Daily Archives: 23 June 2011

Finding Yankee Graves in the South, 1866

From This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (Knopf, 2008), Kindle Loc. 3553-3591 (p. 225):

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.”

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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The Fourth Battle of Winchester, 1866

From This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (Knopf, 2008), Kindle Loc. 3803-3814, 3829-3836 (pp. 241, 243):

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.

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.

Just over fifty years ago, my family arrived in Winchester (on furlough from Japan) just in time for the Civil War Centennial, which sparked my interest not just in the Civil War, but in history of all kinds everywhere.

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