After 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, a grisly but noble enterprise to honor the fallen


On January 7, 1864 Pennsylvania's Governor Curtin appointed David Wills, Esq. of Gettysburg as agent to purchase a site for "The Soldiers National Cemetery." (Hanover Area Historical Society, Hanover, PA /Hanover Area Historical Society, Hanover, PA)
September 13, 2013

Each time a dead soldier was dug up on the shattered battlefield here, the short, bearded figure of Samuel Weaver was there with his iron hook to ensure that it was not a rebel.

He could usually tell by the shoes, undergarments or coat. Confederates often wore confiscated Yankee trousers but never the blue wool Union coat, he reported. Rebel clothing was cotton, and gray or brown in color.

If the soldier was from the South, he was left in place, and his grave closed up again. “In no instance was a body allowed to be removed which had any portion of the rebel clothing on it,” Weaver reported.

He and his team were searching only for boys in blue — “our fallen heroes” — to be removed to Gettysburg’s new National Cemetery.

There, no Confederate could rest.

In the months and years after the titanic Civil War battle here in July 1863, Weaver was part of a vast and grisly enterprise in which the bodies of thousands of soldiers, first Union and then Confederate, were exhumed and moved.

Union dead went to the new cemetery on Cemetery Hill or to homes in the North. Confederates, eventually, went to homes and cemeteries across the South.

It was a gruesome task. Weaver used the hook to probe into clothing pockets for items that might help with identification, according to a witness.

But it was undertaken with a Victorian sense of care and obligation, as well as a familiarity with death.

“There was not a grave permitted to be opened or a body searched unless I was present,” Weaver, a Gettysburg merchant hired to supervise the exhumations, wrote the year after the battle.

“I was inflexible in enforcing this rule, and . . . can say with the greatest satisfaction to myself and to the friends of the soldiers that I saw every body taken out of its temporary resting place, and all the pockets carefully searched.”

There were thousands of bodies, in all stages of decomposition, from skeletal to well-preserved, depending on where and when they had been buried.

Men had been shot to death, struck by cannon balls, stabbed with bayonets, clubbed with rifle butts and burned.

They were buried in corn fields, in orchards, under apple trees, along roadsides, in woods and beside creeks.

Some had been well buried by comrades.

Most had been buried in hastily dug holes that were easily disturbed by animals, rain or a plough.

Weaver, in a report to cemetery authorities, never mentioned the odor that must have attended his work. But historians have recorded that the smell of the battlefield could be detected from afar. Residents carried around bottles of peppermint oil and pennyroyal to mask the stench.

Weaver and his men, led by a free black subcontractor named Basil Biggs, dug up 3,354 Northern soldiers and moved them to the new cemetery from Oct. 27, 1863, to March 18, 1864, according to Weaver’s official report.

The cemetery authorities paid $1.59 a body, and Washington supplied the pine coffins. A separate contractor reburied the bodies in the new cemetery, three feet down and side by side.

Weaver noted that he also examined more than 3,000 rebel graves. (He was mistaken in his belief that no Confederates had been moved to the new cemetery. As many as nine rebels were accidently buried among their Yankee foes, according to the National Park Service.)

But it wasn’t until the early 1870s, after Weaver’s death, that his son, Rufus B. Weaver, a Philadelphia physician, began the formal removal of Gettysburg’s Confederate dead.

He exhumed from the battlefield and shipped south, mainly to Richmond, the bodies of thousands of rebels — so many that Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery has a Gettysburg Hill.

The ‘nameless’ dead

Neither the Northern nor Southern armies were prepared for the Civil War’s scale of death.

The Union army had no regular burial details and no grave registration units, Harvard historian Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in her 2008 book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”

Southern armies were in a similar predicament.

Battlefield dead were most often buried haphazardly. There were seldom coffins. A dead soldier was wrapped in a blanket, if he was lucky. His name, if it could be learned, might be penciled on a board stuck in the ground or carved in a nearby tree.

Many were simply buried in trenches.

At Gettysburg, Weaver found as many as 70 Union soldiers in one trench and 150 rebels in another.

The result was that many fallen soldiers went unidentified. Weaver reported that 979 of the bodies he exhumed were “nameless.”

Appalling post-battle scenes had prompted Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, after a visit, to set in motion the establishment of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, 150 years ago this fall.

It was dedicated Nov. 19, 1863, and immortalized in a speech given there by President Abraham Lincoln.

The things they carried

An old photograph shows Weaver standing by the grave with an open book in his hand. Bare trees and a schoolhouse are in the background, along with several children who are watching.

Weaver looks at the camera while a crew of black workers appears to have just exhumed a body. Fresh coffins stand by at the ready.

