Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

After the battle, the fields looked and smelled like hell on earth. The bodies of the fallen had quickly begun to decom­pose. Where shallow graves had been dug, arms, legs, and heads were reported to have penetrat­ed the surface. In some places, hogs rooted out corpses, devouring them.

The immense, ghastly campaign at Gettysburg, fought July 1 through 3, 1863, was over. As General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia began their retreat southward, they left behind a battlefield littered with more than seven thousand Union and Confederate corpses. Remembered today as a peaceful monument to the fallen men, it was then a scene of dreadful carnage. So great was the July heat that “corpses swelled to twice their size” and “some actually burst.” Hundreds of horse carcasses decayed in the heat before being burned and buried several weeks after the battle. There was “blood sprinkled on every tuft of grass” that a soldier’s foot had not trampled down.

Months later at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln was to say, “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 power to add or detract.”

Yet, in those days immediately after the conflict, there was an urgency to convert the slaughter ground, to bury the bodies, to establish a “fitting and proper” memorial. Among those who made the Soldiers’ National Cemetery possible through persistent efforts were agent David Wills, exhumer Samuel Weaver, undertaker James Townsend, and landscaper William Saunders.

This is their story.

In February 1862, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania had enacted a Jaw which provided for the “the care of her wounded and the burial of her battle dead.” Governor Andrew G. Curtin went to Gettysburg following the great battle, intending to put the law into practice. Curtin could not believe what he saw as he walked across the battlefields only weeks after the fighting had ceased. The fields were ground to a jelly, carnage was strewn across the landscape, and all the refuse of war, from muskets to car­tridge boxes, littered the earth. After wit­nessing the great sacrifices made by those who had died and those who were still suffering in the makeshift hospitals, the governor ordered the bodies of Pennsylvania soldiers to be exhumed from temporary graves and transported home to their families.

By late July removal of the dead had come to a stop, although up to seven hundred bodies had already been disinterred. The burial detail, exhausted by oppressive working conditions and fearful that disease hovered in the air, had refused to work any longer. Colonel Henry C. Alleman, commander of the Pennsyl­vania 36th Infantry stationed at Gettysburg following the battle, issued an order prohibiting the exhumation of bodies during August and September. The Army of the Potomac believed that the great number of graves being disturbed by those seeking the remains of family members, coupled with the possibility of the decaying bodies in the summer heat creating a health hazard, was a valid reason to stop all exhuming. The disinter­ment of thousands had to wait.

Governor Curtin appointed David Wills to oversee the eventual removal of Pennsylvania’s dead. Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, had graduated from Pennsylvania College at Gettys­burg in 1851, and had gone on to study law at the office of Thaddeus Stevens in Lancaster. Upon the completion of his studies, he returned to Adams County to begin his own prac­tice. In Adams County he served as the first superintendent of schools and was a highly respected member of the community.

Inspired by Boston agents sent to bury Massachusetts’s dead in Gettysburg and concerned by the high cost of transporting the bodies, Wills sought to reverse his mission to exhume the dead and, instead, bury all the Union soldiers in the ground on which they had fallen. In late July, he informed Governor Curtin about a section of “elevated ground on the Baltimore Turnpike” where an attack had been made by the Louisiana Brigade on July 2. He believed “this spot above all others [was] the place for the honorable burial.” The governor agreed that the concept of a national cemetery was appropriate and gave Wills permission to purchase the land.

When Wills attempted to purchase the land on Cemetery Hill overlooking the very center of the battle, he was astonished to learn it had already been sold to another Adams County lawyer, David McConaughy. As president of the Evergreen Cemetery Association in Gettysburg, McConaughy had had an idea similar to Wills’s. He wanted to turn the entire area, including Cemetery Hill, into a memorial.

