Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, Part III

Editor's note: In part three of his look at the history and preservation of America's Civil War battlefields, as captured in Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, historian Richard West Sellars looks at the earliest efforts to honor those who fought and died during the Civil War. (You can purchase the entire article, complete with footnotes and photographs, from Eastern National).

Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900

By Richard West Sellars

Part III: Civil War Battlefield Monuments and Cemeteries

As with the southern Pennsylvania countryside surrounding the town of Gettysburg, the struggles between the United States and Confederate armies from 1861 to 1865 often brought war to beautiful places, with many battles fought in the pastoral landscapes of eastern, southern, and middle America— in rolling fields and woods, along rivers and streams, among farmsteads, and often in or near villages, towns, or cities. cities. Following the furious, convulsive battles, the armies often moved on toward other engagements, or to reassess and rebuild.

They left behind landscapes devastated by the violence and destruction of war, yet suddenly imbued with meanings more profound than mere pastoral beauty. The battlefields would no longer be taken for granted as ordinary fields and wooded lands. For millions of Americans, intense emotions focused on these sites, so that while local farmers and villagers sought to recover from the devastation, the battlegrounds, in effect, lay awaiting formal recognition, perhaps sooner or later to be publicly dedicated, consecrated, and hallowed. Once the scenes of horrendous bloodletting, the preserved battlefield parks, green and spreading across countrysides ornamented with monuments, would come to form an enduring, ironic juxtaposition of war and beauty, forever paradoxical.

And the carefully tended battlefields remain forever beguiling: The tranquil, monumented military parks mask the horror of what happened there. Walt Whitman, whose poetry and prose include what are arguably the finest descriptions of the effects of Civil War battles on individual soldiers, wrote that the whole fratricidal affair seemed “like a great slaughter house...the men mutually butchering each other.” He later asserted that the Civil War was “about nine hundred and ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory.”

Having spent much of the war nursing terribly wounded soldiers in the Washington military hospitals and seeing sick and dying men with worm-infested battle wounds and amputations that had infected and required additional cutting, Whitman knew well the grisly costs of battle. The poet encountered many soldiers who seemed demented and wandered in a daze about the hospital wards. To him, they had “suffered too much,” and it was perhaps best that they were “out of their senses.” To the unsuspecting person, then, the serene, monumented battlefields can indeed belie the appalling bloodletting that took place there. Yet from the very first, it was intended that the battlegrounds become peaceful, memorial parks—each, in effect, a “pilgrim-place,” as an early Gettysburg supporter put it.

The historical significance of the first five Civil War battlefield parks was undeniably as the scenes of intense and pivotal combat, but by the early 20th century they also marked the nation’s first true commitment to commemorating historic places and preserving their historic features and character.

Restoration of the battle scenes, such as maintaining historic roads, forests, fields, and defensive earthworks, was under way, to varying degrees, at the battlefield parks. The parks were also becoming extensively memorialized with sizable monuments and many smaller stone markers, along with troop-position tablets (mostly cast iron and mounted on posts) tracing the course of battle and honoring the men who fought there.

Erected mainly in the early decades of each park’s existence, the monuments, markers, and tablets in the five military parks established in the 1890s exist today in astonishingly large numbers. The totals include more than 1,400 at Gettysburg, approximately 1,400 at Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and more than 1,300 at Vicksburg.

Following these are Shiloh, with more than 600, and Antietam with more than 400. The overall total for the five battlefields is nearly 5,200. Although tablets and markers comprise the greatest portion of these totals, the battlefields have become richly ornamented with memorial sculpture, including many large, impressive monuments. Altogether, they are the most striking visual features of the military parks, and they provide the chief physical manifestation of the battlefields’ hallowedness.

The early Civil War military parks are among the most monumented battlefields in the world. Virtually all of the monuments were stylistically derivative, many inspired by classical or renaissance memorial architecture, with huge numbers of them portraying standing soldiers, equestrian figures, or men in battle action. They recall heroism, the physical intensity of battle, and grief—rather than, for instance, the emancipation of the slaves, a major result of the battles and the war. From early on, some critics have judged the monuments to be too traditional and noted that many were essentially mass-produced by contractors.

Nevertheless, with veterans themselves directly involved in the origin and evolution of the Civil War battlefield memorialization movement, the earlier monuments reflect the sentiments of the very men who fought there. And the veterans were highly unlikely to be artistically avant-garde; rather, they tended to follow the styles and tastes of the time.

