We hear a lot about the strategies, the skirmishes, and the troop movements of the important Battle of Gettysburg, but what about the aftermath of a 3-day conflict that left over 7,000 bodies to be buried and over 33,000 wounded to tend to? What did it mean to the sleepy little hamlet of Gettysburg, PA, population 2400 at that time, most of them women, children, and elderly men, the younger male population having gone off to war?
In June 1863, the town of Gettysburg boasted 3 weekly papers, 2 drugstores, one bank, a college, two marble works, one savings institution, seven attorneys, and several doctors who were going to be overwhelmed when the troops moved on and left their dead and wounded to the care of this little town.
On that fateful day of July 1, 1863 Federal Troops numbered 85-88,000 with 70-75,000 Confederate Troops in opposition for a total of between 155,000 and 163,000 Americans on the fields of Gettysburg. 7,058 were killed of which 3,155 were Federal and 3,903 Confederate. Wounded, including those who may have subsequently died of those wounds, were a whopping 33,264 with 14,529 Federal and the rest Confederate. Total casualties, including those who died, those wounded, and those missing, were estimated at over 51,000 in the three day battle. Contrast this with about 55,000 dead and wounded in both Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 11 years (Huffington Post 9/30/12) and you get an idea of the magnitude of the Battle of Gettysburg’s three day conflict.
War is devastating, but the aftermath had its own horror. Imagine a battlefield, several miles in length and breadth, strewn with the lifeless, decaying bodies of men and animals. Several witnesses described the horror:
“In the open grounds in front of our lines in the centre and left, multitudes of the dead of both armies still lay unburied, though strong burial parties had been at work for twenty-four hours. …the faces as a general rule, had turned black—not purplish discoloration, such as I had imagined in reading of the “blackened corpses “so often mentioned in descriptions of the battle-grounds, but a deep bluish black…” George Benedict, Vermont Staff Officer
“The dead lay everywhere, and although not a half day has passed since they died, the stench is so great that we can neither eat, drink, nor sleep. Decomposition is not to be wondered at when we consider how they crowded up onto our guns, a mass of humanity, only to be hurled back an undistinguishable pile of mutilated flesh, rolling and writhing in death.” John Haley, Maine private.
The magnitude of the event was daunting to a resident population that had already been pilfered by the occupying rebels as described by a reporter in the Lancaster Daily Express (July 10,1863): “A week’s occupation gave the scoundrels ample time to exercise their pilfering propensities. Stores were ransacked and emptied of their contents but in as many such articles as could not be used were destroyed and the buildings abused and defiled.”
The townspeople had not only been looted, they were now in for an ordeal unlike any they could have imagined. Mary Horner of Chambersburg wrote about a neighbor who reported “when the wind blew from the south and west in the evenings, the stench was so overpowering that for a number of evenings all the windows had to be closed.”
Contending with such devastation, soldiers and townspeople worked to bury the dead, often without ceremony, particularly if they were Rebels. Many Confederates were buried in mass graves, some so shallow that when it rained, as it did shortly after the battle, the bodies were once again revealed. Little was done to try to identify them.
Union soldiers were often treated better simply because they were buried by those who knew them, usually someone from their regiment. The graves were marked with a stone, a piece of wood, a box, with their name scrawled on it. Still, just because of sheer volume, some Union soldiers ended up in trenches, dug a mere 18 inches deep, with many of their brethren.
“The Union dead on the field…were covered with only a few inches of soil. Portions of the body protruded as the rain washed away the soil…” Jenny E. Jacobs.
“One lone sexton had been hiding [burying] the black and swollen bodies as rapidly as he could, and yet dozens of them were still resting there.” Elizabeth Beller
Beleaguered by the carnage, the townsfolk also had to contend with a flood of visitors. People came to Gettysburg to bear witness to the historic event, to search for loved ones, and, in some cases, sadly, to see what treasures could be pilfered from the corpses. Whatever the reason you came, you needed a strong stomach to walk those fields in the early days. “Yet many look upon it[the battlefield] without emotion. Many walked about amid the horrid stench of the defiled unmoved. They turned over the rubbish, picked up bullets and fragments or shells for mementoes, but that was all–. They looked upon the dead, to be sure; but with no expression of pity if at all–.”Mr. Cooke—reprinted in the Gettysburg Compiler
Several prominent citizens of Gettysburg sought a better, longer term solution than merely dumping bodies in farm fields to be inadvertently excavated in plowing season. They wanted those who had valiantly lost their lives to be properly cared for in death. By November 19, 1863, a National Cemetery was established to re-inter the Union dead. Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the consecration ceremonies of that cemetery. By March 1864 over 3500 bodies of Union soldiers had been removed to the cemetery, including over 500 unknowns and, undoubtedly, some Confederate soldiers as well. It wouldn’t be until 1872 that the bodies of Confederate soldiers would be re-interred at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond Va.
Death, destruction, and crowds had overwhelmed the town. But now there was the wounded to care for, Union and Confederate soldiers alike. Next month I will blog about how Gettysburg handled the 33,000 wounded Confederate and Union soldiers. Don’t forget to stop back.
Quotes and information from A Strange and Blighted Land, Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle, Gregory A. Coco, 1995
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Public domain.
Anne Carrole writes historical and contemporary romance’s with a western flair. Her latest release is Falling for a Cowboy, available now at Amazon.com