“Our Obligations to the Dead”

“Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment, the world has never witnessed.”


Only a little more than three months had passed since Appomattox when Horace Bushnell addressed the annual reunion of Yale alumni in July 1865. Asked to honor those Yale graduates who had lost their lives in the conflict, Bushnell insisted he could not and should not distinguish fellow collegians from the legions of those who had perished. Instead he spoke of all the Union dead, calling for the nation to acknowledge its debt to the fallen. Bushnell’s oration, “Our Obligations to the Dead,” sought to define the war’s meaning as inseparable from its human cost. In effect, he submitted to the reunited nation a bill on behalf of those who had paid the ultimate price during four years of conflict. In a language of gain and loss, of earning, buying, paying, and owing, Bushnell called Americans to account, demanding that the hundreds of thousands of lives lost be rendered purposeful, worth their expense of blood and suffering.1

Bushnell was far from alone in invoking and extolling the dead in the weeks after southern surrender. Just a few days before Bushnell’s Yale oration, for example, James Russell Lowell had stood before a parallel gathering of Harvard graduates in Cambridge to read a lengthy ode—more than four hundred lines—written to commemorate lost classmates. Twentieth-century novelist and critic Richard Marius once remarked that “on a hot summer day in Cambridge, this wretched poem must have been only slightly less painful than battle itself.” Romantic, sentimental, replete with rhetorical flourishes and classical and biblical references, Lowell’s ode hailed northern victory and mourned those missing from the assembly of graduates. “In these brave ranks I only see the gaps, / Thinking of dear ones whom the dumb turf wraps, / Dark to the triumph which they died to gain.” But Lowell’s empyrean salute to the “sacred dead” contrasted sharply with Bushnell’s pragmatic recognition that the living bore specific obligations to those who had perished. Bushnell’s remarks appealed to a widespread desire to translate commemoration into concrete action and to address what were seen as the enduring needs of the slain.2

The war’s work of killing was complete, but the claims of the dead endured. Many soldiers lay unburied, their bones littering battlefields across the South; still more had been hastily interred where they fell, far from family and home; hundreds of thousands remained unidentified, their losses unaccounted for. The end of combat offered an opportunity to attend to the dead in ways war had made impossible. Information could now flow freely across North and South; military officials would have time to augment and scrutinize incomplete casualty records; bodies scattered across the defeated Confederacy could be located and identified; the fallen could be honored without encroaching on the immediate and pressing needs of the living.

Clara Barton eagerly embraced these new possibilities. The necessities of war seemed to her to evolve logically into the demands of peace. Her care for wounded soldiers had always included supplying information to families about the men she treated at the front, and the end of hostilities seemed to bring only an increase in the numbers of letters she received in search of lost husbands and sons. Deeply sympathetic to “the distressed class of sufferers all through our land waiting, fearing, hoping, watching day by day for some little tidings of the loved and lost,” Barton determined to develop a way to relieve what she described as the “intense anxiety…amounting in many instances almost to insanity” of these petitioners.3

In the spring of 1865 she founded the Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army to serve as an information clearinghouse. Bypassing the tangled federal bureaucracy, she turned directly to the soldiers themselves for information about their slain or surviving friends. She would publish the names submitted by those in search of kin in hopes of soliciting news about them. As she explained at the top of one printed list: “I appeal to you to give such facts relative to the fate of these men as you may recollect or can ascertain. They have been your comrades on march, picket or raid, or in battle, hospital, or prison; and, falling there, the fact and manner of their death may be known only to you.” Within days of her announcement Barton had received several hundred letters, and communications soon poured in by the thousands to the tiny third-floor room at Seventh and E streets in Washington that served, as its sign announced, as the “Missing Soldiers Office.” Lincoln had endorsed her efforts before his death, and in response to her persistent inquiries, President Andrew Johnson agreed to subsidize the dissemination of her lists. By mid-June she had published the names of 20,000 men; by the time she finally closed the office in 1868, she reported that it had received and answered 68,182 letters and had secured information about 22,000 missing soldiers.4

For the military, war’s end permitted the systematic assessment of losses that the unrelenting pressures of conflict had prohibited. In July 1865 Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs ordered every Union commander to submit a report of “all interments registered during the war.” These records became the basis for the Roll of Honor, lists of names and burial places of “soldiers who died in defence of the American Union” that Meigs would print in twenty-seven installments, constituting eight bound volumes, as officers executed his order over the course of the next six years. But wartime records listed only 101,736 registered burials, fewer than a third of the estimated total of Union fatalities. It was clear that hundreds of thousands of northern soldiers lay in undocumented locations, their remains untended and even unmarked, their deaths unknown to their families as well as to military record keeping.5


Clara Barton, circa 1865. Photograph by Mathew Brady. Clara Barton National Historic Site/National Park Service.

Official policy toward the dead evolved slowly over the next several years, but immediate action seemed imperative, as a matter of both decency and expediency. The longer bodies were left without proper burial, the more vulnerable they became to depredation and the less likely they were to be identifiable. Military commanders improvised in the face of need and opportunity. In June 1865 Captain James Moore, an assistant quartermaster who had been active in fledgling graves registration efforts during the war, was ordered to the Wilderness and Spotsylvania “for the purpose of superintending the interments of the remains of Union soldiers yet unburied and marking their burial-places for future identification.” Moore found hundreds of unmarked graves, as well as skeletons that had been left for more than two years without the dignity of burial. “By exposure to the weather,” he reported, “all traces of their identity were entirely obliterated.” Summer heat and “the unpleasant odor from decayed matter” prevented him from removing all bodies to a central location, but he made sure all were carefully interred, with remains appropriately “hidden from view.” On these two fields he estimated that he oversaw the burial of fifteen hundred men, although the scattering of so many bones made an exact count impossible. Soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, not yet mustered out of service, did the often repellent work. Moore reported that 785 tablets were erected over named graves, and he submitted a list of the officers and men he had identified.6

As soon as Moore completed this assignment, he was ordered to the site of the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, where so many Union soldiers had perished. Officially named Camp Sumter, Andersonville had held 45,000 Union soldiers between its opening in February 1864 and the end of the war. Known for its especially brutal conditions, it comprised little more than a stockade surrounding twenty-five acres of ground on which men crowded together without shelter or adequate food, polluting the stream that provided the camp’s only drinking water. The death rate from disease and violence reached nearly 30 percent, and the prison’s commander, Captain Henry Wirz, would hang in November 1865 for war crimes.7

In late June 1865 a former Andersonville prisoner named Dorence Atwater contacted Clara Barton, offering to help identify men on her published lists. A Connecticut soldier who had been confined at the camp for almost its entire existence, Atwater had been assigned to maintain a record of the dead. Determined to document the horror he had witnessed, he had kept a hidden copy for himself. This enumeration corresponded with numbered graves, offering the possibility of identifying a great many who had endured the camp’s extreme conditions. When he learned of the existence of the list, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized an expedition to Andersonville under Captain Moore’s command and invited Clara Barton to participate. Moore, Barton, Atwater, forty laborers and craftsmen, and seven thousand “unlettered headboards” departed from Washington by boat on July 8, 1865. Vying for preeminence—Barton insisted the expedition was her idea—Moore and Barton quickly grew to resent and even detest each other. Moore was overtly hostile, in part to the very presence of a woman on an official military expedition, and he reportedly declared at the outset of the trip, “God damn it to hell! Some people don’t deserve to go anywhere. And what in hell does she want to go for?” Upon her return Barton formally complained to Stanton about Moore’s behavior.8


“A Burial Party on the Battle-field of Cold Harbor, Virginia, April 1865.” A part of the Federal reinterment effort under the command of James Moore. Negative by John Reekie; print and caption by Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.

