Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Unknown Soldiers

150 years later there is much to learn about our Nation's most destructive war.  Previous estimates on the number of dead for both North and South were at about 620,000.  Recent research by J. David Hacker of the University of Binghamton has pushed that number upward by more than twenty percent, with estimates from 752,000 to 851,000 dead.  That is the equivalent of approximately seven million deaths in a modern population comparison for a an event of similar catastrophic proportions.  Difficult to fathom?  The massive population implications of the Civil War are a distant kind of idea in so many ways, but the vast numbers can very much complicate our understanding to an even greater extent.  Simply put, there are few words or numbers in the English language that can adequately describe the devastation to human life during the American Civil War.1

Unknown officer believed to
be a member of the 24th Michigan.
Author's Collection
For thousands of American families,  the ability to appropriately grieve the loss of a loved one was never a reality.  Thousands upon thousands of soldiers from both sides of the fight fell without identification as 'unknown soldiers.'  Paying a visit to any one of the 131 U. S. National Cemeteries (12 maintained by the NPS) is the best way to understand the sacrifice of soldiers who we know not of, but only the great events in which they breathed their last.  Thousands of period photographs show us the faces of these seemingly ordinary men that rose to the occasion when their respective countries called them.  So many of these images are a mystery though.  With no identification on large numbers of CDVs, tintypes and cabinet cards, we are left with our own imagination.  In some ways the phenomena of so many unknown soldiers falling on distant fields may have added to the romanticism and myth that has long since surrounded the war between the states.  Obviously with nothing romantic about the loss of identity, when we look at the human costs of the terrible conflict, there can be few such dreaded fates as this for any human being.2

"Who they were, none know.
What they were, all know."3

Below is a list of some of the better know Civil War National Cemeteries and their staggering numbers of unknown dead, along with the total Civil War burials.  There are two variables that we need to keep in mind as we absorb the numbers below.  First, National Cemeteries were established for the burial of Federal soldiers.  That means there is another entire side to these numbers for Confederate soldiers which we will probably never have even close to concrete estimations for.  Secondly, when we see these statistics, remember that we are dealing with much more than just numbers.  These were living, breathing, walking, talking, loving people just like you and I, that had families, hopes, dreams and long, productive lives ahead of them....or so they hoped.  The story of death in the Civil War is greatly explored in one of the best modern books involving Civil War history called, This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust.  I highly recommend it to scratch the surface of this dark, but necessary part of the story.

Partially identified 3rd Corps soldier of the
74th New York Infantry. Author's Collection.
ANDERSONVILLE, GA: 921 unknowns, 13,714 total = 6.7%
ANTIETAM, MD: 1,836 unknowns, 5,032 total = 36.4%
FORT DONELSON, TN: 512 unknowns, 670 total = 76.4%
FREDERICKSBURG, VA: 12,770 unknowns, 15,243 total = 83.8%
GETTYSBURG, PA: 979 unknowns, 3,564 total = 27.4%
Poplar Grove (PETERSBURG), VA: 4,579 unknowns, 6,718 total = 68.2%
SHILOH, TN: 2,357 unknowns, 3,584 total = 65.8%
STONES RIVER, TN: 2,562 unknowns, 6,850 total = 37.4%
VICKSBURG, MS: 12,954 unknowns, 18,244 total = 71.0%4
WINCHESTER, VA: 2,347 unknowns, 4,440 total = 52.9%

"We sleep here in obedience to the law.
When duty called, we came.
When country called, we died."5

1. Hacker, J.David. "A Census-Based Count of Civil War Dead."Civil War History. LVII.No. 4 (2011): 307-348. Print.
2. U.S. National Cemetery Administration. Web. <http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/listcem.asp>.
3. Inscription on north side of monument to unknown soldiers at Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester, VA
4. U.S. National Cemetery Administration. Web. <http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/listcem.asp>.
5. Inscription on the Georgia State Monument at Gettysburg.

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