Even while the war was ongoing, soldiers erected several monuments on battlefields. In early September 1861, less than five months after the April 12th firing on Fort Sumter, Confederate soldiers erected the first Civil War battlefield monument, at the site of the Battle of Manassas, near the stream known as Bull Run, in Virginia. There, in July, the Confederates had surprised the United States forces (and the Northern public) with a stunning victory. Little more than six weeks later, the 8th Georgia Infantry erected a marble obelisk of modest height to honor their fallen leader, Colonel Francis S. Bartow. (Only the monument’s stone base has survived; the marble obelisk disappeared possibly even before the second battle at Manassas took place in August 1862.)

The Union army erected two battlefield monuments during the war. Still standing is the Hazen monument—the oldest intact Civil War battlefield monument— at Stones River National Battlefield, near the middle-Tennessee town of Murfreesboro. There, in a savage battle in late 1862 and early 1863, Northern troops forced a Confederate retreat. In about June 1863, members of Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade (men from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky) began erecting a sizable cut-limestone monument to honor their fallen comrades in the very area where they had fought and died. The monument was located in a small cemetery that held the remains of the brigade’s casualties.

The Union army’s other wartime monument, a marble obelisk, was erected on the battlefield at Vicksburg by occupying troops on July 4, 1864, to commemorate the first anniversary of the Confederate surrender of this strategic city. At Stones River, the Hazen monument’s location in the brigade cemetery at the scene of combat testifies to the often direct connections that would evolve between military cemeteries and preserved military parks. Each of the battles had concluded with dead and wounded from both sides scattered over the countryside, along with many fresh graves containing either completely or partially buried bodies—the hurried work of comrades or special ad hoc burial details. (The wounded, many of whom died, were cared for in temporary field hospitals, including tents, homes, and other public and private buildings.)

Reacting to growing public concern about the frequently disorganized handling of the Union dead, Congress, in July 1862, passed legislation authorizing “national cemeteries” and the purchase of land for them wherever “expedient.” By the end of 1862, the army had designated 12 national cemeteries, principally located where Northern military personnel were or had previously been concentrated—whether at battlefields (Mill Springs, Kentucky, for instance); near army hospitals and encampments (such as in Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia); or at military posts (such as Fort Leavenworth in Kansas).

All were administered by the War Department. These newly created military cemeteries were predecessors to those that would be established on other battlefields, such as Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Antietam. At Gettysburg, the site selected for a military burial ground lay adjacent to the city’s existing Evergreen Cemetery and along a portion of the Union battle lines on the slopes of Cemetery Hill. There, Northern forces, in desperate combat, at times hand-to-hand, had repulsed a major Confederate assault.

Locating the military cemetery where Northern troops had scored a crucial victory surely heightened the symbolism and the sense of consecration and hallowedness that Lincoln reflected upon in articulating the Union cause and the meaning of the war, and in validating the “altogether fitting and proper” purpose of battlefield cemeteries.

During and after the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, the Union army hastily buried thousands of its soldiers killed during the campaign. The burials, some in mass graves, were in the immediate vicinity of the siege or were scattered throughout the extensive countryside in Mississippi and in the Louisiana parishes across the Mississippi River where the campaign took place. In the chaos of battle, the army kept few burial records, left many graves unmarked, and did little to arrange for proper re-burial. At Vicksburg, as elsewhere, erosion often uncovered the bodies, making them even more vulnerable to vultures, hogs, and other scavengers.

An official report in May 1866 noted that, as the Mississippi had shifted its course or spread out into the Louisiana floodplains, it carried downriver many bodies, which “floated to the ocean in their coffins or buried in the sand beneath [the river’s] waters.” After delays resulting from wartime pressures and protracted deliberations about where to locate an official burial ground (even New Orleans was considered), the national cemetery at Vicksburg was established in 1866, and the re-burial efforts moved toward completion.

Antietam National Cemetery
was officially dedicated on September 17, 1867, the fifth anniversary of the battle. Following Antietam’s one-day holocaust, which resulted in more deaths (estimated between 6,300 and 6,500) than on any other single day of the war, most of the dead were buried in scattered locations on the field of battle, where they remained for several years. In 1864, the State of Maryland authorized the purchase of land for a cemetery. A site was selected on a low promontory situated along one of the Confederate battle lines, and re-burial of remains from Antietam and nearby engagements began in late 1866. Following contentious debate (Maryland was a border state with popular allegiance sharply divided between the North and South), it was decided that only Union dead would be buried in the new cemetery. Re-burial of Confederate dead would come later, and elsewhere.

