National Cemetery (Part 4) – Creation of the Cemetery

The National Cemetery in Fredericksburg was officially created on February 22, 1867 when Congress passed an “Act to establish and protect national cemeteries.” This act “authorized the Secretary of War to purchase cemetery land, build enclosures, appoint superintendents, construct caretaker lodges, and erect markers over each grave.” This legislative action caught up with what was already happening in the field. What was behind all this?

Before going further, I must acknowledge the work of Don Pfanz, former National Park Service Historian who researched and pulled together information concerning the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. I liberally borrowed ideas and information found in his unpublished manuscript titled Where Valor Proudly Sleeps. Thanks Don.

As far back as September 1861, shortly after the first battle of Manassas, the army directed its commanders to bury their dead. By April 1862, when it was apparent that the ongoing Civil War would be long and hard fought, Congress empowered President Abraham Lincoln, “to purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” This small but significant new presidential power was given in “[A]n act to define the pay and emolument of certain officers of the Army, & for other purposes.” The army then directed its commanding generals to establish cemeteries near battlefields, to mark graves with headboards, and to keep a register of the burials.

In July and October 1865, after the close of the Civil War, army leadership went further. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs directed officers in his department to report the number of wartime interments in their jurisdictions. Secretary of War Stanton then ordered the Quartermaster Department to report on the condition of Union graves throughout the country. This was all well and good, but let’s look at what was happening in the field that led up to these official actions.

In May 1863 Union General Joseph Hooker moved his army to Chancellorsville, ten miles west of Fredericksburg. In five days of fighting, General Robert E. Lee again drove the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River. General Hooker reported losing 12,145 men in the battle, of which 1,082 were killed in action. In addition, the Army’s Sixth Corps lost 4,700 men at Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, 493 of whom had died. In contrast to Burnside at Fredericksburg, Hooker did not send troops back across the Rappahannock River to inter the dead. Instead he left the job to the Confederates, who disposed of the bodies by throwing them into the trenches or burying them in shallow, unmarked graves. Many were not buried at all. When Union soldiers returned to Chancellorsville in May 1864 for the Wilderness Campaign, they found the bleached bones of their former comrades scattered through the woods.


Union dead. Major Moore and Col. Bird’s First Regiment discovered hundreds of remains in the Wilderness, buried and unburied similar to the photograph of the Wilderness on the left. On the right is a classic photograph taken at Cold Harbor showing a burial party in April 1865. Such scenes were the hard reality faced at the end of the civil war.

Field burial at Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House proved problematic. Movement of both armies and exhaustion of their soldiers severely limited opportunities. Forest fires, especially at Wilderness, largely precluded identification of the dead where they occurred.  Following the fighting at the ‘Bloody Angle’ and after the location was abandoned by Lee’s troops, to make conditions tolerable, Union troops threw bodies on top of those already there and covered the dead by kicking in the dirt from the parapets on top of them. Cavalry units that moved through these battle areas after both armies departed noted piles of unburied dead, often intermixed and scattered across the terrain.

The first postwar effort by the United States Government to inter Union dead who remained unburied in the South took place in June 1865, just two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Twenty-seven-year-old Brevet Major James M. Moore led the Union burial effort. In June, Moore was directed “to take charge of the duty of the burial of the Union soldiers, portions of whose remains, it is reported, are lying exposed on the fields of the engagements at Wilderness and Spotsylvania.”

Colonel Charles P. Bird’s First United States Veteran Volunteers supported Major Moore in this assignment. The First Regiment buried nearly 1,500 skeletons, erected headboards over the graves of 785 known soldiers, and marked as unknown the graves of many more that had been properly interred before the army left the area in 1864.  They gathered up the bones of those who had not been buried into sacks, placing ten into each coffin. Skeletons that lay in marshy ground, and had not fully decomposed, were too offensive to handle, so they had to be buried where they lay.

Nicknamed our ‘Skeleton Hunt’ by participants, the expedition had not been a complete success. Moore reported  “Hundreds of graves on these battle fields are without any marks whatever to distinguish them and so covered with foliage, that the visitor will be unable to find the last resting places of those who have fallen, until the rains and snows of winter wash from the surface the light covering of earth, and expose their remains.”


Wilderness National Cemeteries #1 and #2. Brevet Major Moore created two National Cemeteries in 1865. The first, on Orange Turnpike at the western edge of Saunders Field was enclosed in a board fence. The second cemetery was south side of the Orange Plank Road, a mile west of the Brock Road intersection. It was located in a grove of trees and surrounded by a picket fence. Both cemeteries contained the remains of the unknown soldiers found and collected during the First Regiment’s search of the battleground. Photos are from copies on file at NPS FRSPNMP. Original photos are located at USMA.

