For every man who falls in battle, some one mourns. For every man who lies in hospital wards and of whom no note is taken, some one mourns. For the humblest soldier shot on picket, and of whose humble exit from the stage of life little is thought, some one mourns.
~Samuel Partridge, 13NY
Every grave in the national cemetery represents a story of service and struggle, but they also represent the impact of loss on a wide scale. A soldier is one person, but think of the web of connections each had in their lives. Every grave also represents loss for a mother, a father, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, wives, extended family, and friends. At a time when news did not travel at the split-second pace of today and travel was far less easy, families might not hear of a loved one’s death until weeks or months had gone by. Even then, the reports might be false or wrong. Worse still, many families never found out what happened to loved ones, they just never came home. Most were buried in unknown graves scattered across the southern states.
Even when casualties were identified, it was very likely that families would not be able to collect the body. Whether because of distance, money, or the proximity to ongoing combat, most families had to leave their loved one buried in graves far away from home. Tilghman Jacoby, a private in the 128th PA, was unwell for months with dysentery when it suddenly turned into typhoid fever. He died just after midnight on February 20, 1863 after a few weeks in the hospital. Comrades and hospital staff prepared the body to send it home to the wife Jacoby had married only a few weeks before enlisting. His body was buried at Aquia Landing and she was told she could collect the body from there. Apparently she did not have the means to do so, for he resides today at Fredericksburg in grave #5830.
The inability to transport soldiers’ bodies meant that they remained far away from home. Many families were unable to bury their loved ones or visit their graves. For some, locating and visiting the graves remained a hope long after the war. For M. E. Andrews, the dream of finally visiting the grave of her only brother, Major William C. Morgan (grave #3615), who died at the North Anna River in 1864 was fulfilled twenty-eight years after his death. In the fall of 1892 she traveled to Fredericksburg and enlisted the help of the cemetery staff to find William’s final resting spot among the thousands of graves. Finally, she stood before the headstone of her only brother:
I wish my dear sister, that you could see it, it is one of the most beautuful spots I ever saw, at the head of the grave there is a beautiful Japonica tree which shades it, I was pretty well overcome, and the tears dropped fast [.] I felt and know that he was beside me, I knelt down on the grave and sobbed, as I knelt there, there was a little Japonica Apple fell right into my lap, from the tree, the man picked it up and gave it to me saying that it was a message to you Mrs Andrews, he was very kind and gave me several shoots from the tree. I brought them home, and am trying to root them, if they root you shall have one.
Andrews continued on to talk about providing funds to decorate William’s grave on a regular basis. While we do not know if she was successful, decorating a grave was the only option for another grieving family. Corporal Jerome Pierce’s death at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864 devastated his 29 year old wife, Albinia (Allie), and their 4 year old daughter, Lucy. Unable to travel into Virginia after the war, Albinia sent $100 to the superintendent of the cemetery, Andrew Birdsall, and asked him to decorate the grave (#540) regularly. He opened a bank account in the local Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Fredericksburg and enlisted the help of his own family to decorate the grave. These responsibilities passed down through the generations of the Birdsall family until his great-great-great-grandson decorated it in the 1990s. Today flowers still decorate Pierce’s grave every Memorial Day, along with a note reading “Once lost, now found, never forgotten.” As for his family, Allie lived until the age of 85 and never remarried. Lucy also never married, dying in 1946 after a career as a teacher and librarian.
These three families were fortunate, they were notified of what happened to their loved ones. For many more the uncertainty must have been maddening. Each unknown grave in the national cemetery represents unanswered questions: What happened? Where is he?Will he ever come home? No one was unaffected by the Civil War, even if they never set foot on a battlefield. The impact from a single death radiated through families and communities; the impact of several hundred thousand deaths changed the nation.