The armies left Gettysburg—or what is left of the armies. One third of the soldiers who marched into the Battle of Gettysburg did not march out. They lay dead, dying, wounded or are “missing,” throughout the fields and town.
First, the wounded. If they couldn’t walk because of the nature of their wounds or there was no kind-hearted soul to help them, or if the combatants retreated from the area where they fell, the wounded lay suffering in the hot sun or pouring rain, sometimes unable to reach their canteen or food. If they were mobile or helped along, they would somehow make their way to an aid station (sometimes just a shady area in the rear of the battle lines) or field hospital (often a nearby farm house or barn) to be treated.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, the field of antiseptics was not explored until the late 1860s, so successful treatment by a surgeon didn’t mean the wounded man was out of the woods. Gangrene often set in and the soldier might suddenly die two weeks into his recovery.
As the July days went on in Gettysburg, those few left behind to administer to the wounded realized the logistics of feeding and supplying the wounded scattered all over the battlefield in barns, farmhouses and private homes was a near impossible task. So by July 20, Camp Letterman General Hospital was established about a mile out on the York Road for the 4,217 wounded that remained. According to Greg Coco in A Vast Sea of Misery, by July 25, 16,125 wounded had been transported out of Gettysburg.
The spot chosen was part of the farm of George Wolf called “Wolf’s Woods,” had abundant water supplies, and was where the railroad paralleled the York Road for easy transport of the wounded to the railroad cars. Ironically, it had been a favorite picnic spot for the locals. Deaths continued, however, even under the better conditions of the general hospital, so in the compound was a structure known as “The Dead House” and a graveyard. In late November Camp Letterman was closed.
What of the dead? Hardly anyone realizes that virtually every soldier who died at Gettysburg was buried twice.
First they were interred where they were killed on the battlefield, sometimes by comrades, sometimes by local farmers who couldn’t stand the stench. If they were buried in a farmer’s cow pasture, it is easy to see how a wooden headboard with identifying information could be knocked over and the gravesite trampled so that within a year the site would disappear.
As the post-battle rains came and the bodies bloated in decomposition, the women of Gettysburg might look out their kitchen window some morning and see an arm or head emerging from the earth. Horrified, they would tell their husbands to do something. They would contact their political representatives. It got so bad that word reached Andrew Curtin, wartime governor of Pennsylvania, and he assigned the duty of purchasing acreage for an official cemetery for the reburial of the dead to local Gettysburg attorney David Wills (of the Wills House on the Gettysburg Square).
Wills purchased 17 acres on Cemetery Hill, right next to the citizens’ Evergreen Cemetery and, appropriately, a major battlefield landmark. Soon after, exhumations from the battlefields, transportation of the bodies and re-burial in the new cemetery began.
Re-burials were halted in November 1863 while President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Burial crews were still working in the spring of 1864.
But the soldiers buried in the National Cemetery were only the Union soldiers. What happened to the Confederates?
Being the “enemy,” the Confederates remained buried on the battlefield until various “Ladies Memorial Associations” from the South contacted some Gettysburgians who had been instrumental in the Union re-burials. Dr. Rufus Weaver, son of Samuel Weaver who oversaw the Union re-burials, was contracted. He halted his successful college teaching career at a medical college in Philadelphia and worked from 1871 to 1873 at disinterring 3,320 Confederate remains, shipping them to major cities in the South such as Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA, Raleigh, NC, and Richmond, VA. Weaver, per his contract, was owed $9,536.00 for the work. Although he tried to collect until 1887, he was never paid.
When I was a park ranger visitors would ask “Did they get all the dead?” We asked our bosses what we should say and they said to tell them all the bodies were removed. Whether they truly didn’t know for sure or whether they were trying to keep visitors from digging on the park I don’t know. Later studies confirmed that many, many bodies remain unaccounted for. As well as hundreds of Union soldiers, Greg Coco estimated as many as 1,500 individual Confederates remain unrecovered. The most recent remains were found near the Railroad Cut in 1996.