The insalubrious conditions that had tormented the prisoners also took their toll. The summer heat was almost unbearable—often well over a hundred degrees—and a number of laborers became ill, including a “letterer” assigned to paint headboards, who died of typhoid—the “last martyr of Andersonville,” Barton noted in her diary. The expedition nevertheless documented 13,363 bodies and succeeded in identifying 12,912. All were reinterred in marked graves, and on August 17 their resting place was dedicated as the Andersonville National Cemetery. Barton was honored to raise the Stars and Stripes where “the flag of the country” had not “floated in four dark years.”9

In the western theater similar efforts were under way. On June 23, 1865, Major General George H. Thomas, commander of the Department of the Cumberland, had ordered Chaplain William Earnshaw to identify and reinter soldiers scattered around Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in the Stones River National Cemetery, established in 1864 to commemorate the bloody battle that had taken place there two years before. Earnshaw began searches of the surrounding area, investigating old sites of camps and garrisons within a radius of nearly a hundred miles.

In the summer of 1865 the ultimate intentions of the federal government toward the war dead were not yet clear, and officers acted in response to circumstances in the field. Moore had at first thought that he would move all the bodies he found on the Virginia battlefields to a central cemetery, but summer weather changed his plan. His activities came to focus on the effort just to provide decent burial for remains that were either still above ground or were buried so shallowly as to invite destruction by hogs or vandals. Ordered to attend to the Union dead, Moore also interred many Confederates in order simply to clean up the littered Virginia fields. In the West Earnshaw undertook a wider and more systematic search, with the definite purpose of transferring Union bodies to an already existing national cemetery. It was, he declared, “our solemn duty to find every solitary Union soldier’s grave that marked the victorious path of our men in pursuit of the enemy.” Indeed, by the time he was finished, he believed that within his assigned area “not more than 50 Union soldiers still sleep outside our beautiful cemetery.”10


“Miss Clara Barton Raising the National Flag, August 17, 1865,” at Andersonville. Sketched by I. C. Schotel. Harper’s Weekly, October 7, 1865.

Only gradually in the years following southern surrender did a general sense of obligation toward the dead yield firm policy. Only slowly did the orders of individual military commanders combine with legislative authorization and funding to create an enormous and comprehensive postwar reburial program intended to locate every Union soldier across the South and inter all within a new system of national cemeteries. But this was not the goal at the outset. Widespread and continuing public discussion about the dead gradually articulated a set of principles that influenced military and legislative policy. The experience of federal officials assigned, like James Moore, to begin the interment and identification of the slain shaped attitudes as well, as the actual conditions of wartime graves and burials became known. The transcendent ideals of citizenship, sacrifice, and national obligation united with highly practical and ever-growing concerns about southern mistreatment of gravesites and bodies to result in what was arguably the most elaborate federal program undertaken in nearly a century of American nationhood.

In October 1865, sobered by the difficulties already encountered in the attempt to compile reliable lists of the dead, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs issued another general order, calling upon officers to provide a survey of cemeteries containing Union soldiers. He requested details about the location and condition of graveyards, the state of relevant records, and officers’ recommendations for the protection and preservation of remains. He asked specifically for an evaluation of the appropriateness of each site and a judgment as to whether bodies should be left in place or removed to a “permanent cemetery near.” After interruptions necessitated by summer heat, Moore in the East and Earnshaw in the West resumed their efforts under these new guidelines, and on December 26 Edmund B. Whitman, chief quartermaster of the Military Division of the Tennessee, was relieved of his regular duties and assigned responsibility “to locate the scattered graves of Union soldiers” across a wide area of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Whitman had served in the Quartermaster Corps during the war, enlisting from his home in Kansas soon after the opening of hostilities. A Harvard College graduate of the Class of 1838 and a New England school-teacher, he had emigrated to Kansas in 1855 as one of a number of abolitionists committed to preventing the permanent establishment of slavery in that strife-torn and “bleeding” territory. Now, a decade later, he embarked on an expedition to locate and honor those who had perished in the cause for which he had fought so long.11

As he contemplated his assignment, Whitman concluded that “a knowledge and a record of every grave” must be “in the possession of some living person.” Like Clara Barton, he sought surviving witnesses who alone had the information necessary to enable him to locate and identify the dead. Whitman composed a circular entitled “Important Information Wanted,” addressed to “Surgeons, Chaplains, Agents of Sanitary and Christian Commissions, Quartermasters, Officers or Soldiers,” and forwarded it to three hundred newspapers and periodicals for publication. Announcing that the United States Quartermaster General had ordered the preparation of a “record…of all Union soldiers who have been buried in the Rebel States,” Whitman requested assistance in locating the fallen. Whitman later reflected, after completion of the assignment, how important this circular had proved not simply in generating information but in engaging the broader public. His communication, he judged, had proved critical in creating a “sympathetic chord” and had “exerted an influence in the creation of the public sentiment which justified and sustained the subsequent measures adopted.”12

The circular provoked an outpouring of responses. Relatives begged Whitman to find the remains of lost kin; other correspondents furnished “drawings and descriptions” indicating the exact spot where a friend or comrade had been buried. Often, Whitman reported, these proved “so minute and accurate in the details, that any person could proceed with unerring certainty to the very grave.” A letter from A. T. Blackmun, for example, explained that his brother had been buried in a cemetery five miles east of Vicksburg, in an orchard near the railroad. “The grave is under & to the South side of the fourth apple tree, in the third row of trees, counting from the side nearest Vicksburg.” Pencil marks on Blackmun’s letter indicate that these detailed directions served their purpose and that his brother was indeed found. Isaac Weightman of the 29th Pennsylvania, killed in battle in Georgia, was buried “on the left side of the Railroad going towards Atlanta about a mile off along a small creek near the Breastworks of the rebels…by a big tree,” reported a letter written by a neighbor on his mother’s behalf. A fellow soldier had sent the bereaved woman information about her son’s death and burial, but she had not been able to visit or reclaim his body. A piece of cracker box inscribed with lead pencil marked his grave; his body was buried in only his trousers. “Any information will be a great solace to his mother who has given three (3) sons and (3) sons in law to the armies of our country.”13

Chaplains wrote to Whitman with complete lists of regimental dead and their places of burial. One clergyman who had returned home to New Bedford, Massachusetts, provided documentation for two hundred graves in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Many soldiers seemed to have “whiled away boredom copying names from graves,” lists that they eagerly forwarded in response to Whitman’s request. Surgeons sent plans of hospital burial grounds with numbered graves and rolls of names. Officers who had been in charge of burial parties on the field had sometimes prepared plots of interments. “In the case of the 46 Ohio Regiment,” Whitman reported, “such a paper, stained and soiled at the time of burial,” would lead “to the identification after the lapse of more than 4 years of the entire group of dead from that regiment on the Shiloh battlefield.”14

Whitman’s circular served as Gabriel’s trumpet, summoning the names and memories of the dead, raising them from neglect and anonymity, and ultimately returning hundreds of thousands of them to the nation. Whitman’s trumpet summoned another band, arousing the living as well. His request for information uncovered an army of record keepers, waiting to be asked for the details they had carefully gathered and preserved, even without any clear notion of their purpose. They had documented identities and gravesites, had spent spare hours copying names and regiments from headboards, in hopes that this information might someday and somehow assist in the return of a body or the commemoration of a grave. They had compiled their lists and drawn their maps as acts of respect and reverence in and of themselves, as a small personal statement of opposition to the war’s erasure of human life. Whitman’s appeal invited them to connect their individual efforts to the policies and actions of the state. The federal government had provided Gabriel with his horn.

