Fredericksburg National Cemetery has the largest number of unidentified soldiers anywhere in the National Cemetery System. Last Saturday evening, at one of the tour stops for the cemetery’s annual Memorial Day luminaria ceremony, I had the privilege of talking about that a bit while also sharing the story of one soldier who almost ended up unknown except for the efforts of a fellow fallen comrade.
NPS Historian Pete Maugle, who compiled the research for the luminaria’s tour stops, put together some great information that he has kindly allowed me to share here. “Feel free to use the story of Hiram Lare however you please,” he graciously told me. “After all, the whole point is to recognize these soldiers however possible.” What follows is my adaptation of the info he gave us; I share it along with my thanks to Pete, who is a first-class guy.
Identifying the dead could be a daunting task. After all, Civil War soldiers did not wear dog tags the way soldiers do today. So if a soldier was killed in combat, he was often unidentifiable unless someone on burial detail happened to recognize him. In such cases, someone might scratch the soldier’s name on a piece of wooden planking and then stick that in the ground as a temporary headboard. But such headboards had to withstand the weather until someone could come back to collect the body. Even then, the headboard might be gone. Locals used to raid the battlefields and steal such headboards for firewood.
Soldiers would sometimes go to great lengths to be sure their friends were identified. We have one New Hampshire soldier who had a friend write his name on a slip of paper and slide it into a bottle, and then cork the bottle and bury it with him. Another soldier had someone carve his name into a rock—“Dan”—and bury it with him. We don’t know anything else about Dan other than his name, which is still more than most of the people buried here. Another soldier had a buddy scrawl his name on the lid of a cartridge box and bury it with him, as we’ll soon see.
Starting in 1866, the United State Burial Commission came through the Fredericksburg area and began to disinter as many bodies as they could find for reburial in the new Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Most of the bodies they found, however, were unidentified—and often so decomposed in their shallow graves, subject to the weather and wild animals, that they were unidentifiable. Often, they found only parts of bodies.
Unsure what else to do, the government decided to bury these unknown soldiers in mass graves. If you look around the cemetery, you’ll see small, square headstones with two numbers on them. The top number is the plot number; the bottom number is the number of men—or parts of men—buried in the plot. Some have as many as twelve people buried in them.
Fredericksburg National Cemetery has 6,794 gravestones—less than one for every two people buried here. If every person buried in the cemetery had their own plot, it would require 30 acres.
Only 2,643 of the 15,436 people buried in the cemetery are identified. That means 83.5 percent of the burials—12,790 people—are unknown.
One soldier who almost ended up unknown, but for the efforts of a friend, was 21-year-old Hiram Lare, a boatman from Philadelphia who enlisted in the 95th Pennsylvania infantry—Gosline’s Zouaves—at the beginning of the war in 1861. Lare served out his three-year-term, then reenlisted as a veteran volunteer.
However, on May 12, as part of Emory Upton’s brigade in the VI Corps, while assaulting the Mule Shoe salient, Lare was killed. His buddy, John Cooke, was wounded in the leg in that same assault. Cooke held vigil over Lare’s body for the remained of the battle, and the next day, as Federals tried to clean up the carnage on the battlefield, Cooke begged a pair of soldiers to dig a shallow grave for Lare with their bayonets. Cooke scratched Lare’s name, regiment, and company on the lid of a cartridge box to serve as a marker.
Fast-forward 67 years. In 1931, Cooke returned to the battlefield to see if he could find the gravesite of his former friend—but he wasn’t there. So Cooke inquired with the superintendent of the National Cemetery, which at the time was administered by the War Department. The superintendent responded and told Cooke that, indeed, Lare had been reinterred in the national cemetery, and he provided Cooke with the pertinent information.
Cooke wrote back in gratitude. “I cannot express my sincere appreciation of your kindness in telling me that my dear soldier friend and mess-mate had an honorable burial,” he said—and then went on to describe the scene on the battlefield as the two soldiers buried Lair in a shallow grave:
His body was scarcely covered but the boys did the best they could and I thanked them as the tears almost choked me as I tried to talk. I was several years younger than Hiram and was a frail boy as compared to his muscular frame. He was the best friend I ever had. Many times he gave me his last cracker and the last drop from his canteen.
For 67 years I have wondered and worried if his body had a solders’ resting place—not the bloody spot I saw it last. I wish it was possible for me to lay a rose on his grave on [Memorial Day] as a token of love and gratitude for him that has never died.
The superintendent made arrangements to honor Cooke’s request, and he had a rose laid at Lair’s grave.
This year, we have likewise laid a rose at Hiram Lare’s grave to honor him and his friendship with John Cooke. As you walk this cemetery tonight, think of all the men who did not have a buddy, who did not have a John Cooke, to scratch their name on a piece of leather. Think of the thousands and thousands of men who lie here, unidentified and unknown.
Thank you for coming here to remember them.