Col. Bird’s men continued on to Spotsylvania Court House where they found few men to bury. The Army of the Potomac had buried many of the dead at the time of the battle, and local resident Joseph Sanford had taken care of the rest. Sanford owned the Spotsylvania Court House Hotel and was the village’s most prominent citizen. In May 1865 he made arrangements with General William T. Sherman, whose army was passing through the area enroute to the Grand Review, to bury the remains of Union soldiers that still littered the ground. The innkeeper tackled the job with energy. By the time Moore, Bird and his regiment reached the battlefield just one month later, they found but few unburied. Moore intended to create a cemetery for these skeletons, as he had done in the Wilderness, but the summer heat rendered the remains so putrid that Bird’s men could not bear to handle them. Bowing to necessity, Moore ordered the men to bury the corpses where they lay.

Fear of Desecration

Calls for the creation of national cemeteries in the South came, in part, from Northern citizens who had visited the Fredericksburg-area battlefields. Shortly after the war, a man named Williams went to Spotsylvania Battlefield, where he discovered the remains of Union soldiers buried in shallow graves. “The cleared land on which these bodies are so slightly buried,” he reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “will doubtless be plowed this fall for wheat, or next spring for corn, and thousands of bones will thus be plowed up and exposed to view, and to the desecration of rebel plowmen and farmers, who will again spurn the hated Yankee, and manure his lands with the bones of his enemies. The timber land will in time also be brought under cultivation and an equal number of our fallen defenders be used to fatten the lands of our enemies.” Williams urged the Secretary to immediately purchase or seize battlefields throughout the South “so that no rebel should ever have the opportunity to plow up and desecrate our honored dead.” (Emphasis added)

 On the heels of Williams’s letter came correspondence from Charles Kronenberger, whose son had died at a Fredericksburg field hospital in May 1864. Kronenberger and his wife had just returned from the town, where they had searched in vain for their son’s remains. “Instead of finding the graves marked as was expected,” wrote the bereaved father, “there appeared about 400 buried in one lot and but 2 or 3 graves marked…. Worse still, the owner of the lot told Kronenberger of his intention to erect a structure on the site.” The father appealed to Stanton to prevent such action.

Another letter written by a man named Watson was circulating through the Congress. Watson claimed to be a loyal citizen living in Fredericksburg. He described efforts being taken by Northern citizens to erect a Soldiers’ Monument on the fairgrounds behind the town. The Mayor and City Council, however, threatened to upset these plans by giving the land to the Agricultural Society. Watson viewed this as a deliberate attempt to disgrace the North’s fallen soldiers. Watson urged Congress to confiscate battlefields throughout the South “making them United States lands forever, that they may never be plowed up or otherwise desecrated by the unrepentant rebels.”

Washington officials took the letters seriously. The Chairman of the House Committee of Military Affairs sent the letter to Secretary Stanton who, on April 2, 1866, directed General Meigs to “take charge of and enclose…the fields at Fredericksburg, Va., on which the battle was fought…and hold the same as a National Cemet[e]ry and adopt measures to secure the graves from desecration.” Federal troops seized the land eight days later to secure the graves.

Choosing a Location

 Local citizens had their own plan! As early as October 1865, citizens loyal to the United States advocated turning the fairgrounds, known locally as Mercer Square, at the foot of Marye’s Heights, into a cemetery and erecting a Soldiers’ Monument there. Recently promoted Brevet Lt. Col. Moore weighed in. On May 23, 1866, he informed Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs that the Agricultural Fair Grounds land (Mercer Square) was unsuitable for burials. The water table there was just three feet below the ground surface, and the site was subject to drainage from the nearby heights. He recommended instead that the Government place the cemetery on Willis Hill, at the southern end of Marye’s Heights. A cemetery on Willis Hill did not sit well with Watson and his friends, who continued to press the Secretary of War to locate the cemetery on the city’s Agricultural Fair Grounds.

The work done by Moore, Bird, and the men of the First Regiment remained intact for just one year. Confronted with the task of interring more than 15,000 Union soldiers in the Fredericksburg area, the War Department in 1866 decided to consolidate the graves of Union soldiers into a single cemetery located on Marye’s Heights. Over the next two years burial parties scoured the Fredericksburg region, bringing in wagonload after wagonload of human remains. Among them were the skeletons of soldiers buried by the First Regiment in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House.

United States soldiers collected and buried the Union dead at Fredericksburg until June 1866 when the Government began hiring private laborers to do the job. Known as the Burial Corps, the laborers consisted of former slaves, Irish immigrants, and Confederate veterans. These laborers were paid 15 dollars a month plus lodging (tents) and rations.