On March 1, 1866, a day he described as fine, cold, and windy, Whitman left Nashville on his mission, heading first to the site of the battle at Fort Donelson with a party of ten clerks and soldiers, as well as a cook and a mule handler. He would later add three more clerks and eight more soldiers to manage the work he found. The “entire country over which the war has extended its ravages,” he soon recognized, “composes one vast charnel house of the dead.” Whitman approached his work with the system and organization that marked him as an experienced quartermaster. In each locality he first visited battlefields, then the sites of former military hospitals, then private cemeteries. He devised a memorandum of eleven points “for guidance in exploring for Graves,” a kind of checklist of matters to be considered, beginning with locating and counting graves, characterizing their condition, then listing inscriptions on headboards, identifying individuals who might have relevant information, and finally making suggestions for permanent cemeteries. He strove above all to be thorough, for he was committed to the importance of every Union body and every soldier’s grave.15

Whitman proceeded with a sense of growing urgency, recognizing that information and even the bodies themselves were highly vulnerable to both human and natural forces. News abounded of distressing incidents of vandalism of Union graves and bodies. Accounts reached Whitman of corpses thrown naked and facedown into pits, of a body left lying to rot with a pitchfork still impaled in its back, and of the “constant depredation of headboards” in battlefield burial grounds. When he pursued a father’s request that his son be moved from where he had fallen on the field in Georgia to the national cemetery in Chattanooga, Whitman learned that the body had already been claimed by local men “for the purposes of studying anatomy.” Only two small arm bones, one hand bone, and his clothing remained in Oliver Barger’s ransacked grave. Whitman received numerous reports of violence perpetrated against those who dared to care for Union bodies or graves. In Kentucky a man had even been killed for permitting two Yankees to be buried in his yard. A “constant depredation of Headboards and other trespasses and defilements, are constantly occurring,” Whitman’s superior officer in Nashville informed the quartermaster general in Washington.16

In February 1866 Major General George Thomas issued a general order forbidding desecration of Union graves and directing specifically that they must not be mutilated or obliterated in the course of the spring plowing season, which was about to begin for the first time since the end of the war. By April concerns about vandalism had reached Washington, and Congress passed a joint resolution requiring the secretary of war “to take immediate measures to preserve from desecration the graves of the soldiers of the United States who fell in battle or died of disease…and secure suitable burial places in which they may be properly interred.” Now the legislative branch joined the military in the disposition of the Union dead.17

Whitman’s superiors delivered elaborate orders about his responsibilities and their goals: “so far as practicable every Union soldier in the Milt Div of the Tennessee, shall finally rest in a well enclosed and decent ground, with a neat index to his grave, and with an accessible record of his final resting place.” On “battle fields of national interest,” where the northern public might be enlisted to support the “work of ornamentation,” or where graves were “scattered and unprotected,” it would be advisable to collect the bodies together in one place. But if remains lay peaceably in a churchyard or cemetery, “it is not desirable to incur an increase of expense to remove them, simply to carry out a general scheme.” Whitman was to locate graves, mark and protect isolated burial spots, and “form some plans” about graves that should be moved and about sites to which they might be relocated. Whitman’s superiors insisted that bodies that had been decently interred should be left where they lay except when “a savage and vindictive spirit of the part of the disloyal inhabitants” suggested “a disposition to molest the remains.” Increasingly, Whitman was coming to regard such vengefulness as less the exception than the rule.18

In the year since Appomattox the defeated white South had moved from stunned disbelief to a posture of growing defiance. Encouraged by President Andrew Johnson’s sympathy, former Confederates tested the limits of northern will, challenging Yankee claims to the fruits of victory. In the summer of 1865 southern legislatures passed restrictive and discriminatory Black Codes, designed to reestablish slavery in all but name; in the fall the recently rebellious states elected former Confederate military officers and politicians to represent them in Washington; throughout the South white southerners perpetrated and tolerated relentless violence against freedpeople. The hundreds of thousands of Union bodies in their midst provided an irresistible target for southern rage as well as a means to express the refusal to accept Confederate defeat. It had proved impossible to overcome a live Union army, but bitter Confederates could still wage war against a dead one.19

A particularly virulent outbreak of white violence in fact served as a direct cause of intensified congressional interest in Union graves. During the first four days of May 1866, Memphis erupted in what were generally designated as riots, although the death toll of forty-six blacks and two whites suggests that those who wrote of a “massacre” were more accurate. Ninety-one houses, all but one occupied by African Americans, four churches, and twelve schools were destroyed. Fear became so widespread among African Americans in the area that Whitman reported he was for some time unable to persuade black laborers to continue to work for him. Congress promptly dispatched a committee of three members of the House of Representatives to investigate causes of the disturbance. Ultimately the legislators made recommendations about controlling white defiance that played a significant role in the movement toward Radical Reconstruction. But the assistant quartermaster of the Division of the Tennessee, George Marshall, seized the opportunity provided by the congressmen’s presence in Memphis to impress upon them the importance of the effort to bury the Union dead and the danger in which many soldiers’ bodies lay. A delegation including Chaplain William Earnshaw, who had been overseeing reinterments at Stones River, convinced the congressmen that a comprehensive reburial program was imperative. The committee chair, Representative Elihu Washburne of Illinois, was particularly moved by the account of Union dead scattered across the South, and Whitman believed that this meeting led directly to the National Cemeteries Act that passed, along with a fifteenfold increase in appropriation, in the next Congress. But even before the bill became law, it was clear that after the discussion in Memphis the reinterment effort would assume a new and enhanced scope and importance.20

As spring unfolded, Whitman proceeded through the battlefields of Tennessee: Fort Donelson, Fort Henry, and then Shiloh. There, at the site of the battle that had first intimated the scale of slaughter to come, he encountered human bones scattered in “large quantities,” and he learned from nearby inhabitants that their hogs, customarily left free to forage, were no longer fit to be eaten “on account of their living off the dead.” Sweeping the field “deployed in the manner of a skirmish line,” Whitman and his men sought to cover every foot of terrain involved in the battle. A list of 315 gravesites that had been compiled by a Sanitary Commission agent just after the fighting proved of critical assistance, and Whitman’s party recorded and marked by compass points 178 different areas containing graves, including 21 burial trenches that held, he estimated, 250 bodies. Hundreds of men, he reported, seemed to have been “buried indiscriminately”—Yankees and rebels together—but Whitman was deeply moved by finding many soldiers in regimental groups, obviously carefully interred at the end of the battle by their comrades. These would be kept together when they were later removed to the national cemetery. In all Whitman discovered 1,874 Union dead, of whom 620 were identified by headboards or other inscriptions. About 200, he estimated, had been removed by relatives or friends. Keeping in mind the idea of siting national cemeteries at points of great historical interest, Whitman selected a potential spot on the Shiloh field.21

Near Memphis, Whitman encountered a road built over Union graves that had been all but destroyed by teams and carts, and he wrote sadly of 810 neglected Union graves in a cemetery three miles from the city. Nine hundred rebel graves in the same burial ground were carefully tended, with identities listed in a sexton’s book. The “Association of Southern Mothers,” he learned, had assumed responsibility for these Confederate dead, while their victorious Union counterparts lay dishonored beside them.22