The success of McConaughy’s plan depended on contributions from the com­munity, which would be used to assist in the creation of a battlefield memorial, the amount to be limited to ten dollars from each citizen. He also wanted the “soldiers buried in [Evergreen] ceme­tery at a stipulated price,” to relieve the faltering finances of the Evergreen Cemetery Association. When the plan received no support, McConaughy next sought to establish a separate soldiers’ burial ground under the administration of Evergreen Cemetery. Governor Curtin and representatives of other interested states, however, rejected McConaughy’s request to create a soldiers’ cemetery in conjunction with the Evergreen Cemetery Association and recommended instead the construction of “a separate and distinct soldiers’ cemetery with control and management” falling upon those states represented by the fallen soldiers.

On August 14, 1863, McConaughy sold Wills the approximately twelve acres of land for nearly twenty-five hundred dollars. Mcconaughy included one condition with the sale, “an open iron railing enclosure of ordi­nary height to be made and maintained by the state.” This fence was to be the dividing line between the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and Evergreen, and was the “maximum development wanted by the [Evergreen] Associa­tion.” Several days after this transaction, Wills purchased an additional five acres. Once again Wills wrote to Governor Curtin about the land that would soon become the final resting place for more than three thousand Union soldiers. He informed Curtin that the grounds now embraced about seventeen acres on Cemetery Hill, the place where the Union had “dealt out death and destruction to the Rebel army.”

Wills invited the northern states that had lost soldiers on the battlefield to participate in the development of a corporate structure organized around the cemetery. This corporation was officially titled “The Select Committee Relative to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.” In a report issued on March 31, 1864, Wills described the way in which management and funding of the Committee would operate. The title of the land was to be held by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The corporation was “to be managed by trustees, one to be appointed by each of the Governors” of the Union states which had lost soldiers at the battle. The funding and annual appropriations for the cemetery would be collected in proportion to the Congressional represen­tation of the participating states.

After acquiring the land, Wills sought bids for exhuming and reinterring the dead. Thirty-four bids were submitted, ranging from $1.59 to $8.00 per body. The contract was awarded to Frederick Biesecker, the lowest bidder.

Samuel Weaver, the superintendent of exhuming, was a member of a family of photographers who resided in Hanover, York County. Many of the photographs taken during the ceme­tery’s consecration ceremonies have been attributed to the Weavers. On Tuesday, October 27, 1863, Samuel Weaver officially removed the first body for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The next day Private Enoch M. Detty of Company G, 73rd Ohio, became the first soldier to be buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

The identification process was not a simple task and required extreme patience and great investigative skills. However, where the graves were clearly marked, usually with a piece of wood stuck in the ground and inscribed with pencil, the identification process became much easier. When Weaver identified a corpse, the name, company, and regiment of the soldier were written on the coffin. He then issued the coffin a number and recorded all of the information in his log, which was given to Wills each evening for review. The task of identifying the bodies was hin­dered by the rain that had fallen on Gettysburg that summer, sometimes washing away vital information inscribed on the markers.

In a letter to Wills, Weaver wrote that “there was not a grave permitted to be opened or a body searched” unless he was there to supervise the work. After the body was removed from the ground, Weaver would search it for possessions. Items that were located with identifiable soldiers were sent to Wills. Soldiers who could not be identified were buried with their belongings. In all, Weaver sent David Wills two hundred and eighty-seven packages containing personal belongings of fallen soldiers, which Wills then returned to the families of the men. Items uncovered with the bodies included pipes, Bibles, keys, letters, diaries, inkstands, ambrotypes (early photographs), combs, fishing hooks, Confederate currency and, in a few cases, the bullets that had killed them.

Rotting limbs and mud-covered torsos covered the fields and filled many graves. According to Weaver, bodies found in “heavy clay, or in marshy places” were well preserved, while those in “sandy porous soil were entirely decomposed.” One of the most difficult tasks Weaver faced was identifying corpses of Union soldiers that had been already buried in mass graves. It was reported in one instance that more than one hundred and fifty men had been buried in a single trench. A local farmer even reported seeing over two hundred men buried side by side in another massive grave.