The moment was captured in February 1864, in a churchyard in Hanover, a town east of Gettysburg, where 19 Union soldiers were killed in a cavalry skirmish the day before the battle.

It’s a rare and striking photograph that shows Weaver and his men exhuming some of the bodies for transfer to the National Cemetery, according to Gettysburg photo historian William A. Frassanito.

In his report, Weaver explained the process.

In cases in which a grave was unmarked, “I examined all the clothing and everything about the body to find the name,” Weaver wrote. “I then saw the body, with all the hair and all the particles of bone, carefully placed in the coffin.”

If there was a headboard, he ordered it nailed to the coffin. He then wrote the name, company and regiment of the soldier on the coffin and numbered it. He entered the same information in his logbook.

In the process of examining the bodies, he often found things the men had been carrying. He set them aside in special packages for relatives or friends to claim later. There were 287 such packages, he reported. He included a list of what was found.

Most were the simple items that the average Billy Yank might carry — a comb, a pipe, a toothbrush, a knife, a fork and a spoon. But there were also diaries, photographs, letters, a rosary and Bibles.

With the body of Sgt. L.H. Lee — regiment unknown — Weaver found two combs, a diary and “the bullet that killed him.”

Thomas Doman, of the 25th Ohio regiment, was found with $4 and a gold locket.

One unknown soldier was found with a Bible in German that was inscribed by “Catherine Detanpafer.”

A soldier identified as Charles Sets had a pocketbook and locks of hair from his father, mother, sister and brother.

William S. Hodgdon, of the 20th Maine, had a fish hook with him. Capt. G.D. Smith, of the 4th Maine, was found with his false tooth. And another unknown soldier was found with a handkerchief spread over his face.

According to a study of the aftermath of the battle by historian Gregory A. Coco, a Gettysburg teenager named Leander Warren, who ferried bodies and pine coffins in a freight wagon, had vivid memories of the work:

“Many friends of the dead soldiers came here to witness the disinterment of their loved ones and the new burial in the national plot. Many of the women — wives, mothers, or sweethearts — fainted or became hysterical when the bodies were uncovered. . . . Most were unrecognizable.”

Homecoming

On June 20, 1872, a solemn procession of wagons bearing Richmond’s first shipment of Confederate dead from Gettysburg made its way along Main street toward Hollywood Cemetery.

The city’s streets and rooftops were jammed, according to a history of the cemetery by Mary H. Mitchell. The wagons were draped in white and black and covered with flowers and Confederate banners.

Buildings were draped in mourning, and flags flew at half-staff. The procession was headed by a band, along with the mayor and city officials.

A thousand former Confederate soldiers followed, preceded by former Southern generals, including George E. Pickett, whose grand assault at Gettysburg had been smashed in the battle’s climax.

Five days earlier, the Powhatan Steamship Company had delivered to the James River wharf at Rocketts 279 wooden boxes containing the remains of 708 Southern soldiers exhumed from the battlefield.

It took dock workers 21 / 2 hours to unload them, Mitchell wrote.

The boxes had been sent by Samuel Weaver’s son, Rufus B. Weaver, who had carefully packed 239 bodies he could identify in individual boxes.

He had been unable to identify 469 remains in the shipment but surmised that, because of where they were buried, 325 of them had fallen in “Picketts Charge.” He placed them in 27 boxes he labeled with the letter “P.” The rest of the unidentified bodies were found in other parts of the battlefield and were placed in 13 boxes.

Rufus Weaver had been born in Gettysburg and by 1869 was finishing his medical studies and was a “demonstrator of anatomy” at Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Medical College.

As early as 1865, his father had started to get inquiries from Southern families seeking help finding the remains of loved ones killed at Gettysburg.

But Samuel Weaver was killed in February 1871, in a fluke railroad mishap.

By then Southern social organizations in several cities had started lobbying and raising funds to return to the South Confederate soldiers buried at Gettysburg.

After the elder Weaver’s death, Southerners turned to his son. Realizing that he was their best hope, Rufus Weaver agreed to help, according to Mitchell.

“It required one with anatomical knowledge, to gather all the bones,” Weaver wrote later. “And regarding each bone important and sacred as an integral part of the skeleton, I removed them so that none might be left or lost.”

By 1873, he had exhumed and shipped from Gettysburg the remains of more than 3,000 Southern soldiers to Richmond, Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston.

In his final report, David Wills, the Gettysburg lawyer who led the effort to create the national cemetery, spoke for families North and South.

He wrote of the anguish of those who had a father, son or brother vanish on the battlefield. Then his remains were found, identified and given a proper burial.

“Words fail to describe the grateful relief that this work has brought to many a sorrowing household,” Wills wrote.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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