Locating the many graves scattered beyond actual battlefields—casualties from skirmishes, or wounded men who died on the march, or men who succumbed to disease—required Whitman to seek information from local citizens who might have seen or heard of buried soldiers or even assisted in their interments. “As a rule,” he later remembered, “no residence or person was to be passed without the inquiry. ‘Do you know, or have you heard of any graves of Union soldiers in this neighborhood?’” When he arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, Whitman called upon the town postmaster, a federal employee after all, who might be expected to be both knowledgeable and helpful to a Union official. Whitman received not assistance but a warning. The postmaster declared that he would not dare tell a Yankee soldier about Union graves, even if he knew of them. Since the postmaster had taken the loyalty oath to qualify for his position at the end of the war, all his friends, cultivated during nineteen years of residence in the town, had abandoned him. He had even been asked to cease attending his church. “I am informed,” Whitman wrote his commanding officer, “that a disposition has been shown in this vicinity to obliterate and destroy all traces of the graves union soldiers find scattered in the country.”23

Farther south the Union dead seemed to be in even more distressing circumstances. Whitman discovered “immense numbers” of bodies in the area between Vicksburg and Natchez—perhaps, he thought, as many as forty thousand. These corpses were in every imaginable place and condition: buried on river embankments and then wholly or partially washed away (there were even reports of coffins floating like little boats down the Mississippi toward the sea), or abandoned in “ravines and jungles and dense cane brakes” and never buried at all. A farmer named Linn, who wanted to extend his cotton fields, had plowed up about thirty Union skeletons and then delivered the bones “in bulk” to the Vicksburg city cemetery. Not far away a Union graveyard had been leveled entirely to make way for a racecourse.24

As Whitman pursued his explorations, three hundred black soldiers at the Stones River National Cemetery continued to collect and rebury Union bodies from the wide surrounding area at the rate of fifty to a hundred a day. Stones River represented a pioneering example of the comprehensive reburial effort that by the summer of 1866 had come to be seen as necessary across the South. It also represented the critical role that African Americans had come to play in honoring the Union dead. Almost invariably units of U.S. Colored Troops were assigned the disagreeable work of burial and reburial, and Whitman’s own exploration party included several soldiers from U.S. Colored regiments. Individual black civilians also proved critical to Whitman’s effort to locate corpses and graves.25

“Justice to the race of freedmen,” Whitman reported to headquarters, demands “a tribute of grateful mention.” Rebuffed in his search for information by whites like the Mississippi postmaster, Whitman learned to turn to black southerners for help as he traversed the South in the spring and fall of 1866. “Most all the information gained” at one Georgia location, he reported to his journal, “was from negroes, who, as I was told…pay more attention to such matters than the white people.” There was a good deal more at issue here, Whitman soon recognized, than just attentiveness. Black southerners cared for the Union dead as a gesture of political assertiveness as well as a demonstration of gratitude and respect.26

During the war African Americans had risked their lives burying Union soldiers and trying to preserve both their names and their graves. About two miles from Savannah, in a corner of “the Negro Cemetery,” lay seventy-seven “graves of colored soldiers” in four neat rows. All but three were identified, all in “very good condition,” and all marked with “good painted headboards.” This was the last resting place of the dead of a unit of U.S. Colored Troops, carefully buried and tended by the freedpeople of the area. Whitman encountered other sites where former slaves had interred Yankees and still watched over their graves. Behind an African Colored Church near Bowling Green, Kentucky, for example, 1,134 well-tended graves sheltered both black and white Union soldiers. A black carpenter nearby was able to provide the most useful information about the area because he had made coffins and helped to bury many of the Union dead himself.27

Freedmen provided Whitman with assistance and information throughout his travels. Moses Coleman, “an intelligent negro,” sought Whitman out to tell him about the graves of nine Union soldiers who had been shot by Confederate cavalry after being taken prisoner: “one of whom he saw shot after being compelled to climb a tree.” A freedman eagerly offered the names and locations of two soldiers he had buried more than a year before; another former slave reported his employer’s desecration of soldiers’ graves and offered to identify thirty on his plantation that still remained undefiled.28

Such concern on the part of African Americans was hardly limited to Whitman’s experiences in the Military Division of the Tennessee. At the very end of the war, for example, African Americans in Charleston had tended the graves of more than two hundred Union captives who had died while confined in a makeshift prison on the city racecourse. Enclosing the burial ground and mounding and planting the graves, the freedmen painted a sign over the entryway inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course.” On May 1, 1865, the African American population of the city, under the protection of a full brigade of Union infantry, including three regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, honored the federal dead with flowers, processions, and oratory in what historian David Blight has argued was the first Decoration Day. In the warfare over the disposition of the dead, black southerners showed little hesitation in choosing sides.29

At the end of June Whitman proposed sites for national cemeteries at Fort Donelson, Pittsburgh Landing, Corinth, Memphis, and Vicksburg and presented his views about the future to the chief quartermaster of the Military Division of the Tennessee. Whitman affirmed his “conviction, which seems to have impressed itself in some degree upon all,” of the government’s “duty” toward the remains of those who “have died in so noble a service.” The experiences of the preceding months, he reported, had produced a “daily deepening in my own mind” of the importance of this federal obligation, as he had witnessed the “total neglect” or “wanton desecration” of Union graves by a southern population whose “hatred of the dead” seemed to exceed their earlier “abhorrence of the living.”30

Whitman’s travels across what he described as the “vast charnal house” of the South had, he confessed, “awakened a feeling of deep personal interest” in an undertaking that was “technically official.” He urged that in spite of the concerns his superiors had expressed about scope and cost, “the work be well and thoroughly done, with a true conception of its magnitude and significance.” Arguing that the federal government stood “in loco parentis” toward the Union dead, Whitman displayed a growing emotional engagement that was evident in his eloquent plea, phrased, like Bushnell’s oration, in the language of debt and obligation. The government, he insisted, held “a stewardship, the account of which must be rendered to the spirit of humanity and Christian patriotism, to the friends of republican liberty and of human freedom and progress throughout the world, to the free people of the North, whose dearest sons have been sacrificed to the demon of slavery and whose choicest treasures have been poured out.” Those who had fallen were not “hireling mercenaries” but citizens of a “Republican America where every man is himself a constituent and integral part of the Government.”31

The understanding of governmental obligation to the dead that Whitman advanced—“a stewardship, the account of which must be rendered”—was not his alone. By the middle of 1866 a chorus of voices in the North had begun to advocate policies toward the fallen that reflected fundamental assumptions about the principles for which the war had been fought. With the passage of conscription legislation in 1863, the nation had, for the first time in its history, mandated the obligation of the citizen to fight in its defense; it had mobilized millions of volunteers; now it had an obligation to those who had served. Citizenship represented a contract in which the state and the individual both assumed certain rights and duties, for which either could be called to account.

Clara Barton embraced these principles in her insistence that the work of naming the dead be regarded as a governmental responsibility. Late in 1865 she had explained her position in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton seeking federal support in the search for missing men. “The true patriot,” she declared,

willingly loses his life for his country—these poor men have lost not only their lives, but the very record of their death. Common humanity would plead that an effort be made to restore their identity…As call after call for “three hundred thousand more” fell upon their stricken homes, the wife released her husband and the mother sent forth her son, and they were nobly given to their country for its necessities: it might take and use them as the bonded officer uses the property given into his hands; it might if needs be use up or lose them and they would submit without complaint, but never…has wife or mother agreed that for the destruction of her treasures no account should be rendered her. I hold these men in the light of Government property unaccounted for.32

Like Bushnell, Barton wrote of accounts and treasures; like Whitman, she called for federal engagement with the care of Union dead. She explored basic notions of human rights, of the mutual obligations that bind state and citizens. Significantly, at the end of a war about slavery, she situated her discussion in concepts of property in persons. But this was not the property of slavery; this was citizenship, not bondage. Here the individual freely acted as his own agent, as a true patriot “willingly” ceding control over his life. And here, again in contrast to an institution that tore families asunder, the wife and mother consented to give up her husband and son “to their country for its necessities.”

