As the Civil War progressed, the Union army picked up a new innovation, burying the bodies after a battle. During prior wars, the European armies did what armies had done forever, they focused on the moment and left their dead behind – or they burned the bodies. But, as the civil war commenced in 1861, the Federal government issued an order that each commander would be responsible for burying his dead. Even with this order, the Union forces often buried their dead quickly in graves which were quickly undone.
The Confederate Army issued no such order. Even if they had issued such an order, it is unlikely the Confederates had the resources to bury their dead. After the Battle of Antietam, Matthew Brady took pictures of the dead soldiers. Most of the dead soldiers we see today in his pictures are Confederates. The Northerners had already buried their dead by the time Brady took his pictures. Historian Katherine Jeffrey recounts the story that the retreating Confederate army had rescued the body of one young officer from behind enemy lines, only to leave it lying by the road along with other officers. This occurred during the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and the army was hastily pulling back to Virginia. They Confederate army lacked the wagons necessary to transport even the dead officers to a proper burial.
So, after the war, there were tens of thousands of Southern bones left lying beneath the sun unburied and unremembered. In the North, the federal government had started collecting and burying veterans in 1862. In that year, the federals set up the first veteran burial ground. Prior to 1861, fallen soldiers would have been buried at the post cemetery or in some quick grave on the prairie. But, by 1862, that simple system was quickly overwhelmed. The federal government responded by creating what we know today as national cemeteries for veterans. By 1865, there were some 30 national cemeteries for federal veterans. See National Park Service website here.
After the end of the war. The federal army started the pains-taking laborious process of re-burying the fallen in these new national cemeteries. They did not bury the Confederate dead. The Confederate dead served a different government.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, 5,500 Southern boys were killed or suffered mortal wounds. Some 16,000 were wounded. In the ensuing retreat, hundreds of the wounded were left behind to die a slow, lingering death. Many of the dead lay in the open, to be feasted on by maggots and hogs. Those who received a shallow burial were uncovered by the heavy rains that fell soon after the battle. Two weeks after the battle, Southern bodies could be seen lying all over the battlefield out in the open, under the gray skies. One correspondent wrote:
“Day and night, rain or shine, cold or hot, there they lie. Hour by hour they die off, are carried to the trenches, a foot or two deep, in which they are to lie … and to remain there in continually increasing groups until the parties whose duty it is to come around to tend to their internment. It is awful, it is terrible, it is horrible beyond expression”
The Confederate dead at Gettysburg received a shallow burial or burial in trenches. None were buried in the national cemetery at Gettysburg. See Gettysburg Military Park website here.
“In the spring of 1864, there had been scattered calls in the Gettysburg Sentinel to collect the “Rebel remains,” in the name of “a common humanity,” but the pressures and politics of war-time had forestalled such.” See Gettysburg Military Park website here.
In 1869, at a dedication of a monument at Gettysburg to the Federal dead, Gen. George Meade called for a more respectful burial for the Rebel dead. As he said, it is usual after a battle to afford the dead, even the enemy dead, a respectful burial. In the end, the different Southern ladies groups managed to re-inter some 3,200 remains to four cemeteries in Southern states from the Gettysburg battle field.
And, what of the other battles? There were dozens of major battles from Virginia to the Red River in Texas to upper Missouri to Southwest Louisiana. Some 450,000 Confederate soldiers died during the war. See Ohio State University eHistory website here.
And, how many of those 450,000 were buried? Not many. 482 dead Confederates were buried at Arlington cemetery. Arlington burials started in late 1864.
Wake County, North Carolina
There is no known figure for which or how many of the Confederate dead received a decent burial. Whatever burial the Confederate soldier received was ad hoc. For example, the ladies of Wake County, North Carolina first started making an effort to re-bury the Battle of Gettysburg dead Confederates in 1874. That means, nine years after the war, one group of women in one county made an effort to bury North Carolina bodies which had received a shallow burial at one battle.
Confederate dead were often left where they fell. The remains might be moved aside to gather the remains of a federal soldier, but not buried. So, advertisements appeared in the newspapers of the day seeking funds for recovering the bones of their deceased loved ones, like this ad:
“The Shiloh Burial Association, formed for the purpose of purchasing a portion of the field, where the gallant Johnson fell, for interring the Confederate dead, whose bones lie bleaching from Shiloh to Corinth, have issued an appeal to the people. The object is to obtain two hundred acres of this sacred soil, fell the timber, make a fence, and plant Osage Orange for a hedge. Contributions may be sent to S.D. Lee at Columbus, or Maj. Upshaw at Holly Springs.”
S.D. Lee was Stephen D. Lee, who served in the Confederate Army. He graduated from West Point. He was not related to Gen. Robert E. Lee. He lived in Columbus, Mississippi after the war. The statement about the bones refers to the thousands of dead from the many battles up and down the Mississippi River valley, from Shiloh, Tennessee down to Corinth, Mississippi and still further south. Mr. Lee helped create the Vicksburg National Park Association which later led to the creation of the Vicksburg Battlefield Park. Stephen D. Lee died after giving a talk to Union veterans from Wisconsin and Iowa, regiments which he faced during the war. He was very active in planning and organizing veteran reunions.
Only in the early 1950’s, when the number of remaining Confederate veterans could be counted on one hand, were national cemeteries opened to Confederate veterans. Most Southern boys, especially in the western theater were simply left where they fell. So, in the South, those Confederate memorials took on added importance.
Katherine B. Jeffrey, First Chaplain of the Confederacy, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 2020), p. 57, 75