So What Happened to the Confederate Dead?

In the modern media’s coverage of wars, the word “casualty” usually refers to a person who has been killed. Not so during the Civil War. Take the Battle of Gettysburg, in which historians estimate there were about 28,000 Confederate casualties. In the reporting of the time, that meant soldiers killed, wounded and captured. Essentially, a “casualty” back then meant a soldier who was not able to return to the field of battle. Historians believe the actually number of Confederate soldiers killed and mortally wounded is roughly around 5,500, however the exact number may never be known as record keeping was not precise. Union soldiers killed and mortally wounded numbered around 3,500, however, once again, the number is not precise.

It is known that North Carolina suffered the highest number of losses of any state in the Confederacy at Gettysburg, with 6,124 casualties. That’s about 1 out of every 4 Confederate soldiers who fought in fields and hillsides around that Pennsylvania town. The number is also about half the total number of North Carolina soldiers serving with the Army of Northern Virginia. Records show about 13,980 Tarheel troops were enlisted in the Confederate Army at the time of the Gettysburg campaign.

So what happened to all of those Confederate soldiers who died during the battle? 

Remember, President Lincoln delivered his famous speech to help dedicate the Soldier’s National Cemetery, a cemetery for Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg. It was not meant as a cemetery for the burial of Confederate soldiers.

It turns out that after the fighting ended, the battlefield was filled with the bodies of almost 7,000 soldiers. The sheer number of decomposing bodies was not only a frightening and ghastly scene but it was also a health hazard. The majority of dead from both sides were quickly buried in shallow graves. Their identities were not a concern. 

About two months after the battle, plans were made for a Federal Cemetery at Gettysburg. The bodies of Union soldiers were disinterred from their temporary graves to a place more fitting.

However the men wearing butternut and gray would wait almost nine years for the same honor and it would begin with the Wake County Ladies Memorial Association. That’s right, an association in Wake County, North Carolina began the push to bring the remains of Confederate soldiers from Gettysburg to Southern cemeteries. As you can imagine, this was not an easy task, given the quick burials that were performed, the loss of grave markers, the poor condition of battlefield graves as well as the condition of the remains.

The National Park Service says a Virginia-born physician who lived in Gettysburg at the time of the fighting, Dr. J.W.C. O’Neal, not only kept a journal of identified Confederate burials but also knew the locations of individual sites and mass graves. It’s not clear why, but most likely because he treated and probably helped bury the dead. With his help, crews were able to return the remains of 3,320 soldiers, most of which were sent to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Remains were also delivered to cemeteries in Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston for burial in town cemeteries.

That of course, leaves the final question: “Are there still bodies of Confederate soldiers in the fields that have not been found?”

Park service officials say it is very likely there are. In the 150 years since the battle, remains have been uncovered every few years. The most recent discovery was in 1995, near an area called the Railroad Cut, which saw vicious fighting on July 1, 1863, the first day of the battle. The soldier’s identity and the army he served could not be determined.

Lincoln’s comment that this is “hallowed ground” could not be more accurate.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." - The Gettysburg Address

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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