But this cession of rights, of property in person, remains incomplete. It is, in effect, a contract in which the state must in return accept certain obligations—in Barton’s view, to provide a record of death, an accounting for the destruction of human treasure. And tellingly, in Barton’s rendering, it is undertaken between women and the state. Women, legally denied the right to make contracts in most of pre–Civil War America, here claim new rights of personhood and citizenship that derive from their wartime sacrifice. An accounting for the dead is an accounting to the bereaved. As she affirmed the individual’s right to identity and humanity even in death, Clara Barton articulated a notion of citizenship founded in the nation’s experience of civil war and in the suffering of both soldiers and civilians. The war that freed the slaves established broad claims to rights—for blacks as well as whites, for women as well as men, for both the living and the dead. But as Clara Barton certainly recognized, the soldier dead were all men. Survivors had not made the ultimate sacrifice; their claims upon the state would not have the same force as those of the soldiers who had suffered and perished. The rhetoric of Clara Barton’s letter to Stanton sought to minimize and even erase a gendered divide and a gendered hierarchy that Civil War death had only rendered more profound. But it was no accident that when the nation, however fleetingly, sought to expand its polity in the years immediately following the war, it was black men, who had served and died in such significant numbers, and neither white nor black women, whom the Fifteenth Amendment welcomed as newly enfranchised citizens.33


“The Soldier’s Grave,” by Currier and Ives, a lithograph that families could inscribe with details of a lost loved one. For those who had no actual grave to mark, this could serve as a substitute. Library of Congress.

In August 1866, as reburial efforts in the South slowed in response to summer heat, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an article calling for a comprehensive system of national cemeteries to include all Union dead. Building on notions of federal obligation that Bushnell, Barton, and Whitman had already articulated, James F. Russling defined treatment of the fallen as the sign and test of democracy, as well as the indicator of progress and modernity.

Except for “Republican Athens,” Russling argued, no people or nation had ever designated a burial place for the common soldier. He has “been overlooked, as if too humble to be taken into account.” But this was “a new era,” determined to “elevate our common humanity.” And perhaps even more important, the United States was a nation that had newly displayed its dedication to the proposition of human equality.

A Democratic republic like ours, based on the equality of the race, and affirming justice for all that knows or professes to know only excellence and worth wherever found, can not afford to pass by unheeded, however humble, those who have proven themselves by fierce and sturdy warfare in its behalf at once its best citizens and brave defenders.

The purposes of the war and the treatment of the dead were inextricable. Urging that the bodies of all Union soldiers should be disinterred and “brought speedily together into great national cemeteries,” Russling emphasized the mutuality of obligation between citizen and state.34

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a good sentiment for soldiers to fight and die by. Let the American Government show, first of all modern nations, that it knows how to reciprocate that sentiment by tenderly collecting, and nobly caring for, the remains of those who in our greatest war have fought and died to rescue and perpetuate the liberties of us all.35

In its invocation of modernity, in its reference to the “greatest war,” in its citation of a line from Horace that became the title of World War I’s most famous poem, Russling’s words almost seem to look to another Great, and yet more bloody, War, one that would install mass carnage at the core of existence in the twentieth century. That dying for one’s country is sweet and proper becomes for Wilfred Owen by 1917 “the old Lie.” But a half century earlier it remained for Russling “a good sentiment”—one that he believed should animate national policy toward the Civil War dead.36

Russling’s prescriptions soon became settled policy. Even before Congress passed formal legislation in February 1867, the effort to bury every Union soldier within the safe confines of a national cemetery began. During the summer of 1866 Whitman made plans for “commencement of the general work of disinterment” in the cooler weather of fall, designing record-keeping forms that would minimize errors, mapping routes, and gathering needed labor and supplies. Whitman was acutely aware of both the dangers and the opportunities in relocating so many bodies. Moving a grave could mean losing an identity tied to a place or circumstance of burial; it might also provide a final chance to discover a name. He and his superiors were sensitive, too, to the implications of this unprecedented extension of governmental responsibility into the intimate and domestic arena of death. Brevet Major General J. L. Donaldson, chief quartermaster of the Military Division of the Tennessee, introduced an uncharacteristically personal tone into the customary formality of general orders when he emphasized in an August directive that “the Government in assuming to perform a work, which belongs as a special right only to kindred and friends of the deceased, demands of its Agents to discharge the duty, with the delicacy and tenderness of near and dear friends.” Later in the month Donaldson issued a circular addressed to “Friends of Deceased Union Soldiers” announcing to the general public that disinterment of all bodies in his Military Division would begin in October. He invited those who wished to be present at exhumations in hope of identifying lost kin to contact Whitman for an exact schedule of localities. The national government had assumed the unprecedented role of the citizen’s friend.37

In early September Whitman set forth on his explorations once more, moving through Kentucky from the Tennessee line to the Ohio River, embarking again in late October to Chattanooga and Chickamauga, then along the route of Sherman’s March, and back through Macon and Andersonville at the close of the year. By the end of his journey, Whitman estimated he had traveled thirty thousand miles in his search for the dead. Increasing local violence, resulting from the growing national conflict over Reconstruction, made Union bodies and graves, not to mention his own mission, ever more vulnerable. “The country in that section,” Whitman wrote from Lexington, Kentucky, in late September 1866, “is in a very unsettled state and the lives of Union men are unsafe.” Whitman kept a careful eye out for land that might be suitable for permanent cemeteries, recording details about plots, owners, and purchase options. His reports to headquarters, he later remembered, called regular attention to “the wretched condition of the graves and burial places of the dead and to their miscellaneous and universal distribution throughout the entire country that had been the seat of war.” Collectively his communications powerfully reinforced “the necessity of…universal disinterment and collection of the scattered remains into permanent National Cemeteries.”38

In early 1867 Whitman’s position was at last enshrined in law, as well as War Department policy. With “A bill to establish and protect national cemeteries,” passed by Congress in February 1867, and the creation of seventeen additional cemeteries in the course of that year, the federal government legally signaled its acceptance of responsibility for those who had died in its service. The locating and recording of graves that Whitman had undertaken in his 1866 expedition would be transformed into a comprehensive program of reburial, combined with acquisition of land for a system of government cemeteries adequate to hold hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ remains.39

Across the Military Division of the Tennessee Whitman reaped what he described as a “Harvest of Death,” reporting that by 1869 he had gathered 114,560 soldiers into twenty national cemeteries within his assigned territory. Each body was placed in a separate coffin, its original burial site recorded and its final destination documented by cemetery section and grave number. Reinterments cost an average of $9.75 a body, with $2 to $3 of this for the coffin. Ultimately each reburied soldier would also be marked by a name—if it was in fact known—for in 1872 Congress at last yielded to Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs’s insistence upon such commemoration. In December 1868, Meigs had written to the secretary of war in terms that suggested the growing importance of public opinion—the sentiment of the “friends” of the fallen—in shaping governmental policy toward the dead. “I do not believe,” Meigs declared, “that those who visit the graves of their relatives would have any satisfaction in finding them ticketed and numbered like London policemen, or convicts. Every civilized man desires to have his friend’s name marked on his monument.” And every citizen deserved to be remembered as an individual and identifiable human self.40