Due to the ebb and flow of battle, the chance of misidentifica­tion of a Confederate soldier as a Union soldier was a concern. Weaver addressed this issue in his final report to David Wills on March 19, 1864. He contended that distinguishing between the two was relatively easy. According to Weaver, “the Rebels never went to battle with the United States coat on.” And, the clothing of the Confederates was “made of cotton and grey or brown in color,” whereas, the clothing of a Union soldier was made of wool and blue in color. Weaver declared that any body “which had any portion of Rebel clothing on it” was not trans­ferred to the cemetery. Even those who were found with cotton undershirts, a sure sign of a Confederate soldier according to Weaver, were not permitted to be transported to the cemetery.

Upon the completion of his work, Weaver claimed there had “not been a single mistake made in the removal of the soldiers to the cemetery by taking the body of a Rebel for a Union soldier.” However, John W. Busey, author of The Last Full Measure: Burials in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, has discovered a number of misidentified and mistaken burials of both Union and Confederate soldiers in the cemetery. Among them is Private Levi Bulla, who was listed as the soldier resting under Indiana plot D-8. Bulla was indeed from the 20th Indiana, but lived until the 1880s. Listed as the soldier buried in Michigan plot G-5 was Albert S. Norris of the 5th Michigan Cavalry, but Norris was captured at Gettysburg and died in Richmond during December 1863. Eli T. Green was buried in the Pennsylvania plot under Co. E, 14th Regiment, but neither the 14th Pennsylvania Infantry nor the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry were present at Gettysburg during the battle. Green was actually from Co. E, 14th Virginia and enlisted on May 12, 1861, in Mecklenburg, Virginia, at the age of twenty-three.

One cause for mistaken soldier identification could have been too great a reliance on personal belongings, for these easily traded hands during the war. Nevertheless, Samuel Weaver worked meticulously, and his accomplishment was remarkable considering the effects of decomposition on the bodies, the extremely frigid winter of 1863-1864, and the absence of proper military identification among the soldiers.

Weaver and his laborers completed the last disinterment on March 18, 1864. Weaver’s work, however, represented only half of the contract drafted by David Wills. The surveyor and super­intendent of burials was James S. Townsend, a native of Rahway, New Jersey. He was hired by his friend, the chief land­scaper of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, William Saunders. Townsend directed all burials in the cemetery and worked just as meticulously as Weaver. He personally measured the depth of each grave and the proper distance for every coffin. At the end of each day Townsend submitted a list of burials to Wills that was compared with Weaver’s list of those bodies removed from the field. Townsend buried the soldiers in a long semi­circle at the depth of three feet and placed their heads facing the center of the circle, which became the site of Soldiers’ National Monument, dedicated on July 1, 1869. The Quartermaster General of the Army supplied the coffins at $2.56 each. Townsend was not permitted to allow more than one hundred into the cemetery grounds in a single day, and no body could remain unburied overnight. On March 19, 1864, as reported by Samuel Weaver to David Wills, the removal and reinterment of the soldiers was complete, about five months after it had begun. Six days later the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was incorporated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Still, a great deal of work on the cemetery remained.

William Saunders, chief landscaper of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, was born in Scotland in 1822. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, he came to America in 1848. He lived in New Haven, Connecticut, and moved to Philadelphia in 1862. As a landscape gardener and superintendent of grounds for the Department of Agriculture, Saunders was responsible for the federal properties in the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas. He later landscaped the grounds for Lincoln’s Tomb and was a founder and the first master of the National Grange.

About six weeks after the battle at Gettys­burg, Saunders received a letter from David Wills asking him to “meet him … for the pur­pose of consulting upon the selection of a site and land for a cemetery.” Saunders liked the area chosen by Wills for the cemetery, but noticed that its boundaries were angular. He advised Wills to acquire more land to extend the front line of the cemetery and straighten other edges of the property. Acting upon Saunders’ advice, Wills purchased five addi­tional acres to augment the original twelve.

Saunders noticed that the land had “some high or elevated points, but others [were] low and inferior in comparison.” The problem with this uneven land was the way that it might imply the importance of one state over another. A state plot placed in a low area could have suggested a lesser sacrifice on the part of a particular group of men. To avoid such problems, Saunders decided to use a semicircular design. This design made each plot a part of the common center, which implied the equal importance of each state.

