Have you ever strolled through a cemetery on a quiet summer afternoon, hearing the distant sounds of modern life, feeling the warm breeze as you walked through the rows and rows of graves? Most cemeteries are works of art in themselves, with different types of monuments to admire and ponder at. Military cemeteries are different, the uniform headstones blending together into long rows that seem to stretch forever into the distance. I spent a lot of time this past summer wandering through Fredericksburg National Cemetery; wondering what secrets lay beneath the headstones led me to research the men who buried there. I found that this one cemetery held a lot of secrets, stories of course of the Civil War, but also well beyond the 1860s. In this series, I wish to share what I found. We as historians study the dead, but how many times do we stand at a grave, and not the grave of a famous person but an ordinary individual, and make a connection to their story?
Construction of a National Cemetery at Fredericksburg began in June 1866 on Marye’s Heights, a position held by the Confederates during the battles of Fredericksburg in 1862 and 1863. United States soldiers were the first burial force occupying the town, but soon private laborers swelled the corps, primarily former slaves, Irish immigrants and Confederate veterans. In the first six months they interred 2,442 soldiers, pulled from the four major area battlefields and smaller burials. When they finished two years later they had located, attempted identification, and reinterred more than 15,000 men. Because most had been buried in mass graves, buried without identification, the identification had been lost or removed, or they had been dead for several years 83.5% of the internments in the cemetery are under the label “unknown.” Known soldiers were buried in their own plots with individual headstones containing all known information. Unknown soldiers were buried with a different type of headstone, with multiple bodies to a grave. Fredericksburg is the fourth largest national cemetery, but it holds the distinction of containing the largest number of unknown burials (12,770 men to be exact).
Of course, we have lost the identities of these 12,770 men and thus lost the privilege of ever knowing their stories. But we have not lost them all. Over the next few weeks I hope to share with you some of the amazing stories connected to the quiet, uniform graves at Fredericksburg.