As Whitman supervised the removal of tens of thousands of bodies to national cemeteries in the Division of the Tennessee, so the work begun in 1865 by Moore and Earnshaw continued in other parts of the South. Charged with responsibility for burials in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., Moore collected more than fifty thousand bodies into national cemeteries. Near Petersburg, Virginia, for example, he directed a force of one hundred men, forty mules, and twelve horses that over a three-year period relocated 6,718 bodies killed in the final campaigns of the war to the new Poplar Grove National Cemetery. The dead were gathered from more than ninety-five different sites in nine different counties, and only 2,139 of them could be positively identified, even though bounties were offered to local citizens for information about bodies. In the cemetery at Seven Pines, about seven miles east of Richmond, 1,202 of 1,356 dead soldiers remained unknown.41

At Antietam Moore oversaw units of the U.S. Burial Corps as they gathered what they expected to be about eight thousand soldiers from within a twenty-mile radius. Their goal was to complete the work in time for the fifth anniversary of the battle in September 1867. Some of the bodies—especially those with red hair, it seemed to one curiously analytic observer—remained “in an almost perfect state of preservation,” facilitating recognition, while others could be identified only if distinctive objects had been interred with them. The comrades who had buried a soldier with a sealed bottle containing his name, address, and details of death had ensured that William Stickney of the Seventh Maine Volunteers would not be counted among the unknown.42

Overall the rate of identification proved rather better than at Poplar Grove. When the reinterment program was completed in 1871, 303,536 Union soldiers had been buried in seventy-four national cemeteries, and the War Department had expended $4,000,306.26 on the effort to gather the dead. Quartermaster General Meigs reported that 54 percent of the men had been identified as a result of careful attention to the bodies and their original graves, as well as extensive research in military hospital records, muster rolls, casualty reports, and even documentation gathered by the Sanitary Commission about deaths and burials. Some thirty thousand of these dead were black soldiers; they were buried in areas designated “colored” on the drawings that mapped the new national cemeteries and were enumerated in columns marked “black” on the forms officially reporting the progress of interments. Separated into units of U.S. Colored Troops in life, these soldiers were similarly segregated in death, and only about a third of them were identified. The notions of equality of citizenship that animated the reburial program clearly had their limits, despite the critical role African Americans had played in the identification and interment of the war’s dead.43

The reburial program represented an extraordinary departure for the federal government, an indication of the very different sort of nation that had emerged as a result of civil war. The program’s extensiveness, its cost, its location in national rather than state government, and its connection with the most personal dimensions of individuals’ lives all would have been unimaginable before the war created its legions of dead, a constituency of the slain and their mourners, who would change the very definition of the nation and its obligations. “Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment,” Whitman observed, “the world has never witnessed.”44

But this transformative undertaking included only Union soldiers. These were the staunch defenders the nation sought to honor; these were the bodies imperiled by vengeful former Confederates; these were the men whose survivors bombarded the War Department with petitions for information about deaths and burials. The absence of official concern for the Confederate dead stood in stark contrast, even in the eyes of some northerners. John Trowbridge, a New Englander writing for the Atlantic Monthly, traveled through Virginia battlefields in 1865 soon after Moore had completed the initial phase of his work. Accompanied by a local resident, Trowbridge stumbled upon the unburied remains of two soldiers at the Wilderness. He was, he reported, “appalled,” because he had heard—and had hoped—that the work of reinterment “was faithfully done.” His Virginia guide examined the uniform buttons fallen from the clothing of the rotted corpses and informed Trowbridge, “They was No’th Carolinians; that’s why they didn’t bury ’em.” Trowbridge was still more horrified to learn that the bodies had been left to rot as a matter of policy rather than simple negligence: “I could not believe that the true reason why they had not been decently interred.”45

Trowbridge’s sense that federal burial efforts should include the Confederate dead placed him in a minority, especially as Congress and the North assumed an increasingly radical position in regard to Reconstruction. In early 1868 the New York Times documented a dispute among three northern politicians on the question of the rebel dead. Governor Reuben Fenton of New York had counseled humanity in the treatment of slain Confederates and had in vain urged their inclusion in the Antietam Cemetery dedicated in 1867 and in the national reburial program more generally. But Governor John White Geary of Pennsylvania, who had fought for the Union and whose soldier son had died in his arms, and Pennsylvania’s Radical Republican congressman John Covode, who lost two sons in the war, embraced no such generosity, insisting on the “personal guilt of the individual soldiers of the rebel army.” Quartermaster General Meigs, responsible for executing federal policy on graves and interments, was himself bitterly angry at what he believed to have been the “murder” of his son John, who was shot in 1864 after he surrendered to Confederate soldiers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Most veterans were more forgiving of their former enemies, recognizing the ties of duty that bind any soldier. But they had just waged a long and destructive struggle against these rebellious southerners; it seemed unimaginable that those who had tried to destroy the Union should be accorded the same respect as those who had saved it.46

This differential treatment of the dead had powerful, and seemingly unanticipated, effects. Southern civilians, largely women, mobilized private means to accomplish what federal resources would not. Their efforts to claim and honor the Confederate dead—and the organizations they spawned—became a means of keeping sectionalist identity and energy not just alive but strong. It did not pass unnoticed in the impoverished postwar South that during the five years that followed Appomattox, more than $4 million of public funds would be expended exclusively on dead northerners.

The April 1866 joint congressional resolution proposing the national cemetery system provoked an outraged response from white Virginians. Northerners were wrong, the Richmond Examiner proclaimed, to think that the Confederate was “the less a hero because he failed.” Calling upon Richmond’s churchwomen to assume responsibility for Virginia’s fallen, the paper underscored the irony of defining southerners as outside a nation with which they had been forcibly reunited. If the Confederate soldier “does not fall into the category of the ‘Nation’s Dead’ he is ours—and shame be to us if we do not care for his ashes.”47

On May 3, 1866, a group of Richmond women responding to the Examiner ’s call gathered to found the Hollywood Memorial Association of the Ladies of Richmond, recognizing both the obligation and the challenge before them. As Mrs. William McFarland, newly installed association president, acknowledged, the former Confederate capital was “begirt with an army of Confederate dead.” Thousands of men lay in neglected graves in Hollywood Cemetery or in Oakwood, its counterpart on the eastern edge of the city, conveniently close to the site where Chimborazo, the South’s largest military hospital, had stood. Tens of thousands more lay scattered on the many battlefields that surrounded the city. Mrs. McFarland believed that these soldiers belonged not just to Richmond but to the South, and it was to the Women of the South that she directed her appeal. In “dying,” she proclaimed, Confederates “left us the guardianship of their graves.” Every southerner, she insisted, held an obligation to the fallen, out of gratitude for their “noble deeds,” as much as in sorrow at their loss. And every southerner was connected to these men, for although Confederate families suffered differing “degrees of affliction and bereavement, none are without sorrow and grief.”48

The association began repair of the eleven thousand soldiers’ graves dug at Hollywood during the war. Nearly all needed remounding and returfing, and few had adequate markers. The ladies worried too about the bodies scattered through the countryside, which they believed should be gathered, like the Union dead, into hallowed and protected ground. With the help of farmers from battle sites on the outskirts of the city, the association arranged for the transfer of hundreds of bodies to new graves in the Richmond cemetery during the summer and fall of 1866.

