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At Ease: Where Valor Proudly Sleeps

Burying The Fallen Soldiers


As Memorial Day weekend approaches on the calendar, we've been doing some research and pulling sources related to the burial of fallen Civil War soldiers here in Central Virginia. In this email, you'll find details about the burial of Union dead in 1865, the creation of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, and the Confederate Cemetery at Spotsylvania Court House. Take some time to reflect on the sacrifices of America's fallen soldiers, and we hope you have a meaningful Memorial Day...


Burial of the Union Dead in the Wilderness & at Spotsylvania Court House

Soldiers' remains waiting for burial nearby Cemetery No. 2 in The Wilderness. (Library of Congress)

Adapted from an article by Donald C. Pfanz, originally published in Volume IV of Fredericksburg: History & Biography The Civil War has the sanguinary distinction of being the bloodiest war in American history. In four years of fighting, more than 600,000 American soldiers perished. Of that number approximately 360,000—or 58 percent—belonged to the Union Army. Responsibility for burying the Northern dead fell to the Quartermaster Corps. Although it could do little while the war was in progress, the Quartermaster Department set about the grisly task with energy and determination once it ended. It began its work at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, the opening battles of General Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign. Captain James M. Moore led the Union burial effort. Moore had enlisted as a private in the 19th Pennsylvania Infantry in 1861 but later transferred to the Quartermaster Department, where he spent the last part of the war supervising the burial of Union soldiers who had died in hospitals in and around Washington D.C. On June 7, 1865, Inspector General James A. Hardie set Moore on a new task, directing him “to take charge of the duty of the burial of the Union soldiers, portions of whose remains, it is reported, are lying exposed on the fields of the engagements at Wilderness and Spotsylvania and that vicinity”.... The 1st United States Veteran Volunteers...a hodgepodge of officers and men who had reenlisted in the army after having previously served in other regiments [were assigned to the burial task].... The First Regiment began collecting skeletons on June 12. Starting at the northern end of the [Wilderness] battlefield, the soldiers slowly worked their way south through “woods, thickets, fields, and swamps,” searching for human remains. After going a certain distance, they would halt, change direction, then move forward again, marking the graves of those who had been properly interred and gathering up the remains of those who had not…. Although required to bury only the Union dead, [they] took it upon themselves to inter Confederates that they found too, a task that nearly doubled their workload. Soldiers whose graves could be identified received a simple headboard. Such was the case of John W. Patterson, colonel of the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, who had died on May 5, 1864. Patterson’s men had committed his body to the ground and marked his grave with whatever wood happened to be available at the time. When [the grave searchers] found Patterson’s grave, more than a year later, they replaced the rough headboard with a tablet of their own. Patterson’s family later recovered his body and took the tablet home with them as a relic of his death…. Patterson was more fortunate than most. Few soldiers had been buried, and fewer still had boards identifying their graves…. [The efforts to properly bury these soldiers resulted in the interment of nearly 1,500 skeletons in several large cemeteries or burial grounds at The Wilderness and near Spotsylvania Court House. A list of names and marked burial sites allowed some families to find their fallen loved ones and rebury them in more permanent cemeteries across the nation.] The work done by Moore...and the men of the First Regiment remained intact for only a year. Confronted with the task of interring more than 15,000 Union soldiers in the Fredericksburg area, in 1866 the War Department decided to consolidate the graves of Union soldiers into a single cemetery located on Marye’s Heights. Over the next two years, burial parties scoured the Fredericksburg region, bringing in wagonload after wagonload of human remains. Among them were the skeletons of soldiers buried by the First Regiment in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House. Today all traces of Wilderness National Cemetery No. 1 are gone, as are the individual plots of those once buried on the Spotsylvania battlefield. Only at Wilderness National Cemetery No. 2 can one still find evidence of Captain Moore’s expedition. There, amongst the decaying leaves, visitors can still see shallow depressions in the earth, whose regular alignment identifies them as former graves—haunting reminders of the great “Skeleton Hunt” of 1865.


The Confederate Cemetery at Spotsylvania

Spotsylvania Confederate Cemetery - early spring

In 1866, the newly formed Ladies Memorial Association of Spotsylvania County was organized to perpetuate the memory of those Confederate men—known and unknown—whose graves were scattered over the battlefields and farms of Spotsylvania. A local tavern owner, Joseph Sanford, deeded 15 acres to eight trustees, "for the purpose of collecting and interring at one point the remains of the noble and gallant dead who fell on the battlefields of Spotsylvania County." Soldiers were identified from sources such as personal belongings, cards, caps, books, and wooden headboards left by fellow soldiers and friends. according to the original cemetery register, the remains of 570 Confederate soldiers, from 10 states, had been moved to the site by November 1868. Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. (Adapted from Chris Ferguson's article in Volume 2 of Fredericksburg: History & Biography)


"Where Valor Proudly Sleeps"

This video—originally created in 2020 for Memorial Day—features the Civil War poem "Where Valor Proudly Sleeps," which is often associated with historic burial grounds and often times on interpretive panels in National Cemeteries for Civil War veterans.


Parting Shot

This image was created in 1908, showing a Memorial Day moment at the grave of a Civil War veteran. Memorial Day as it is observed as a national holiday today has its roots in post-Civil War history and decoration days of soldiers' graves.


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.

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