At 9 pm on Saturday evening May 24, 2014,Taps rang out at the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg. This was an echo of other sites across the nation that in 1864 were deeply wounded by the losses of the 1864 Overland Campaign. Other distant sites included: Petersburg’s Poplar Grove National Cemetery, VA; Dearborn, MI; Natchez, MS; Linchfield, CT; Charleston, SC; Camp Nelson, KY; Bangor, ME; Wilmington, NC; and the Stockbridge-Munsee Indian Reservation, WI. Many of the fallen did so at the Bloody Angle in Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia.
Numerous soldier graves, most hastily constructed, many unmarked, were scattered over the landscape following the four battles in the region. According to Wikipedia, combined casualties of those directly killed in battle in the region were 13,126. Those that subsequently died of wounds are not noted. When you add losses due to disease while the armies camped in the area, the numbers of the lost were devastating to the nation. They still weigh on the nation today.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Congress authorized the establishment of a National Cemetery at Fredericksburg to provide a proper burial place for Union soldiers who died at the four major battles, numerous smaller skirmishes, and from illness while camped in the region. The War Department selected Marye’s Heights, technically, the Willis Hill portion of the Heights, as the site for the National Cemetery. Construction of the cemetery and the interment of remains began in 1866. All the burials of the dead from the Civil War were interred in the cemetery by 1869. At the completion of the burials, 15,243 Union soldiers lay in the cemetery, with only 2,473 identified.
Due to the politics of the era, Confederate dead were not included in the cemetery. A portion of the Fredericksburg city cemetery, as well as a location in Spotsylvania Court House were selected by the Ladies Memorial Associations and others to inter the Confederate dead in the region.
These locations were not the only ones selected for the fallen. Some were taken to hometowns by families, others to Richmond or Washington DC. Still others still lie, forgotten, where they fell, lost to history. Many involved with the battle at the Bloody Angle, both north and south, lie under foot in the entrenchments that were purposefully caved in as part of the hasty burial process following the battle. Never found, known but to God.
I volunteered to assist with the Illumination of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery and Reverberations program. This was the final portion of the National Park Service (NPS) 1864 Overland Campaign – Wilderness and Spotsylvania, conducted by the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park unit. It was a fitting end to the activities which started back on May 4th. Below are a few photos taken the evening of May 24th. In all, there were six stations for visitors to pass through during the evening of reflection and remembrance of the men. Taps was sounded between 8 PM and 11 PM every half hour. The programs presented at each station highlighted soldiers who were killed at the battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania, 150 years ago. Visitors could stay as long as they liked on this special night.
I will return to the subject of the National Cemetery in a future blog post, as there is more information to explore. But for now, we remember.