Across town the Ladies Memorial Association for the Confederate Dead of Oakwood, led by an executive council representing seven different Christian denominations, determined to mark and turf the sixteen thousand graves in its care. In early June the association received proposals for headboards, at costs ranging from forty cents to a dollar each. By mid-month they had submitted an order for an initial thousand. By summer 1867 the committee on head-boards reported that the work was accomplished. In the course of the year a Hebrew Ladies Memorial Association was established as well, its members dedicated to caring for the graves of thirty Jewish Confederates buried in the soldiers’ section of the city’s Hebrew Cemetery.49

The ladies of Richmond supported their efforts through private donations, through contributions from the legislatures of other former Confederate states whose soldiers lay on Virginia soil, and through fund-raising activities that involved the broader community—and all its religious denominations—in the care of the dead. In the spring of 1867 the Hollywood Association sponsored a two-week-long bazaar that included the sale of such items as inkstands carved from the bones of horses killed in the war and the raffling of Stonewall Jackson’s coat buttons. But commercialization had its limits; both the Hollywood and Oakwood associations “respectfully declined” the offer of a Mr. Webb to produce a memorial soap to be sold on their behalf.50

The honoring of Confederate dead in the months after Appomattox quite naturally included decoration of graves with seasonal flowers. By the following spring these tributes had become more formal, often involving some combination of prayers, music, and oratory. Henry Timrod, poet laureate of the Confederacy, who had hailed its birth in “Ethnogenesis,” now marked its demise in a eulogy to the dead that was sung to accompany the decoration of graves in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery in 1867. “There is no holier spot of ground,” he affirmed,

Than where defeated valor lies;

By mourning beauty crowned.

Different locations across the South scheduled the ritual for different days: May 10, the anniversary of Jackson’s death; or April 26, the day Johnston surrendered to Sherman and the war truly ended; or May 30 or 31, when flowers promised to be abundantly available; or June 3, Jefferson Davis’s birthday. Northerners, too, frequently chose a spring day for formal commemoration of the dead, and in 1868 General John Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a general order designating May 30 for the purpose of “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” The South, charged in Logan’s order with “rebellious tyranny,” continued its separate observances until after the First World War. Even today many southern states recognize Confederate Memorial Day on a different date from the nationwide holiday. More than two dozen cities and towns North and South claim to have invented Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was originally called, but these observances seem instead to have grown up largely independently and, for at least a half century after the Civil War, to have continued to reflect persisting sectional divisions among both the living and the dead.51

The northern reburial movement was an official, even a professional effort, removed by both geography and bureaucracy from the lives of most northern citizens; it was the work—and expense—of the Quartermaster Corps, the U.S. Army, and the federal government. In the South care for the Confederate dead was of necessity the work of the people, at least the white people; it became a grass-roots undertaking that mobilized the white South in ways that extended well beyond the immediate purposes of bereavement and commemoration.

Winchester, in the northernmost part of Virginia, had been a site of almost unrelieved military activity, including three major Battles of Winchester, one each in 1862, 1863, and 1864; the town was said to have changed hands more than seventy times in the course of the war. The dead surrounded Winchester as they did Richmond, and women organized similarly to honor them. Fanny Downing, who assumed the presidency of the Ladies Association for the Fitting Up of Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, issued an “Address to the Women of the South” that echoed Richmond’s Mrs. William McFarland. “Let us remember,” her broadside cried, “that we belong to that sex which was last at the cross, first at the grave…Let us go now, hand in hand, to the graves of our country’s sons, and as we go let our energies be aroused and our hearts be thrilled by this thought: It is the least thing we can do for our soldiers.52


“Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia—Decorating the Graves of the Rebel Soldiers.” Harper’s Weekly, August 17, 1867.

Downing invoked the long tradition of female responsibility for mourning, but her profession of allegiance to a country that had supposedly surrendered its existence suggested a second motivation for women’s leadership of the southern reburial effort. To respectfully bury one’s neighbors and kin was a personal and private act; to honor those who had risen up in rebellion against the national government was unavoidably public and political. Yet women were regarded in mid-nineteenth-century America as apolitical in their very essence; their aggressions and transgressions could be—and largely had been—ignored during the war. Even amid the escalating conflicts of Reconstruction, their gender would provide them with wide leeway as they enacted a role they had played since they took Jesus from the Cross. Mrs. Charles J. Williams, secretary of the Georgia Ladies Memorial Association, clearly understood the nature of this gendered claim. “Legislative enactment may not be made to do honor to [Confederate] memories,” as it had to those of the Union dead, “but the veriest radical that ever traced his genealogy back to the deck of the Mayflower, could not refuse us the simple privilege of paying honor to those who died defending the life, honor and happiness of the Southern women.” But the “simple privilege” of memorializing the Confederate dead—like so many women’s actions during the war itself—was in fact highly political; honoring the slain offered women a claim to both prominence and power in the new postwar South. Ensuring the immortality of the fallen and of their memory became a means of perpetuating southern resistance to northern domination and to the reconstruction of southern society.53

On October 25, 1866, a crowd five thousand strong gathered to dedicate Winchester’s Stonewall Cemetery, graveyard for 2,494 Confederate soldiers who had been collected from a radius of fifteen miles around the town. Eight hundred twenty-nine of these bodies remained unknown and were buried together in a common mound surrounded by 1,679 named graves. General Turner Ashby, a dashing cavalry commander and local hero who had been killed in 1862, served as the ranking officer among the dead, as well as a focus of the day’s ceremonies. His old mammy was recruited to lay a wreath on his grave in a pointed celebration of the world for which the Confederacy had fought. The American flag flying in the adjoining national cemetery, where five thousand Union soldiers had already been interred, provoked a “good deal of rancor” from the crowd, and the members of the U.S. Burial Corps, caring for the Federal dead, were jeered and insulted. Twenty-five hundred Confederates on one side; five thousand Yankees on the other: perhaps this was the Fourth Battle of Winchester, the one in which the soldiers were already dead.54

Women founded memorial associations almost everywhere there were concentrations of Confederate bodies. In Nashville an association of women purchased land in an existing cemetery to establish a Confederate Circle into which fifteen hundred bodies from nearby battlefields were moved. In Vicksburg the Ladies Confederate Cemetery Association oversaw the reinterment of sixteen hundred soldiers from the Vicksburg campaign at “Soldier’s Rest,” within an existing city cemetery. The Confederate Memorial Association of Chattanooga, under the leadership of Mrs. J. B. Cooke, acquired a site in 1867 in which to reinter Confederates from the surrounding area. In Atlanta, Mary Cobb Johnson “personally superintended” the removal of the dead from a radius of ten miles around the city. In some trenches she found as many as ninety bodies, wrapped in blankets, their hands folded across their chests, their hats over their faces. In Marietta the Georgia Memorial Association added bodies gathered from the battlefields around Chickamauga and Ringgold to a wartime cemetery for a total of three thousand Confederate graves. A local Unionist had suggested burying Yankees and Confederates together in the national cemetery established at Marietta, but women of the area were horrified and insisted that the Confederate dead be “protected from a promiscuous mingling with the remains of their enemies.” In all of these cemeteries soldiers were grouped by state, in lasting tribute to the principles for which the conflict had been fought.55

Across Virginia women responded to Mrs. McFarland’s call. The Ladies Memorial Association of Appomattox, founded like so many of its sister organizations in the spring of 1866, gathered the bodies of nineteen southern soldiers from the war’s last campaign into a Confederate cemetery. The Petersburg Ladies Memorial Association oversaw the reinterment of thirty thousand dead Confederates in the Blanford Cemetery. The entire population of Petersburg in 1860 had been only 18,266, 50 percent of whom were black. The Spotsylvania Ladies Memorial Association procured five and a half acres of ground about a half mile northeast of Spotsylvania Court House for more than five hundred Confederates who lay scattered across the field of the 1864 battle. In Fredericksburg the Ladies Memorial Association (which is still thriving at the outset of the twenty-first century) acquired land on which they reinterred 3,553 Confederates from fourteen states. They were inspired in these efforts by a poem penned in their honor by Father Abram Ryan, author of the popular Lost Cause ballad “The Conquered Banner,” who urged them to

Gather the corpses strewn

O’er many a battle plain;

From many a grave that lies so lone,

Without a name and without a stone,

Gather the Southern slain.

