“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. Continue reading


Burying the dead at Spotsylvania–1864

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.]:

Unioni burial temas in 1864. An engraving made from a period photograph.

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.”

Burial of a Confederate soldier at Widow Alsop's farm.

Not all graves were so large and impersonal. Continue reading

The Bone Collectors: Creation of Wilderness Cemetery #1

From Donald Pfanz (for an earlier post on Wilderness Cemetery #2, click here):

[We are very happy to welcome Donald Pfanz to Mysteries and Conundrums. The following is the product of his extensive work on the creation of the National Cemetery, which we’ll soon be publishing as part of our publication series. ]

Skeletons in the Wilderness. Scenes like this stimulated the Federal government to take action, and so they dispatched a regiment to accord the dead proper burial.

In June 1865, in response to clamorous complaints about the dead left unburied on the battlefields around Fredericksburg, the Federal government dispatched the 1st U.S. Veteran Volunteers to undertake reburial of the bodies. The 1st Volunteers reached Fredericksburg late on the afternoon of June 10 and pitched its tents on the south side of the Rappahannock River.  Some wandered the streets of the shell-torn town; others walked across the plain leading to Marye’s Heights, where Union arms had suffered defeat on December 13, 1862.  Unlike the Union soldiers who had perished in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House, most of those who had died at Fredericksburg had been buried immediately after the battle.  William Landon, who had fought at Fredericksburg as a member of the 14th Indiana Infantry, took the opportunity to search the town for the graves of comrades who had fallen there.  He found but one:  Corporal John E. Hutchins of Company B, the “Old Post Guards.”

Landon and his comrades resumed their march the next morning, heading west along one of two roads:  the Orange Turnpike or the Orange Plank Road.  By noon, the First Regiment reached Chancellorsville.  The charred remains of the Chancellor house and the scattered remnants of blankets, knapsacks, and other equipment bore silent witness to the fierce struggle that had been waged there.  Passing on, the regiment reached the Wilderness Battlefield late that afternoon.  The soldiers bivouacked on the northern end of the battlefield at an abandoned goldmine– possibly the Woodville Mine.  No sooner had they arrived than “a crowd of half-starved women and children” and a few men in Confederate uniform flooded into the camp, hoping to trade garden vegetables for food that the soldiers carried in their wagons.  “All the rations we could spare were freely given them,” wrote Landon, but the demand far exceeded the supply and many went away hungry.

Wilderness Cemetery #1, created June 1865, and in existence for just over one year. Brevet Major Moore enclosed Wilderness National Cemetery No. 1 with a simple board fence. Each of the headboards visible in the photograph appears to read: "Uknown U.S. Soldiers Killed May 1864"

Continue reading

Wilderness Military Cemetery #2

From Hennessy:

This headboard has just gone on permanent display at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center in a new exhibit, “A Family Shattered,” which tells the story of a single family whose patriarch, John Patterson, was killed at the Wilderness.  His death in turn led to a disastrous thread of events for his family back home.  The point of the exhibit is to show how what happened on our fields reverberated across the American landscape.  The headboard shown here marked Patterson’s grave on the Wilderness Battlefield before his body was returned to his hometown cemetery after the war. The board was put up by burial crews in 1865, undoubtedly replacing a cruder headboard that had marked his burial place since his death in May 1864.

Here’s an image of what some of the marked graves at the Wilderness looked like before the burial parties arrived in 1865 and installed new headboards.  This view is on the Carpenter Farm, probably not far from where Patterson was originally buried.

The Patterson headboard is the only surviving example of the mass-produced, hand-painted grave markers that stood over Union graves prior to the creation of the National Cemetery in 1866 and 1867.  In my view, it is one of the most compelling artifacts we have.  We are grateful to Patterson’s descendant, Bill Phillis of Michigan, for making it available for display.  If you can get to Chancellorsville VC, take a look.

Take a look too at this image of Wilderness Military Cemetery #2 (below).  While Patterson was buried elsewhere, you can see instantly that the headboards in this view are virtually identical to the Patterson marker (click to enlarge). Continue reading