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.
17 thoughts on “Unknown Until Now–The Ongoing Effort to Identify the Dead in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery”
Although the gravestones themselves cannot be corrected, is there any way place additional information at the gravesite noting the probably identification? After all, that would seem to be in line with the whole point of marking a grave.
I totally agree. This would definitely be the way to go.
Andy….[Hennessy here.] NPS policy stipulates that headstones be replaced in kind; adding new elements, like flat stones with correected information, is not permitted. Too, while the identities of these soldiers as determined by new research is likely correct, we cannot always be entirely certain. So instead of literally carving the new information in stone, we make sure it’s in the documentary file for the grave.
Donald Pfanz’s Mysteries and Conundrums article of Sept. 7, 2010 [ https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/the-bone-collectors-creation-of-wilderness-cemetery-1/ ] describes the initial reburial efforts at the Wilderness Battlefield by the 1st U.S. Veteran Volunteers in June of 1865. Although required to bury only the Union dead, officers in charge of the detail took it upon themselves to inter Confederates whom they found, too. Have any of these recent investigations identified any Confederate remains?
For decades the superintendents of the cemetery steadfastly maintained that no Confederates were buried there. Given the chaos that attended the recovery of the dead in the years after the war, it seems unlikely that no Confederate remains found their way to the cemetery. But, this particular research effort has not discovered any graves suspected of holding a Confederate soldier.
This is fascinating and encouraging. My great great grandfather, Private Mathew McSorley, fell on Mayre’s Heights on December 13th, 1862 and died the next day. He was in Company B of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry. He was from Co Tyrone, Ireland via Philadelphia, and is one of the 12,000 unknowns buried at Fredericksburg.
Pete, I really appreciated your timely article on the unknowns of Fredericksburg National Cemetery. I tried to leave a question in reply, but I’m not certain it posted. I’d like to try again: I’ve never the seen the first of the two historic photos included in the article and these photos raised questions you might be able to answer: first, do you know if the photo of remains shown were part of William Bell’s series taken in April, 1866? And do you know the battlefield location? Is the man at the left of the other photo military surgeon and researcher Dr. Reed Bontecou, or someone else?
Thanks for your reply.
On Sat, May 18, 2019 at 8:51 AM Mysteries & Conundrums wrote:
> Historian posted: “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” >
My apologies for the delay in responding. The photo is of Union graves at the Carpenter farm, east of the Wilderness battlefield. John Cummings has written about this site:
I have written about it too.
I hope this is helpful.
Thanks, Pete. That answers question number two. That’s Bentecou at the left. Now, could you offer details concerning the first photo showing remains of about five dead: where, when and by whom was it taken? Thanks.
I am trying to identify the person buried under the grave marked A Mann, Co. G 3rd NC. I believe it likely to be my Great Great Uncle Augustus N. Mann, however he was with the 3rd Arkansas. The interesting thing is the 3rd Arkansas and the 27th North Carolina were put together during the fighting near the Dunker Church/West Woods during the battle of Antietam. This grave is in the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Winchester, Va. – created in 1866. It was a reburial place for all the Confederate dead for a 15 mile radius of Winchester. For Augustus to have ended up there, we feel he was probably injured during the battle of Antietam, dropped off nearby if not in a local hospital or barn or house, and kept alive until his noted death date of September 25, 1862. This date is not on the stone, but is on the memorial and in a book identifying the graves of those buried there. If it is not my Augustus Mann, then who is this mysterious A.Mann. We (my brother and I) believe we have eliminated all other possibilities in the 27th NC unit and in the 3rd Arkansas. Augustus was in “H” company and there are really no records of him after his enlistment. This company was known as the “orphan” company and records were spotty for all of the soldiers comparatively to the other companies. Possibly poor leadership. I was trying to check Confederate hospital records to see if he had died of disease before reaching Antietam when I found this site. It is a mystery for sure… who is the “A. Mann” lying in Winchester. Any help would be appreciated.
Kittie Aldakkour (Mann)
Hadn’t had a reply to the question of who took each of these photos and where? I was also wondering who the man shown at the left of the photo with markers is. Can you offer any details on these questions? Thanks.
I understand that Steve Morin is only doing Union research. As I read this article I was thinking how true it is of our Southern boys as well. I have 2 soldiers that I have wondered about for years as “their resting place is known only to God.” One KIA at Sharpsburg and the other at Snicker’s Gap. Is there anyone known to be doing the research that Steve is doing for the Unknown Confederates? I have seen the name of one of my ancestors on a Sons of Confederate Veterans site but can’t find anyone who knows where the information came from. Is there a repository somewhere that I could search? I have already searched Fold 3, ADAH, Find-a-grave, Ancestry….. I am not a stranger to research but hoping for a lead over this brick wall.
An excellent article, Pete! I commend Steve Morin, Michael Taylor, and other volunteers who have taken on this worthy task!
Thanks great work.
Hi my GG grandfather John G Robinson. 45 years old was killed May 12, 1864 at the battle of Spotsylvania. 20th Indiana infantry.
Thanks Mary Beth Lehman Robinson
I have an ancestor that was killed at Fredericksburg on the Union side. The story I’ve been told was that he was buried in a mass grave days after the battle. His name was John Bryant, Massachusetts.
Hi Stefan, John Bryant served in the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, which was heavily engaged in the attacks on the Sunken Road on December 13, 1862. He was among probably 1,000 Union soldiers who fell on the Bloody Plain–now an urban neighborhood. As you suggest, most of those men were buried in one of two mass graves in that area. In 1866, the Federal government created the National Cemetery at Fredericksburg and recovered the dead from the Bloody Plain. Of the more than 1,000 bodies removed, only TWO could be identified. You are quite right that John Bryant was probably among the unknowns buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. If you send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, I would be happy to send you some accounts of the 18th MA at Fredericksburg. We have some excellent descriptions of the battle by members of the regiment. John Hennessy
George Wheeler is known to the Charlestown N.H. Historical Society. Imagine my surprise to find this article featuring him. We have always wondered if he is the soldier mentioned in the diary of Mary Cushing, a child in our town, who noted that, “There was a funeral at the church of a soldier that was killed.” The entry is dated February 22, 1863. Her church was the Unitarian Church, and George’s death was the nearest we knew of any local soldier’s. His cemetery marker in Forest Hill Cemetery notes the date and the place as Falmouth, Va. It was common for families to place cemetery stones for sons killed in the war or simply away from their home. But I still don’t know what W.A.W. stands for. Your work is so very important–finding the lost. Thank you for finding our local son. Joyce Higgins