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Burying the dead at Fredericksburg

ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

See previous stories.

Part 35 on a series of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

THE BATTLE OF Fredericksburg was over. The smoking guns and belching cannons had fallen silent. The Union army was gone. Yet, evidence of the fighting remained in the form of battered houses, scarred landscapes, and decomposing bodies.

More than 1,700 soldiers had been killed in the battle. Many of the corpses had been left behind, unburied, in the Army of the Potomac's retreat. Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederate army attended to the burial of his own dead and sent a message to his Union counterpart, Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, requesting that he send detachments back across the Rappahannock River to inter the Northern dead. Burnside readily assented to the proposal.

Gen. Edwin Sumner, commanding the Union army's Right Grand Division, detailed three officers and 100 men from the Second and Ninth corps for the task. Soldiers from other corps may also have taken part. Col. John R. Brooke of the 53rd Pennsylvania led the Second Corps detachment. The Union army had interred most of the soldiers who had died in the fighting south of Fredericksburg during a flag of truce on Dec. 15, 1862, so the burial parties focused on Marye's Heights sector of the battlefield, directly behind the town.

Brooke and his men crossed the Rappahannock River below the Lacy House (Chatham) early on Dec. 17 and were escorted by a detail of Confederate soldiers from the 13th Mississippi Regiment to the plain outside of town.

"As we approached the battle field," wrote one soldier, "the sight reminded me of a flock of sheep reposing in the field. But as we approached nearer, who can describe my feelings when I found them to be the dead bodies of our brave men, which had been stripped of their clothing." Confederate soldiers, lacking sufficient uniforms, had stolen the coats, pants, and even the undergarments of their fallen foe as protection against the coming winter.

Once they reached the plain, the Union burial party fanned out and began gathering up the corpses for burial. It was a gruesome task. "They were literally pieces of men, for those destructive shells had done their perfect work," wrote one soldier. "It was the worst sight I ever beheld, and may I be spared another such a scene."

While some of the soldiers gathered in the battle's harvest, other fashioned a ditch, approximately 6 feet wide and 100 yards long, from a defensive trench started by Union soldiers during the battle. The trench began at Hanover Street and extended south in a line just east of modern-day Littlepage Street. As soldiers brought the bodies in, they laid them side by side in the ditch, three deep, and covered them with a thin layer of dirt.

In all, 609 men were buried there. Among them was the owner of a Newfoundland dog. For two days and nights, the faithful animal had kept vigil beside his master's lifeless corpse. Now, as strangers tossed dirt over the soldier's mortal remains, the dog showed an almost "human sympathy, more so," thought one observer "than any there in human shape."

The work was not completed by day's end, prompting Gen. Burnside to request a second flag of truce on Dec. 18. Lee granted the request and once again Union soldiers, 200 to 300 in number, rowed across the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg. On the other side, a body of Mississippi troops dressed in ragged garments and carrying a white flag met them. The Southerners greeted the party in a friendly manner, shaking hands with them and asking them questions about the recent battle. Some swapped small trinkets--a stamp or a piece of hardtack.

As they had the day before, the Confederates led the burial party through town to the plain in front of Marye's Heights. The destruction in town was appalling. "Fredericksburg is knocked all to pieces," wrote one soldier. "Every house almost is full of holes where the shells have been sent. Possibly, it may be repaired again but I think [it] doubtful."

Dead horses littered the streets, their carcasses lying amid smashed furniture, broken crockery, and trampled clothes. Using boards for stretchers, the soldiers again fanned out to look for bodies. Some corpses had been in the sun for five days and had turned black.

"Oh, it was awful!" wrote one nauseated worker. "All of them were struck either in the head or breast, mostly with musket balls. Those shot in the head were hit in the forehead, eyes, mouth, everywhere in the head." They placed 23 bodies in one ditch and 125 in another. "We laid the poor fellows side by side in the trench & covered them with earth where they will remain till the great Judgement Day. O! What a dreadful war this is!"

As the burial party carried out its solemn task, Confederate soldiers casually looked on. Some of them taunted the Federals by holding up blue clothing that had been stripped from the dead and asserted that they would continue to fight as long as the Yankees occupied their soil.

Confederate Gens. William Barksdale, Lafayette McLaws, and J.E.B. Stuart stopped by during the day to look in on the work. Also present was Maj. Heros von Borcke, a huge Prussian officer serving on Stuart's staff. Von Borcke was shocked at the rough manner in which the Union soldiers handled their dead. On the battlefield was an icehouse with a deep pit. As Von Borcke looked on, Northern soldiers tossed corpses into the hole "until the solid mass of human flesh reached near the surface, when a covering of logs, chalk, and mud closed the mouth of this vast and awful tomb."

To the Prussian officer, it seemed as if the Federals were more interested in doing the job quickly than doing it well. Nor was he alone in that opinion. Nearby, Union soldiers opened a second trench and hastily filled it with 130 bodies. A Fredericksburg citizen, Edward Heinichen, noted the shallowness of the graves. The bodies received such a superficial burial, he complained, "that parts of them after a short time showed above ground, & dogs brought home many a limb. Some corpses were entirely overlooked, & I recollect, to have seen two of them untouched as late as the following April."

At the end of the truce period, the Union soldiers shouldered their tools and started back toward town. With them, they brought the bodies of five officers found on the field. A woman whose home had been destroyed during the battle followed the Federals as they returned to town, hurling "the most wrathful imprecations" at the Yankee invaders. She followed the party all the way to the riverbank, crying out that she wished they were dead.

More gracious were the farewells of the Mississippians who bid their foes goodbye "in the most friendly manner." Reflecting on his interactions with the Rebel escort, a Union soldier concluded, "What a pity that we must fight."

The next day, Col. Brooke drafted a report of the expedition. He recorded burying a total of 913 bodies, not counting the five that he had brought back across the river. The job, however, had not been done well. As Edward Heinichen noted, the bodies had been buried in shallow graves, and, after heavy rains, the bones rose to the surface. News of the poor burial conditions got back to officials in Washington, and, when the war ended in July 1865, the War Department established Fredericksburg National Cemetery on Marye's Heights.

Over the next four years, contract workers collected the remains of 15,000 Union soldiers from battlefields throughout Central Virginia and brought them to Fredericksburg for burial. (Confederate soldiers who died in the area were buried at private expense in two local cemeteries.) By then, however, most identification had disappeared. As a result, just 16 percent of the soldiers now buried in the cemetery have been identified.

Fredericksburg National Cemetery was administered by the War Department until 1933, when it was transferred to the National Park Service. It is open daily from dawn until dusk.

NEXT:Burnside bows out after debacle

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."