After the war ended, a systematic effort to care for the Northern dead led to the creation of many more military cemeteries, most of them established under the authority of congressional legislation approved in February 1867. This legislation strengthened the 1862 legal foundation for national cemeteries— for instance, by reauthorizing the purchase of lands needed for burying places; providing for the use of the government’s power of eminent domain when necessary for acquiring private lands; and calling for the reimbursement of owners whose lands had been, or would be, expropriated for military cemetery sites.

The total number of national cemeteries rose from 14 at the end of the war to 73 by 1870, when the re-burial program for Union soldiers was considered essentially completed. Although many of the new official burial grounds were on battlefields or military posts, others were part of existing private or city cemeteries.

Also, two prominent battlefield cemeteries that had been created and managed by states were transferred to the War Department: Pennsylvania ceded the Gettysburg cemetery in 1872, and Maryland transferred the Antietam cemetery five years later. Of the five battlefield parks established in the 1890s, all would either adjoin or be near military cemeteries. Even as they were being established and developed, the national cemeteries stood out as hallowed commemorative sites. And they provided an early and tangible intimation that the surrounding battlefield landscapes were also hallowed places, perhaps in time to be officially recognized.

The national cemeteries were thus precursors to the far larger military parks—which themselves were like cemeteries in that they still held many unfound bodies.

The first of the truly large memorials on Civil War battlefields were two imposing monuments erected in national cemeteries—one at Gettysburg, the other at Antietam. In 1864, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association requested design proposals for a “Soldiers’ National Monument” to be placed in the
cemetery’s central space, as intended in the original landscape plan. The selected design featured a tall column topped by the figure of Liberty, and a large base with figures representing War, Peace, History, and Plenty. The monument was formally dedicated in 1869. At Antietam, plans for the national cemetery also included a central space for a monument—a design feature apparently inspired by the Gettysburg cemetery plan.

The contract was let in 1871 for the monument—a large, off-white granite statue of a United States Army enlisted man. Insufficient funding helped delay its completion, so that formal dedication of the “Soldiers’ Monument” did not occur until 1880, on the 18th anniversary of the battle. Like the monuments erected during the war itself, those erected within the Gettysburg and Antietam national cemeteries were harbingers of the extensive memorialization that would in time take place in the early military parks.

In the aftermath of Union victories, most Confederate bodies were buried individually or in mass graves on the fields of battle, and most did not receive formal burials until much later. Such was the case at Gettysburg, where huge numbers of Confederate dead lay in mass graves until the early 1870s, given the Northern officials’ strict prohibition of Rebel burials in the military cemetery—a restriction put in place at other Union cemeteries located on battlefields.

At Shiloh, hundreds of Southern dead were buried together in trenches. (Some of these mass burials, although mentioned in official reports, have never been located.) Early in the war, well before the siege of Vicksburg got under way, the Confederate army began burying its dead in a special section of Cedar Hill, the Vicksburg city cemetery, which ultimately held several thousand military graves. And following the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, a somewhat systematic attempt to care for the bodies of Southern soldiers was disrupted by the Northern victory at nearby Chattanooga about two months later.

In many instances, however, the Confederate dead were disinterred and moved by local people or by the soldiers’ families for formal burial in cemeteries all across the South, including town and churchyard cemeteries. Much of this took place after the war and through the efforts of well-organized women’s memorial organizations and other concerned groups and individuals.

At Antietam, a concerted effort to remove hastily buried Rebel dead from the field of battle did not get under way until the early 1870s, about a decade after the battle. Then, over a period of several years, those remains that could be found were buried in nearby Hagerstown, Maryland.

Concern that Antietam National Cemetery should in no way honor the South was made especially clear by the extended debate over “Lee’s Rock,” one of several low-lying limestone outcrops in the cemetery. Located on a high point along Confederate lines, the rock provided a vantage point that, reportedly, Robert E. Lee used to observe parts of the battle. After the war, the rock became a curiosity and a minor Southern icon. But Northerners viewed it as an intrusion into a Union shrine, and wanted this reminder of the Rebel army removed. The final decision came in 1868—to take away all rock outcrops in the cemetery. Still, this comprehensive solution makes the removal of Lee’s Rock seem like an act of purification, erasing even the mere suggestion of Southern presence in the national cemetery.


Next week: Reunions, Reconciliation, and Veterans’ Interest in Military Parks