After over 150 years, the Civil War is still one of the mostly widely studied historical moments in history with new discoveries continuously being made. Recently one of these extraordinary finds took place while workers were digging at a construction project on the Manassas National Battlefield, discovering a limb pit, one of the first of its’ kind to be found. A rare archaeological discovery like this is the culmination of historical decisions and environmental factors that created ideal conditions for the remains to be undisturbed for 156 years.
The remains were discovered in 2014, when a construction project installing a utility line on the Manassas National Battlefield began. When discovered, work ceased and archaeologists with the National Park Service and anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution arrived at the Park to investigate. All told, the investigation throughout 2015 revealed several amputated legs and arms, as well as the remains of two unidentified Union Soldiers. The discovery was lightly described in the Washington Post:
The two soldiers—referred to as Burial 1, with the embedded bullet, and Burial 2–were placed side by side in the pit. the severed limbs were carefully arranged next to them, like broken tree branches, according to a photograph from the dig [nine severed legs and two severed arms]. Burial 1 probably went in first, because Burial 2 was partially on top of him. The hole was about a foot deep, and over the years farm plows had carried off the skull of one man and part of the skull of the other…. (1)
The limb pit belonged to a hospital established for the Battle of Second Manassas, which was part of a campaign of General Robert E. Lee to move his army north to threaten Washington D.C. Union and Confederate forces about twice the size of those at First Manassas clashed near the same fields where many soldiers had fought only a year before. From August 28th to the 30th, 1862, fighting occurred at Brawner Farm, Chinn Ridge, and near the unfinished railroad, until the Federal army was eventually pushed back to Bull Run, resulting in a Confederate victory and the army to move further north to Sharpsburg, Maryland. The casualties as a result of the this battle were immense, about 22,000 men killed and wounded; 13,900 for the Union and 8,300 for the Confederacy. With the amount of wounded, surgeons were still facing the challenges of overwhelming surgeries that led to a significant amount of amputations, as well as the need for the disposal of limbs and the burial of the dead.
The sight of a limb pit was one of the most impressionable scenes on soldiers and civilians due to the impact of an amputation on these men. An amputation for many of these men meant that their masculine status had diminished, and they were forced to rely on others not only during their recovery, but possibly the remainder of their lives.(2) Several primary accounts provide insight into this shocking scene of death and destruction as a result of many operations throughout the war. Walt Whitman, famed poet and volunteer nurse during portions the war remarked after Fredericksburg:
[I] began my visits [December 21, 1862] among the camp hospitals in the Army of the Potomac, under General Burnside. Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion [Chatham] on the banks of the Rappahannock, immediately opposite of Fredericksburg. It is used as a hospital since the battle, and seemed to have received only the worst cases. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten years of the front of the house, I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands etc.—about a load for one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly officers, their names on pieces of barrel staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt…(3)
Fanny Rickett, wife of Captain James Ricketts, also described a similar scene after she arrived at Portici, a home converted into a hospital after the Battle of First Manassas on July 26, 1861:
No words can describe the horrors around me. Two men dead and covered with blood were carried down the stairs as I waited to let them pass. On a table in the open hall, a man was undergoing amputation of the let. At the foot of the stairs, two bloody legs lay, and through it all I went. Outside the next door was a severed arm, my clothes brushed by bloom, cloths, splint, etc. I found my dear husband lying on a hospital stretcher, still covered with blood! Downstairs, there are some forty men in various stages of death or possible recovery. Blood runs on the floors, the smell is dreadful but no language can describe it…(4)
Though these sights were incredibly unsettling, after these surgeries took place, the question remained of what to do with the severed limbs and the bodies of those who did not survive. At first, many of the limbs remained tossed aside in the hospitals as amputations continued for hours or days. In Corinth, Mississippi, nurse Kate Cummings remembered that many “amputated limbs had been thrown into the yard where they remained after an operation”.(5) Another unknown soldier from Louisiana remembered seeing a huge “box filled to the brim with hands, arms, and feet [and] noted that the box ‘was so full that two horrible and bloody feet protruded out of the top’”.(6) Eventually, limbs would either be burned, hastily buried —to be sometimes found be foraging wildlife—, or more deeply buried supporting their preservation for years to come. It was similar with soldier who passed for they were either buried in wooden coffins or wrapped in blankets with markers locating their remains, buried hastily in large trenches, or sometimes not at all. Oftentimes throughout the war, the burial of amputated remains as well soldiers seemed to be an afterthought in many of these hospitals as a result of their emergency nature. A former Union hospital steward summarized the quick and hasty burial of the dead for:
Everything was hurriedly arranged…you will therefore see the seeming want of order in the burial of the dead…It was with the greatest difficulty and with terrible exertion on the part of my associates and myself that we were able to care for the sick and wounded—hence the little apparent care for those who were beyond help.(7)
For the soldiers and remains found at the Manassas National Battlefield, it seems as though fortune seemed to shine on them to have been buried more than a foot in the ground and to have lied undisturbed for over 150 years. Now that their remains have been found, the limbs have gone to the Smithsonian Institution for further study, while the two Union soldiers will be the first to be buried in a new section of Arlington Cemetery on September 6, 2018 with full military honors in wooden coffins made from a tree fell from the battlefield, giving them a final resting place to never be disturbed again.
1. Micheal E. Ruane, “Two Union soldiers died more than 150 years ago. Now three craftsmen are making them coffins.” Washington Post, August 17, 2018. Accessed August 20, 2018.
2. Brian Craig Miller, Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 75-76
3. Walt Whitman, The Wound Dresser (Boston: Small, Maynard, & Company, 1898), 22.
4. National Park Service, “The Horrors Around Me,” First Manassas Series. Accessed August 20, 2018.
5. Miller, 21.
6. Ibid., 21.
7. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 64.