Cemetery of the Week #21: Soldiers’ National Cemetery

The heart of Soldiers’ National Monument

Soldiers’ National Cemetery
Gettysburg National Military Park
97 Taneytown Road, Gettysburg, PA 17325
Visitor Information: 717-334-1124, extension 8023
Dedicated: November 19, 1863
Size: 17 acres
Number of interments: 3,654
Open: Dawn to sunset daily. The cemetery is closed to vehicular traffic. The parking lot for the cemetery is located between Taneytown Road and Steinwehr Avenue (Business Route 15).

Over the first three days of July 1863, 51,000 men died in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle of Gettysburg represented the Confederate Army’s high-water mark during the Civil War, but it also changed the way bodies of American servicemen were treated. Prior to 1863, governments took little responsibility for dead soldiers. Generally, camp followers or locals buried the dead in huge trenches on the battlefields where they fell. If graves were labeled at all, the painted planks often didn’t survive their first winter. Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg embodies the nation’s first attempt to identify all the dead and mark their remains.

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While the North seemed able to provide an inexhaustible amount of weaponry and clothing for its soldiers, three years into the Civil War the Southern Army desperately needed simple things like boots. General Lee had heard that shoes were being manufactured in Pennsylvania.

By the end of July 1st, Lee’s army routed the unprepared Union troops. The battle appeared as if it would be another victory for the South in a string that included Charleston and Bull Run. Union soldiers fled through the streets of the little village of Gettysburg to the hill overlooking Evergreen Cemetery south of town. Rather than pursue, Lee’s army camped for the night. They had suffered high casualties that day and did not know the size of the Union force.

Throughout the night, both sides received reinforcements. By July 3rd, the Union Army numbered 97,000 men against 75,000 Southerners. Confederate General Pickett directed 12,000 men in successive waves through an open field toward the Union line atop Cemetery Ridge. Six thousand of them died, demolished by Union cannons atop the hill.

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After losing 30% of his army, Lee withdrew on July 5th. General Meade, in charge of the Army of the Potomac, chose not to pursue. His men attempted to bury their own dead, but the job was too immense. When the Union Army finally withdrew from the field, thousands of corpses lay where they’d fallen, rotting in the humid Pennsylvanian summer. Reportedly, people could smell the battlefield as far away as York, 30 miles distant.

The sad state of the unburied dead drew the attention of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. He championed a movement to buy land from the village to provide a cemetery where all Northern soldiers could lie with their comrades. Eventually, money was raised to purchase a “boot-shaped” piece of ground alongside Evergreen Cemetery. Reburials began in October 1863, four months after the war had moved on.

These were the days before dog tags. Occasionally during the Civil War, when men suspected they were being ordered to their deaths, they’d write their names on scraps of paper and pin them inside their clothing. At Gettysburg, corpses could only be identified by company insignia or marks of rank on their uniforms, or by the contents of their pockets, so long as they hadn’t been robbed after death. Superintendent of Exhumation Samuel Weaver insisted that all temporary graves be opened in his presence, so he could personally identify the corpses. As much as he was able, Weaver recorded hair color and height of the decomposing dead, to be compared with the government service records on file for each man. Even so, stone blocks labeled “Unknown” mark more than half of the graves inside Soldiers National Cemetery.

A ceremony was planned for November 19, 1863 to dedicate the nation’s first military cemetery. Sort of as a second thought, President Lincoln was invited to speak. Months after the battle, shallow graves still littered the surrounding countryside, but the war itself had moved south and once again Northerners could travel safely. Over 50,000 people descended on the shell-shocked town to celebrate the creation of the first national cemetery.

Lincoln traveled to the ceremony by train. Standing amongst new-made graves, he delivered the Gettysburg Address: “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live…. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

For the first time, a battlefield in the United States was seen as holy ground, consecrated not by the power of God but by the blood of men slain there. Soldiers became sanctified not by their deeds in life but at the moment of their deaths. For the first time ever, bodies of common men were not treated as an inconvenient byproduct of war, but venerated as its relics.

In the cemetery, corpses had been sorted not only by army (Confederate bodies were left where they lay) but also by the 18 states from whence they came, so that each section is marked with the number of Michiganders and Minnesotans who died in the battle. Beyond that accounting, pains were taken to name as many men as possible. In the intervening years, historians have identified many of the 1608 men labeled “unknown” by comparing descriptions made by Weaver to government records and survivors’ memoirs. For the first time, individual soldiers and their stories became important to Americans.

Nearly a year passed before reburials ceased in Soldiers National Cemetery. The 3,654 men interred there are a fraction of the 51,000 casualties. Some men lie in Evergreen Cemetery. Others were fetched home to their family graveyards. Confederate soldiers waited to be moved until 1872, when they were shipped to Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, and Raleigh, and reburied with equivalent respect. Even with the dispersal, hundreds of corpses were undoubtedly missed amongst the stands of trees punctuating the rolling Pennsylvania hills.

Soldiers’ National Cemetery became a place of pilgrimage from the start. These days, two million people visit the battlefield at Gettysburg each year, making it one of the most popular historical destinations in the United States.

Useful Links:

Downloadable National Cemetery Walking Tour

The Gettysburg National Park home page

The Civil War wiki

Ongoing headstone rehabilitation

My review of a book about Gettysburg & the National Cemetery

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

The other Gettysburg cemetery on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #22: Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. Scribner published my favorite essays from Morbid Curiosity magazine as Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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3 Responses to Cemetery of the Week #21: Soldiers’ National Cemetery

  1. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #22: Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

  2. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #34: Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

  3. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #126: Hollywood Cemetery | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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