Members of the Burial Corps pitched their tents at the foot of Willis Hill, on land owned by Joseph Hall (click here) near the present-day Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. They called their temporary home “Camp Augur.”


Burial Corps camp (Yellow) located just below the National Cemetery on land owned by Joseph Hall not far from the existing Fredericksburg Visitors Center. This drawing was from Lossing’s Pictorial History of the Civil War. It was sketched from the side of Willis Hill looking south along the Sunken Road opposite the Stephens and Innis Houses.

In its first six months of operation, the Burial Corps interred the remains of 2,442 soldiers at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. By the time it finished, less than two years later, it had buried the remains of more than 15,000 men. 


National Cemetery Gate originally stood one third of the way up the hill from the Sunken Road at just below the split in the carriage roadbed. It was made of wood which decayed. This was replaced in 1874 by the current gate posts made of stone. The location of the original gate can be made out where the modern road turns to the left, part way up the hill.

Original Headboards

 The most important feature of any cemetery is the grave markers. Soldiers buried at Fredericksburg National Cemetery between 1866 and 1873 received rounded, wooden headboards over their graves. Identified soldiers had a grave to themselves, while most unidentified soldiers shared a grave with at least one other soldier. The tablets of identified soldiers contained their name, unit, date of death, and original burial location. Elisha Mowry’s headboard was typical. It read:


Co F 11 CONN.

DECEMBER 10, 1862




Headboards – Then and Now. The photo was taken between 1866 and 1873. Each rounded headboard was made of wood. The headboards provided more information on the individual contained in the grave; Elisha Mowry Jr, Company F, 11th Connecticut, died on December 10th, 1862, removed from Phillips Farm. The stone that replaced it simply says; E. Mowry Jr., Conn. The grave of three Unknown soldiers, removed from the Fair Grounds is simply a square granite block with a grave number and the number 3 that tell us that three Unknown Soldiers are buried beneath. In the background (blue) is the Willis Hill Cemetery located just outside to the north of the National Cemetery.

Headboards of unknown soldiers gave the number of soldiers buried in the grave and identified the place from which the remains had come. Typical was a headboard that read:







Seven out of every eight men brought to Fredericksburg could not be identified. Rather than furnish individual graves for these soldiers, the Army decided to bury the unknown dead in mass graves. Interring more than one soldier in a grave had its advantages: it took less time, it saved the Army money in coffins and headboards, and it conserved space. By 1870, there were 6,574 graves at Fredericksburg National Cemetery–less than one grave for every two soldiers buried there covering an area of twelve acres. If every soldier had received his own grave, a 30-acre plot of ground would have been needed to hold them all. Unidentified soldiers share a coffin with others exhumed from the same location. Their bones never mixed with those of soldiers who had died on a different farm or lot, much less with those who died on a different battlefield.

S6---Table of unidentified Union soldiers---web

Table of unidentified soldiers buried at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Unidentified soldiers share a coffin with others exhumed from the same location. Their bones never mixed with those of soldiers who had died on a different farm or lot, much less with those who died on a different battlefield. The number of unknown soldiers to occupy a single grave depended on where they perished. There are 4,170 block markers that account for 12,786 unknown soldiers. This table shows some of the most common groupings and locations from where they were reburied. They are distributed with as few as one Unknown Soldier per block up to twelve in one location.

Later Interments of Civil War Soldiers

 Although most Civil War soldiers were interred by 1868, skeletons continued to turn up for decades thereafter. When farmers discovered a grave on their property, they would contact the cemetery superintendent, who then arranged to collect and bury the remains. Local residents found the skeletons of at least two dozen soldiers after 1870 and reburied them at Fredericksburg. Undoubtedly there were more!


Cemetery grounds looking north from Parker’s Battery location at the southern end of the National Cemetery on Willis Hill. The historic photograph is circa before 1885. In my modern shot, the headstones match precisely. The counts of the unidentified soldier blocks in the foreground match in both photos. The flag staff in the older photo was replaced by the General Humphreys statue in 1908. Unfortunately that is hidden by the growth of trees.

The last burial occurred in 1949 of a WWII marine killed at Iwo Jima. Today, the cemetery is closed to any new burials.

My next post will focus on a dozen soldiers that are buried at Fredericksburg National Cemetery.  These men died in the Civil War or later, up until WWII.




Pfanz, Donald, Where Valor Proudly Sleeps, A History of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 1866-1933, Fredericksburg: unpublished manuscript, FRSP, 2007. p 46-58, 79, 8-96,112, 193-6.


Cold Harbor; 04324u.tif,

Wilderness; 23671u.tif


Lossing’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Vol 2, Page 491;view=1up;seq=505


About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
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