They had fallen, Ryan insisted, in a “cause, though lost, still just.”56

For all the politics that inevitably surrounded the care and reinterment of the Confederate dead, the movement was also profoundly personal, for it provided bereaved families with bodies and graves on which to fix their sorrow. John Palmer of South Carolina had lost the first of two sons to die in the war at Second Bull Run in 1862. In the summer of 1869 he began a correspondence with Mary J. Dogan of the Manassas Memorial Association, who had identified James Palmer’s grave near those of thirteen comrades. She wished to remove it to what became the Groveton Confederate Cemetery, where 266 southern soldiers are buried.

John Palmer readily forwarded funds for a walnut coffin and a four-foot marble stone—$32 to acquire and $1.86 to haul and install—inscribed with the details of his son’s life and death. “The mere removal of the body will cost nothing,” Dogan assured him, as that would be the responsibility of the association. In James’s original grave Dogan had found a cross and a locket, and she removed the “fatal ball,” now readily visible beneath his breastbone. Knowing the Palmers would value these relics “very highly,” she shipped them to South Carolina. John Palmer carried the bullet with him for the rest of his life.57

Dogan expressed her condolences and wished “that all who have friends buried on this field could as easily and surely identify the spot where they be as you could that of your beloved son. But, alas, so few comparatively could.” James Jerman Palmer’s grave is one of only two at Groveton that are identified. The project on which the Manassas Association had embarked was daunting, and Dogan confessed to Palmer in 1871 that “I feel very much discouraged at times in regard to our accomplishing our objective of burying all our dead but yet hope when the spring opens we may be able to resume the work and if possible finish it this summer.”58

In the early 1870s the attention of a number of southern memorial associations turned to the thousands of Confederate soldiers who still lay neglected on northern soil. Gettysburg seemed particularly critical, not just as the supposed “high-water mark” of Confederate fortunes. A sizable number of southern dead were scattered in unprotected and unmarked locations throughout the Pennsylvania countryside, subject to desecration by northerners hostile to the South. Several southern legislatures offered funds for moving bodies to the South, and memorial associations urged prompt action. Warning that yet another spring plowing might entirely destroy the bodies of Georgians still buried in Pennsylvania, the Savannah Memorial Association, for example, called for “her sister associations in the State to come forward at once and assist her in removing these remains.”59

At Gettysburg, Samuel Weaver, who had supervised reinterments at the national cemetery, had come into possession of lists of Confederate burials compiled both by soldiers and by local residents. Although he died in 1871, his son Rufus, a young physician beginning a medical career in Philadelphia, was persuaded to respond to the entreaties of the ladies associations for aid. “If all could see what I have seen,” he wrote, “and know what I know, I am sure there would be no rest until every Southern father, brother and son would be removed from the North.” Weaver seemed to place little trust in the benevolence of his fellow Pennsylvanians toward these Confederate graves.60

During the spring and summer of 1871 Weaver disinterred and shipped 137 Confederates to Raleigh, 101 to Savannah, and 74 to Charleston, where they were greeted with an elaborate ceremony of orations, hymns, and prayers at Magnolia Cemetery. In the fall the Hollywood Memorial Association contacted Weaver, first about the Virginia dead, then with a request that all remaining Confederates be sent to Richmond. For the next two years Weaver worked exhuming bodies, forwarding groups in periodic shipments to the South. By the end of 1873 he had sent 2,935 Confederates to the Hollywood Association.61

The city of Richmond met their arrival with solemn pageantry; a cortege that included more than a thousand former Confederate soldiers and four Confederate generals accompanied the dead down Main Street to the cemetery. But the association struggled to raise the funds to reimburse Weaver for his efforts, and he never received at least $6,000 that was owed him. Despite his lists of burials and despite the newspaper advertisements Weaver had placed appealing for information about Confederate graves, a few southerners remained to be discovered even into the last decade of the twentieth century—by surprised citizens gathering herbs in 1888, macadamizing a road in 1895, digging trenches for water lines in 1938, planting a garden for the Eisenhowers in the 1950s, and simply walking near a railroad cut after a heavy rain in 1996. The goal of returning every southern soldier to the South was never realized. But the ladies memorial associations led a voluntary, improvisational, decentralized effort that overcame extraordinary obstacles—of organization, funding, and logistics—to bring tens of thousands of soldiers into cemeteries where they, like their Union counterparts, could be recognized for their valor and sacrifice.62

Some historians have argued that memorial activities in the immediate postwar South did not possess the explicitly partisan intentions of later commemorations, those that occurred after the founding of the United Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Tied to that era’s virulent politics of Jim Crow, disfranchisement, and states’ rights, Confederate memory became in the 1890s a force that effectively undermined the emancipationist, nationalist, and egalitarian meaning of the war. But the earlier activities of the ladies memorial associations, undertaken in considerable measure as a direct response to the exclusion of Confederates from congressional measures establishing national cemeteries, were themselves explicitly sectional, intended to proclaim continuing devotion to the Confederacy, as well as to individual husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. The Reverend John L. Girardeau, a Presbyterian theologian and the featured orator at the 1871 ceremony marking the reinterment of the Gettysburg dead at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, made the political nature of the gathering clear when he insisted that “we are not here simply as mourners for the dead.” The occasion addressed “living issues,” he explained, not just the past; “gigantic problems affecting our future” involved “the principles which led to our great struggle,” principles, in his words, like states’ rights and opposition to “Radicalism” and to racial “amalgamation.” The living, he noted, confronted a compelling and unavoidable question: “Did these men die in vain?” Honor to the dead required the continuing defense of Confederate principles, which had been “defeated, not necessarily lost.” Only vindication of the original purposes of the conflict could ensure the meaning of so many men’s sacrifice. The Confederacy would not live on as a nation, but its dead would in some sense become its corporeal and corporate representation, not only a symbol of what once was but a summons to what must be.

Neither northern nor southern participants in the commemoration and reburial movement were “simply…mourners for the dead.” Instead, they became in a very real sense the instruments of the dead’s immortality. Gathered together in mass cemeteries with graves marshaled in ranks like soldiers on the field of battle, the dead became a living reality, a force in their very presence and visibility. They were also, paradoxically, a force in their anonymity. The postwar burial movements in both North and South made it possible for many bereaved families to identify kin and to visit or ornament graves, as did the Palmers of South Carolina or the many petitioners whom Whitman and Moore were able to assist. These reunions of the living with their dead were, of course, about ending anonymity, restoring names, and marking them on stones and monuments for posterity. But the lack of individuality of the Civil War dead had its powerful significance as well. Civil War cemeteries—both national and Confederate—were unlike any graveyards that Americans had ever seen. These were not clusters of family tombstones in churchyards, nor garden cemeteries symbolizing the reunion of man with nature. Instead the Civil War cemetery contained ordered row after row of humble identical markers, hundreds of thousands of men, known and unknown, who represented not so much the sorrow or particularity of a lost loved one as the enormous and all but unfathomable cost of the war.63


Ranks of soldier dead. “Confederate Cemetery of Vicksburg.” Photo by David Butow, 1997.

The establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries created the Civil War Dead as a category, as a collective that represented something more and something different from the many thousands of individual deaths that it comprised. It also separated the Dead from the memories of living individuals mourning their own very particular losses. The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come. The reburial movement created a constituency of the slain, insistent in both its existence and its silence, men whose very absence from American life made them a presence that could not be ignored.

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