in the aftermath of battle. Locating remains among the detritus of war surely complicated things, not to mention the armies were still in the midst of active campaigns. If a deceased soldier’s body was actually found, the next challenge was how to effectively mark the gravesite. Usually it was a shallow, hastily dug grave, and the marker would consist of writing or etching on various materials such as wood, metal, or even pieces of leather equipment. Not knowing who (if anyone), would ever tend to these graves, the soldiers did the best they could considering the circumstances.
Depending on when the death occurred, these graves, and their improvised markers, could remain untended for several years. During that time, the elements, animals, or unsympathetic locals could damage, remove, or destroy makeshift markers. Thus, the noble efforts of the living were for naught, as any indication of the grave’s occupant was compromised or simply disappeared.
Upon the war’s culmination, the Federal government established national cemeteries throughout the south, to better administer and honor the multitude of Union dead there. United States Army officers were assigned to supervise parties of contracted workers, some of them former enslaved men, to reinter the remains of Union soldiers to the national cemeteries. They were to establish identification to the best of their ability, despite the inherent difficulties. It appears they took this responsibility quite seriously, which might be expected due to their vocation.
Unfortunately, many found it near impossible to discern any semblance of identity from decomposing corpses that had been buried in a haphazard manner several years prior. But, there were exceptions. Some rudimentary grave markers actually survived relatively unscathed, and made the identification process fairly straightforward, although it was certainly not common. There were many graves with only a partially discernable marker; a soldier who had their last name or initials stenciled on their equipment or uniform; an officer whose rank and unit could be determined from their insignia, but their name was not there. Instead of simply denoting these partially identified men as “unknown,” the officers supervising the reburial details made a point to record any tidbits of information. As a result, the Fredericksburg National Cemetery includes gravestones engraved with only initials, just a last name, or merely a first name. The rank or state may also be noted, and the original site of the grave was documented. Why would this be important? How did the officers think these fragments of information could possibly be utilized?
Fast forward 152 years later, as Steve Morin, a volunteer at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, pores through the yellowed pages of an antique book, cross-referencing it with his iPad. Morin, a retired FBI research specialist and student of the Civil War, is attempting to determine the identity of an unknown soldier. He is not using DNA to perform this task, which makes it possible to ascertain the names of many World War II, Korean and Vietnam War soldiers whose remains had been anonymous. Instead, Morin is using a combination of rosters, books, and online resources to reveal the identities of these otherwise indistinguishable men.
The process can be tedious and frustrating at times, but Morin has the right mindset and background. Experience with the FBI instilled in him a conviction to get the facts straight. No stone is left unturned as Morin strives to make the most accurate identification possible. He scrutinizes enlistment and payroll records, unit rosters, pension applications, and a multitude of other sources. Morin must also take into account misspellings or misinterpretations of writing from over 150 years ago. He might consider if the letter “A” was perhaps misconstrued as an “H” on a crude grave marker, or if a soldier’s state of origin is supposed to be MA, ME, or MG? Sometimes the clues come together like a puzzle, and lead to a distinct probable identity. When a solid deduction is made based upon all available evidence, the outcome is denoted in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery records. The entries are never definitive, however, and always reflect a degree of uncertainty. And if there is insufficient evidence, the best course of action is to leave the status as “Unknown.”
Another researcher assisting with the identification project is Michael Taylor, a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. Taylor was inspired to take on the task (in addition to his course load and other duties at the USNA), after he attended a tour of the Fredericksburg battlefield with his fellow midshipmen. The visit ended in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where Michael was struck by the over 12,000 unknown graves. He asked park staff if there was any way to go about identifying these soldiers. The arduous and complicated process necessary to establish any semblance of positive identification was explained to Taylor, but it did not deter the midshipman. Within a week, Michael delved into digital resources provided by the National Park Service and came up with promising leads. Now, over a year later, Taylor’s work has resulted in almost one hundred corrections and probable identifications for these previously unknown Civil War soldiers. Taylor, the son of a Vietnam War veteran, feels, “All those who served this country deserve to be remembered.”
When the Army reburial parties went about their grim task over 150 years ago, it is remarkable to consider they made every possible effort to somehow identify the fallen. Even if it only entailed part of a name, or their state of origin, there was an expectation that the task would someday be completed. Despite not knowing if there would be enhanced recordkeeping or organizations established to administer these places, the conviction was there. Otherwise, why bother inscribing “W.A.W.” on a gravestone? Now, with vast archives and multitudes of records available at a few keystrokes, the seemingly impossible is viable. Persistent research allows us the opportunity to fulfill the aspirations of our forebears by finally identifying these Civil War dead.
Today, the gravestone in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery is still inscribed with the same ambiguous lettering, “W.A.W.” (National Park Service policy prohibits correcting gravestones for “errors of fact”). However, after extensive research by volunteer Steve Morin, the cemetery roster, maintained by the National Park Service and available to the public, reflects that this grave very likely belongs to Private George A. Wheeler of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment. Documentation indicates a soldier from New Hampshire named Wheeler was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, removed to a field hospital, and died a few days later. An assistant surgeon recorded Wheeler’s death at the regimental hospital located near the O’Bannon farm in Stafford County. Perhaps his comrades crafted the rudimentary grave marker that a reburial detail found four years later. Their efforts, while diminished by the elements, later provided an army officer with some vague information associated with these remains. His copious notations eventually enabled an amateur historian to piece together the story of an otherwise unidentifiable casualty of our nation’s costliest conflict. Now, anyone searching for this soldier, whether a family descendant or a Civil War researcher, will be able to find him accordingly, whereas for 150 years prior, this soldier’s final resting place was essentially unknown.
The important work done by Steve Morin, Michael Taylor, and others will be highlighted this year at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery’s Luminaria, held on Saturday, May 25th. For the last twenty-three years, local scouts have lit over 15,000 candles on Memorial Day weekend, one for every soldier interred at the cemetery. However, this year’s program will be uniquely different, as attendees will be encouraged to visit the graves of several previously unknown soldiers and learn about the remarkable process it took to have their stories told for the first time in over 150 years.