A (Macabre) Family Affair: The Weavers and the Gettysburg Dead

Crews separated Union and Confederate soldiers into lines for trench burial on the field.

Crews separated Union and Confederate soldiers into lines for trench burial on the field.

In 1863, in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, efforts quickly got underway to bury the thousands of dead men scattered around the town. Pennsylvania hastily moved to construct the Gettysburg National Cemetery to hold the Union dead. Instrumental in that process was teamster Samuel Weaver, who was hired as superintendent for the exhuming of bodies from the battlefield.  Weaver combed through the battlefield, identified Union and Confederate burials, and carefully disinterred Union soldiers for removal to the new cemetery. Delivering up to one hundred bodies per day, Weaver kept careful notes on each burial he located in order to determine identity, allegiance, and preserve personal effects for the families.

While the Union dead were quickly moved to their new resting place in the cemetery, the Confederate dead were left in their battlefield graves.  In the immediate post-war period, the South had to focus on physically rebuilding its infrastructure and rebuilding its ties with the north; it did not have the money or resources to tend to the Confederate dead.  In addition, former Confederate men had to tread carefully when it came to glorifying the deeds of their former comrades, for fear of repercussions during Reconstruction.  It would be later after the war ended that attention would turn to bringing the Southern dead home.  Without a central government to handle reburying the war dead, the task fell to local citizens.

Besides private efforts, in the years after the war the task of mourning the dead and building a Confederate memory fell to the ladies of the South, and numerous Ladies’ Memorial Associations sprang up.  Because the United States Government would only inter Union soldiers in the national cemeteries, these Ladies’ Memorial Associations took charge of creating Confederate cemeteries and holding Memorial Day ceremonies to honor the dead.  According to historian Caroline E. Janney, it was less risky for women to memorialize the dead because it was within the established female sphere to bury and mourn deceased relatives.  Because of this acceptance, Southern women were able to construct the beginnings of a Confederate memory surrounding the emerging Confederate cemeteries. 

The Confederate section of Hollywood Cemetery contains a mixture of identified and unidentified graves.

The Confederate section of Hollywood Cemetery contains a mixture of identified and unidentified graves.

Most of these local organizations fundraised and solicited donations in order to locate, exhume, and reinter the Confederate dead into local or Confederate cemeteries, but struggled financially throughout the process.  Because the majority of Civil War battles had been fought in the South, LMAs and other local organizations could arrange for the dead of most battles to be buried locally.  Gettysburg, however, remained a concern because distance kept former Confederates from easily claiming the bodies.  Reports that Gettysburg farmers were plowing over the graves of Confederate soldiers heightened anxiety about the situation and by 1870 several LMAs and southern states had raised money to claim their Confederate dead from Gettysburg.  Initially this group turned to Samuel Weaver, the same man who had disinterred the Union dead and who had taken careful note of Confederate burials in the process.  Upon Weaver’s death in 1871, they turned to his son, Dr. Rufus Weaver.  Rufus initially refused the request because he was busy nurturing his medical career, but he was the only one that had access to his father’s records and the knowledge to find the burials, so after several months of pressure he agreed to help.

The first states to raise money to reinter their Gettysburg dead were Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and in the spring and summer of 1871 Weaver exhumed and shipped 137 Confederates to Raleigh, 74 to Charleston, 101 to Savannah, and a few to Maryland, along with a few individual officers who were claimed by family.  From Virginia, the prominent Hollywood Memorial Association based in Richmond approached Weaver to claim the dead from their state.  Originally, the Hollywood Memorial Association intended only to claim the Virginia dead, but during the winter of 1871-1872 they decided to expand their project to claiming all the remaining Confederate dead from Gettysburg and began raising funds to meet Weaver’s charge of $3.25 per body.

Confederate monument in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA (photo by author)

Confederate monument in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA (photo by author)

Exhumations of the estimated 2,500-3,000 bodies remaining on the field began on April 19, 1872.  Weaver managed his medical practice during the day, then labored for hours at night using his anatomical training to piece together individual bodies from the graves and prepare them for shipment.  The first shipment of 708 Confederate skeletons arrived in Richmond on June 15, 1872 with five more shipments sent through October 1873 for a total of 2,935 bodies.  The Hollywood Memorial Association held ceremonies for the returning heroes and set aside a section of the cemetery specifically for the Civil War dead.  In total Weaver sent 3,320 Confederate soldiers to the south for burial; 40 bodies were left in Sherfy’s peach orchard and hundreds more could not be located, having been washed away or obliterated in the years after the battle.  Weaver had completed the work promised, and had upheld his father’s legacy, but unfortunately the Hollywood Memorial Association never raised enough funds to pay him for the job.  The Richmond ladies sent him payments totaling $2,800, but still owed $6,000 for the work.  Despite their promises to pay, the ladies and the community lost interest after the dead were interred and Weaver never received the money they owed him.

Coco, Gregory A. A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle. Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1995.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering. New York: Alfred A. Kopf, 2008.

Janney, Caroline E.  Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations & The Lost Cause. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.