President Lincoln requested that Saunders deliver the ceme­tery design to his office by November 17, 1863, two days before the dedication of the cemetery ground. Once the plan was fin­ished, Saunders rushed to Washington, D.C., for its approval. The president was interested in the cemetery’s location in rela­tion to other battle areas in Gettysburg. Even though Lincoln had never been to Gettysburg before November 19, he appeared to be familiar with the location. The president noticed that the semicircular plan differed from the ordinary cemetery design. Saunders then explained the concept of the design. While an ordinary soldiers’ cemetery is organized in rows, emphasizing the difference of men according to their rank, this unique design was created with the concept of union and equality. Lincoln replied that it was “an admirable and befitting arrange­ment.”

Saunders designed the cemetery to express simple grandeur. The landscape displays harmony, avoiding abrupt changes and drastic features. The architecture avoids intricacy and elaborate ornaments. The headstones were designed to be precisely alike so as not to “detract from the effect and prominence of the monument.” Saunders wanted the grounds and walks to remain always smooth, hard, and clean. He also insisted that the grass remain short, clean, and neat.

Twenty years after the cemetery’s creation, William Saunders revisited the site and recorded what he observed. He noticed that a number of trees had grown too dense and needed to be removed because they interrupted the intended openness. During this time, the cemetery was under the control of the Quartermaster General of the Army, who had planted shrub­bery of his own. Believing this ruined the original design, Saunders had this shrubbery removed immediately. He noted wryly that the plantings were in “keeping with the perfor­mances of military officers, who, as a general thing, are very destitute of artistic taste in anything.”

In his official remarks on the ceme­tery’s design, Saunders described the proper manner in which to approach a project of this magnitude. “Designs of this character require time for their development,” he noted, “and their ultimate harmony should not be impaired or sacrificed to immediate or temporary interest.” Saunders’s simple yet grand concept has honored the Union soldiers who fell at Gettysburg for more than one hundred and thirty years.

In 1864 there were 3,512 burials on record at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery of which 979 were entirely unknown except that clues suggested they were Union dead. Another 1,664 of the buried Union corpses were partially identified in the sense that Weaver had found a little information, perhaps only a last name, a unit. designation, or merely a state designation. By June 1871 the cemetery was largely completed, at a cost of approximately $140,000, and on May 1, 1872, officially went under the author­ity of the War Department. During the same year, Confederate bodies were removed from Gettysburg by the Ladies Memorial Association of the South and reinterred at Richmond, Charles­ton, Savannah, and Raleigh. In 1933, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was transferred to the National Park Service, which is still in charge of operations and management. Today the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, together with a five-acre annex added in 1948 for veterans of other U.S. wars, is the final resting place for more than seven thousand veterans and their families.

Gettysburg is at peace now. Thousands of visitors, from North and South, walk through the quiet graves on Cemetery Hill, reminded of how the nation once stood divided. This place made its mark in history, as the site of one of the greatest battles of the Civil War, and then, as the stage for one of the greatest speeches in the English language. Four men, David Wills, Samuel Weaver, James Townsend, and William Saunders have no headstones there, but it is fitting that they should be remem­bered, too. For it was their dedicated and difficult labor that transformed the battle site into a memorial to those who had fallen and to the nation for which they died.


For Further Reading

Busey, John W. The Last Full Measure: Burials in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Hightstown, N.J.: Longstreet House, 1988.

____. These Honored Dead: The Union Casualties at Gettysburg. Hightstown, N.J.: Longstreet House, 1988.

Busey, John W. and David G. Martin. Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg. Hightstown, N.J.: Longstreet House, 1994.

Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Random House, 1986.

Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The First Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1992.

____. The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993.

____. Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Klement, Frank K. The Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery and Lincoln’s Address: Aspects and Angles. Shippensburg: White Mane Publishing Co., Inc., 1994.

Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.


Jeffrey S. Anderson of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, will receive his master of arts in public history from Rutgers University in May 1997. He has just completed an article on the role of the Philadelphia Depart­ment of Public Health and Charities in the prevention and treatment of influenza during the pandemic of 1918, and is now researching the removal and return of the Union’s dead from the South following the Civil War’s major battles.