A LEGION OF UNKNOWNS AND THE ORIGINS OF MEMORIAL DAY
By Doug Coleman
The Civil War was America’s bloodiest conflict; about as many died in the Civil War as all of our other wars combined. Typically the dead were buried on the battlefield where they fell in shallow graves; visiting the Manassas battlefield a week after the first fight, Vaucluse’s Constance Cary commented upon the “hasty graves” littering the hillsides and shuddered to witness a withered hand reaching out of the ground.
The graves were deeper and marked if they were your people, less deep and less marked if not. Sometimes the opposing dead were buried in the ditches of recently disputed trenches, sometimes in mass graves. We should not necessarily interpret these hasty burials as disrespectful to the dead. Keeping in mind that most fighting was done in the warmer months, men and horses would begin to decompose and stink very quickly; witness the photos of the bloating dead taken at Antietam. Being in a burial detail must have been absolutely nauseating. When one finds a bayonet bent into a hook on a battlefield, it is not to hold a cooking pot – these were used to drag the dead into their scrapes without having to handle putrefying flesh. Horses were burned where they fell.
Officer’s bodies were frequently sent home as a courtesy, regardless of which side held the field. Dying in a field hospital increased one’s chances of having a marked grave, unless the hospital was overwhelmed by casualties and the intake process broke down, as did happen on several occasions. Comrades were aware that someday the soldier’s family might want to recover his remains to take home. By the end of the war, experienced soldiers were wearing brass identity tags. Those lacking that sort of forethought pinned their name and shipping address on their uniforms prior to an assault.
Northerners treated the Confederate dead better than the Yankees who fell in Virginia; at Gettysburg, the locals at least took the trouble to bury everybody. Conversely, it was a source of outrage in the North that a Virginia farmer might take great care to honor Confederate dead, but not bother to bury a Yankee at all. This outrage may have been misplaced, as it assumes the civilians were still in the neighborhood following a fight and, again, digging holes for and handling dozens of stinking corpses is not an activity most folks would leap at. Still, at common law, every landowner owed a duty of decent burial to any corpse found on his property, so there may actually have been an element of malice in leaving the invaders to the crows and buzzards.
The result was that we have many accounts of horrified Yankees stumbling across the bones of their predecessors. Some real estate was fought over more than once. Manassas and Fredericksburg each saw two battles. Cold Harbor and Gaines Mill were fought in the same neighborhood. The Wilderness was fought in the same woods as Chancellorsville. In each case, unambiguous memento mori lay scattered in the weeds and leaves.
As the war wound down in 1865, there was an urgent effort to recover and identify these dead. At best, temporary wooden grave markers were decaying, while exposed bones were being gnawed and carried off by the critters. At worst, there were rumors that Southerners scavenging the battlefields for horse bones to be ground into bone meal fertilizer did not always distinguish between horse and rider. In June of 1865, the 1st Veteran Volunteers were detailed to search the Wilderness battlefield for the Yankee dead. They fanned out in lines to systematically search the wooded scrub, marking graves with new markers as they found them and collecting bones in large sacks. These were good guys – they marked or re-marked Confederate burials as well, almost doubling their workload. Two cemeteries were established and coffins were filled from the sacks, ten skeletons to a coffin, buried in orderly rows in mass graves. This process repeated itself on battlefields throughout Virginia and eventually national cemeteries were established to receive unidentified remains and those who were known but unclaimed by relatives. The bones recovered at the Wilderness were later moved to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Cold Harbor got its own little cemetery, as did those who fell near Richmond. Alexandria has one next to Hooff’s Run, home mostly to those who died in the local camps and hospitals. Most famous, of course, is Arlington, established by a spiteful Montgomery Meigs to avenge his son’s death when a couple of Mosby’s gunslingers pulled him over for “driving while Yankee” on the Valley Turnpike. Meigs rendered Lee’s home forever uninhabitable by sowing corpses on the grounds in the same spirit as the Romans sowed salt at Carthage. Arlington has a monument to unknown Civil War soldiers holding the bones of 2111 men collected from the Manassas battlefields and route to the Rappahannock. Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery similarly has a 90 foot high pyramid honoring the 18,000 Confederate dead there, the majority of whom are unidentified.
It is estimated that 150,000 – one out of four deaths – ended up as unknowns. There are almost certainly thousands of battlefield burials the bone collectors missed. Even if identified, many families found it best to leave their warriors to rest in the soil they had struggled over, becoming part of the landscape itself. The national psyche understandably craved a means to remember and mourn this vast loss of life. Perhaps the first spark was seen in Charlestown in May of 1865, as the Yankee dead from a POW camp at a racecourse were collected and moved to a fresh national cemetery. Roughly ten thousand former slaves and U.S. Colored Infantry turned out to thumb their noses at the local whites by singing John Brown’s Body and to parade in gratitude to the Yankee’s who perished freeing them.
Waterloo, New York claims to be the birthplace of the first Memorial Day, when in May of 1866 they closed businesses and flew flags at half mast to honor the fallen. The “official” rolling out of what was then called Decoration Day was in May 1868, when General Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (the Union veterans organization), ordered members to decorate the graves of war dead with flowers. Logan and President Grant turned out in front of about five thousand on the veranda of the Arlington house to make speeches, following which war orphans and veterans placed flowers and small flags on the graves, including the Confederate dead, saying prayers and singing hymns.
The South had its own Decoration Day in various states to honor the Confederate dead. In April 1866, a group of women from Columbus, Mississippi decorated the graves of Confederates killed at Shiloh. Noting that the Union graves had been neglected, these good Christian ladies decorated those as well. Mississippi observes Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday in April; Alabama on the fourth Monday in April; the Carolinas on May 10th; Louisiana and Tennessee on June 3rd. Texas supersizes it with Confederate Heroes Day in January. Conveniently, Virginians observe our Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May.
Following the First World War, the holiday was expanded to commemorate all of our dead from all of our wars. Decoration Day became Memorial Day. It was not until 1971 that it became a national holiday. Now it is the American Legion rather than the Grand Army of the Republic that places the little flags. But the concept is the same – no fallen warrior is forgotten and the graves of the unknowns are cared for where their families cannot.
Sources: Memorial Day History, http://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/history.asp; The Bone Collectors; Creation of Wilderness Cemetery #1, https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/the-bone-collectors-creation-of-wilderness-cemetery-1/; The Great Unknowns, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/05/31/opinion/20100531opartpoole.html
Publishers Note: While we realize that Memorial Day has passed since the publishing of this column, we think it is quite fitting as another reminder as to what the day is about. Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at email@example.com.