Our National Cemeteries: Shiloh National Cemetery—Drummer Boys, Color Bearers, and Regimental Burial Plots

ECW welcomes guest author Gregory Mertz, author of the ECW Series book Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh

After passing through the impressive black-and-gold gate at the entrance of the Shiloh National Cemetery, visitors looking across the lawn soon spot where the rows upon rows of headstones begin, marking the location of the thousands of graves. But before reaching the first full row, a lone grave naturally attracts attention.

Visitors to the Shiloh National Cemetery in Tennessee will pass through this imposing black-and-gold gate. (Brian Swartz)

This isolated grave was authorized by the officer who built the cemetery—brevet Lt. Col. A. W. Willis—a soldier from the army Quartermaster Department. It is not the name or rank of the soldier found on the stone of the solitary burial that draws the notice of visitors, but rather the notation “drummer.” Apparently the first thing that Willis wanted visitors to think about as they walked through the final resting place of the Federal soldiers who fought in what was the largest battle in American history up to that time, was that some of those who died were very young men, with the “drummer boys” being among the most recognizable examples of the youth found on the front line of battle.

Even during the span of 1866-67, when the cemetery was being established, “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” had already become a part of Shiloh’s lore and would continue to grow. A popular song “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” written by William S. Hays in 1862, included the lyrics “the drummer boy who prayed before he died.” While Hays wrote of a fictional character, apparently Willis wanted to show that it was indeed possible that such an event actually happened during the battle of Shiloh.

What may often go unnoticed, however, are some inaccurate and likely misleading factors regarding the soldier resting in that first grave. The soldier may not have been a drummer. The remains in that grave are of “a member of a certain band.” The soldier was not a boy, but was in his twenties. Though the stone is engraved with the name “Henry Burke” and the unit identified as the “58th Ohio Infantry,” no one by that name belonged to that regiment. The grave is most likely that of Heinrich Budke, who belonged to the regimental band of the 58th Ohio and died on April 28, 1862. Elsewhere in the cemetery, a grave marked as “J. D. Holmes, Iowa,” is the final resting place of the teen-aged drummer boy of the 15th Iowa, one of the youngest buried in the cemetery.

On the other side of the cemetery from the “Henry Burke” grave, on the bank of the Tennessee River, is another unique feature of the Shiloh National Cemetery. Arranged in a semi-circle are six graves of the soldiers of the 16th Wisconsin color bearers, men who fell in battle while proudly carrying their battle flags into the action. Apparently, the original National Cemetery flagpole was once located there, where the graves of the color bearers could permanently guard the American flag. The flagpole was later moved to a more central location in the cemetery, and for a while, the Wisconsin color bearers guarded a howitzer. Presently the six rest alone, side by side, at a scenic overlook of the Tennessee River.

The aligned rows of Union soldiers’ headstones stretch almost seemingly to the horizon at Shiloh National Cemetery. (Swartz)

Another distinctive trait of the Shiloh National Cemetery are some twenty-nine regimental burial plots placed along the perimeter of the cemetery. While it is difficult to provide a definitive explanation as to why so many regiments took the time and effort to locate their own dead and bury them together, it is probably a phenomenon of this early war battle of inconceivable losses. As the war wore on, soldiers tended to be more callous toward death as it became so commonplace. But for armies comprised largely of soldiers engaged in their first battle, as was the case at Shiloh, many regiments’ soldiers saw their initial deaths as being worthy of honor and treated the remains with dignity. Some of the men who in later battles might be content to let whomever was assigned to the burial details to bury the dead of their regiment, apparently treated the duty to bury their own comrades with a greater degree of reverence following their first battle.

One regiment, the 28th Illinois Infantry, saw fit to transport its dead to one of the Indian Mounds on the battlefield and bury them at this special location. Since so many units buried their dead together on the battlefield in the aftermath of the battle, the survivors of those regiments created an opportunity for those who established the cemetery to transfer those soldiers to their own regimental plots in the National Cemetery. Many men who fought side by side during the battle of Shiloh now appropriately lay side by side in the Shiloh National Cemetery.

1 Response to Our National Cemeteries: Shiloh National Cemetery—Drummer Boys, Color Bearers, and Regimental Burial Plots

  1. The best drummer boy account from Shiloh is a Confederate one: Reinhardt, Vic. A Drummer Boy of Shiloh. Terrell, TX: n.p., 1910.

    The book at first seemed like it might be historical fiction given the florid writing, but it closely and accurately follows the actions of the 25th Alabama and is the only source on the regiment’s actions on April 7. It is among my favorite sources on the battle in part because it is so odd.

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