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6. Archeological Resources and Battlefield Burials

A second important class of battlefield resources is archeological. Many battlefields, large and small, possess artifacts, soil strata, structural remains, or other features and combinations of features that enable archeologists to recover information on important historical questions. Patterns of military debris have been used at some sites to corroborate or amplify known information on the location and movements of individual units. Shell fragments can be used to identify the types of artillery engaged. A cluster of friction primer fuses can indicate the position of a single cannon and even suggest the number of rounds fired. Clusters of spent or dropped bullets can identify the locations of battle lines. A rifleman, for example, could easily fire his standard supply of sixty rounds of ammunition in an hour. This amounts to about four pounds of lead. A brigade of 2,400 riflemen could deliver 4.8 tons per hour. Although a battle may have lasted only a few hours, experience has shown that significant archeological evidence remains in the ground, even if it has been farmed for the intervening 125 years. The thriving relic-hunting community can certainly attest to this fact. Despite a seeming abundance of remains, however, the archeological record of a battlefield, over time, can be seriously depleted by relic hunting.

Human remains are also an important part of the archeological record.

Many people feel that battlefields are hallowed ground, a sentiment expressed in President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate--we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor will to add or detract.

More than 3,600 soldiers perished on the fifteen battlefields studied, not including those who later died of their wounds. The dead were typically buried hastily, and many graves were poorly marked making later reinterment difficult. In 1865 and 1866, local residents were paid to disinter remains and bring them to the national cemeteries established for that purpose. Many bodies were found and removed to cemeteries at this time. Often, however, only portions of the remains were reinterred. Authorities paid for skulls and long bones, and other parts of the skeleton sometimes remained in the ground. Archeologists have uncovered Civil War burial pits on other battlefields where only the skulls were removed.

During the field survey, local residents related several anecdotes pertaining to accidentally unearthed burials at Piedmont, Fisher's Hill, and Cool Spring. No evidence was offered to corroborate these accounts (respondents were protecting their sources), but such remains have been occasionally unearthed elsewhere. Finding the remains of a soldier who was buried where he fell, or near a hospital or encampment site, would not be that unusual. Discovered bones have been ``dropped off'' occasionally at battlefield parks, by those who wished to see the bodies receive proper burial. In 1988, for example, relic hunters unearthed the remains of four members of the Irish Brigade on private property adjacent to Antietam National Battlefield Park. The soldiers were later reinterred in the National Cemetery with full military honors. Stories are related in the relic-hunting community of bones discovered in the wake of bulldozers at development sites at Chantilly and Centreville, Virginia. In 1989, the remains of a Louisiana artilleryman were discovered at Brandy Station during an archeological survey.

It is reasonable to assume that some burials are scattered over the fifteen battlefields studied, but the number cannot be estimated. Often the survival of such remains is dependent upon the acidity of the soil. If the acidity is high, bones can be almost totally dissolved, although buttons, belt buckles, or other evidence will survive. Although it would be incorrect to view these battlefields as vast cemeteries, it is probable that an unknown number of burials remain undiscovered at many of these sites.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Reserve Officers Association, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, among others, have expressed the opinion that the remains of Civil War veterans should be reburied in a national cemetery and accorded full military honors. In general, this is the policy followed when accidental disinterments are brought to the attention of authorities. Under Virginia law a permit is required for the archeological removal of human remains or associated artifacts from any unmarked human burial site on state, local, or privately owned land.

For information on the permit process, contact the State Archeologist, Department of Historic Resources, 221 Governor Street, Richmond, Virginia 23219, telephone: 804-786-3143.


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Creation Date: 3/13/95

Last Update 7/17/95 by VLC