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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Filed under slavery, U.S., war

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