“This Hallowed Ground”– Gravediggers and the Civil War
“At Salisbury, a POW was placed on burial detail and sent out under heavy guard to dig a grave for a dead prisoner. The POW happened to be a ventriloquist, and when the first shovelful of dirt was thrown onto the body, it began to loudly protest, or so thought the guards, who ran away. The POWs in the burial detail then escaped in the opposite direction.”
It is estimated that over 67,000 Union soldiers died on the battlefield during the Civil War. Before the Civil War, there were no procedures to deal with the dead on the battlefield. This led to increased rates of disease and infection among both soldiers and civilians living in the area. Because of the massive number of casualties, the Civil War era saw the rise of large, public cemeteries to bury the dead from the nearby battlefield. To accomplish this task, both Union and Confederate forces employed or used gravediggers. The task of digging the graves of fallen soldiers fell upon whoever controlled the field at the end of the battle.
The first Union officer to be killed during the Civil War was 24-year-old Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves in Alexandria, Virginia. After taking down a Confederate flag at the Marshall House Inn, the owner, James Jackson fired a shotgun shell into the chest of Ellsworth, killing him on the spot. Reacting to the shot, Ellsworth’s comrade Corporal Francis Brownell turned and fired into Jackson, killing him instantly. The news of Col. Ellsworth’s death spread rapidly, and his body was sent home to New York after laying in state at the White House.
The fanfare surrounding the death and burial of Col. Ellsworth would not last. Almost four years after his death, another 650,000-850,000 Americans were buried. During the Battle of First Bull Run, there was no organized burial system so soldiers were either left in the open air or members of their regiment would return to bury their fallen comrades. There was no grave marking system, and no one bothered to record who was killed and where they were buried. Two months after the battle, the War Department issued General Order No. 75 which urged hospitals to keep accurate records of the dead and where they were buried while also ordering the Quartermaster Department to keep a supply of temporary wooden grave markers.
The lack of an identification system among soldiers of both armies led to thousands being listed as missing in action. After the war ended, Civil War nurse Clara Barton took it upon herself to create the Missing Soldier’s Office with the goal of identifying and or returning missing soldiers to their home. From 1865 to the very end of 1868, Clara Barton and her clerks at the Missing Soldier’s Office exchanged over 63,000 pieces of correspondence and identified over 23,000 previously missing soldiers.
The Battle of Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. In early April 1862, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Pittsburgh Landing in Tennessee. With over 3,000 bodies to bury, Union forces were in charge of the burial of the dead. The day following the battle, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard offered to assist in the burial of the Confederate dead. Union General Ulysses S. Grant responded by saying that the situation was handled but appreciated the gesture.
In reality, as was usually the case with the burial of the dead, the victorious army took more time and care of their own dead than of their enemy. Union graves were more personal and were individually marked while Confederate dead were put into long trenches and then buried. There are currently five marked Confederate mass graves at Shiloh but there are believed to be more. Several years after the battle took place, the Union dead were moved to the Shiloh National Cemetery and given proper headstones while the Confederate bodies remained in trenches.
September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in American history occurred during the Battle of Antietam near the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Almost 4,000 lay dead on those blood-soaked fields. At the Sunken Road, also known as the Bloody Lane, there were 27 casualties per minute for three hours. At the end of the battle, the Union held the field and sent their soldiers to begin digging graves for their fellow comrades.
Sam Fletcher of the 15th Massachusetts was on a burial detail and later wrote, “it was hot and the bodies were getting soft and it was very unpleasant… I tasted the odor for several days.” In a letter to his wife, Charles Hale of the 5th New Hampshire wrote, “what a bloody place was that sunken road as we advanced and the Irish Brigade fell back; the fences went down on both sides, and the dead and wounded men were literally piled there in heaps.”
After the Battle of Gettysburg, General George Meade ordered the Army of the Potomac to pursue Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia through Maryland. In doing so, he left only 106 Union surgeons to tend to the wounded and dying. Because of the lack of personnel, the citizens of Gettysburg and organizations from nearby towns and cities stepped in to assist in both caring for the wounded and burying the dead.
One of those civilians who took up the mantle as a gravedigger was 31-year-old Elizabeth Thorn. Her husband, Peter Thorn, was the caretaker of the Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg until August of 1862 when he joined the Union Army. While he was off with the Army, Elizabeth took care of the cemetery. In the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg, she, her aging father, and several hired hands began to dig graves for fallen Union soldiers. However, due to her father’s age and the hired workers becoming ill, she was left to dig over 100 graves herself. Already an incredible feat for anyone, but what makes Elizabeth stand out among the rest was that she performed these tasks while six months pregnant.
For months after the battle, the town still smelled of death and decay. Soldiers buried in shallow graves often resurfaced after a storm. The smell would come back once again as the dead were being moved into the new national cemetery being built on Cemetery Hill. The Gettysburg National Cemetery was officially opened and dedicated on November 19, 1863. The keynote speaker, Edward Everett, spoke for over two hours. He was followed by President Lincoln which summarized the goals of the Civil War and the victory at Gettysburg in a little over two minutes.
Our nation’s most hallowed ground is Arlington National Cemetery located on what was once the property of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Towards the very beginning of the war, Union forces confiscated the property as it had clear sight lines and was within cannon range of the Capital. Quartermaster General Meigs became the mastermind behind the idea of a soldiers’ national cemetery on Lee’s property. Having served under Lee when he was a colonel, Meigs took great offense when Lee resigned to join the Confederacy. His sentiments further deteriorated when his son, Lieutenant John Rogers Meigs was killed in the Shenandoah Valley.
Meigs began ordering Union dead be buried on the grounds quite close to the house itself. The dead shortly surrounded Mary Lee’s rose garden. Meigs would continue to organize the cemetery into what we know it as today. In 1874, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was built to honor those never identified or recovered for all time. As the decade went on, the amphitheater surrounding the tomb was constructed. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is home to thousands of our fallen soldiers from all American conflicts foreign and domestic. I would urge readers to visit a national cemetery and sit there in silent reverence. Observe the fields around you, see the headstones and markers, feel the presence of those who came before you, and read the dedication speeches. In August of 2017, I participated in the Gettysburg College First-Year Walk. First-Year students from Gettysburg College walk through the town and make their way to the Gettysburg National Cemetery. A faculty member gives a speech and integrates Lincoln’s words into their own and a key to the town is presented to the incoming class. All of this while being surrounded by the soldiers who died to keep this nation whole, a task that would not have been done properly without the incredible work of the gravediggers.
About the Author
Michael Mahr is the Education Specialist at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He is a graduate of Gettysburg College Class of 2022 with a degree in History and double minor in Public History and Civil War Era Studies. He was the Brian C. Pohanka intern as part of the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute for the museum in the summer of 2021.
 Speer, Lonnie R. Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. Pg 229.
 “Statistics on the Civil War and Medicine.” eHISTORY, n.d. https://ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/cwsurgeon/cwsurgeon/statistics.
 Magazine, Smithsonian. “The Death of Colonel Ellsworth.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, April 1, 2011. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-death-of-colonel-ellsworth-878695/.
 Groeling, Meg. The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2015. Pg 7
 Groeling, Meg. The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2015. Pg 14
 Groeling, Meg. The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2015. Pg 28
 “Elizabeth Thorn.” Gettysburg Daily, August 19, 2008. https://www.gettysburgdaily.com/elizabeth-thorn/.Tags: Antietam, burial, Civil War, Dead, Gettysburg, gravediggers Posted in: Death and Mourning in the Civil War