Or maybe they were among the Northern soldiers who pillaged Fredericksburg as the battle here unfolded in a federal defeat.
All the archaeologists have to go on are the things they left behind — bullets, charred clay pipe bowls, buckles, buttons and other refuse of war.
Last month, experts finished unearthing, in the basement of a long-vanished house, a trove of artifacts that appears to date from the Civil War’s Battle of Fredericksburg — 150 years ago next month.
Thousands of items, dropped, discarded or forgotten, were dug from the site, which became sealed in time after the Union army retreated from the December 1862 battle and the house on the site burned down.
They were tantalizing finds — bullets that had been unloaded from muskets; two brass letters, “C,” likely from Union hats; two number “2” insignia, perhaps indicating the soldiers’ regiment.
There were also knapsack hooks, the finial from a cartridge box, and the remains of ration tins, almost all of it the equipment of Yankee soldiers, archaeologists said.
For a century and a half, it stayed buried. After the war passed, modern buildings came and went on the site, and the soldiers who fought at Fredericksburg aged, died and faded into memory.
Then, in September, the Glen Allen, Va., firm Cultural Resources began an archaeological dig at the behest of the city of Fredericksburg, prior to the construction of a new court building.
As the archaeologists peeled back the layers of dirt and history, artifacts by the thousands began to emerge.
“I had never really sunk into a Civil War feature like that, so it was childlike for me,” said Donald Sadler, a project archaeologist. “You’d take your trowel and go across the one layer and it was ‘chink, chink, chink, chink, chink.’ The bullets were that numerous.”
The experts recovered “boxes of this stuff,” Taft Kiser, another project archaeologist, said recently at the company’s headquarters, where the items are being curated. The dig, which cost about $70,000, ended Oct. 19.
Ellen M. Brady, the firm’s president, said the basement had become a time capsule, encased most recently beneath the concrete slab of a modern building, since torn down.
“We think that the house that was there during the Civil War was burned, either during the battle in 1862 or shortly thereafter,” she said. “What the archaeology is telling is that sometime after this battle . . . this house was gone.”
“There’s no 20th-century trash,” she said. “There’s no co-mingling with later material.. . . It’s very discrete, which is rare.”
She said some of the items — glass inkwells, a comb, a watch chain — suggest that the Yankees’ stay in the basement might have been for more than a few hours.