At the outset of the Civil War few people could have foreseen the enormous death toll that would result from four years of conflict. Men on both sides died from battlefield wounds, disease, illness, and infection. From the earliest months of the war, the disposal of bodies presented a challenge. Some remains were claimed by relatives and interred in family burial grounds or local cemeteries. As the war wore on and the number of deaths increased, mass burials took place near battlefields, field hospitals, and encampments. Sometimes these interments were swift, haphazard affairs, occurring during cease-fires precipitated by the stench of exposed corpses. At least one such interlude occurred during the Siege of Vicksburg.
Although embalming became common in northern culture during the war as an expedient means of preserving bodies long enough to send them home, most Federal soldiers who died were buried permanently in the South. However, their remains were likely moved after the war ended—an estimated three hundred thousand Union dead were exhumed from their original resting places and reinterred in newly established national cemeteries, including the ones at Corinth, Natchez, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Corinth National Cemetery was originally created to accommodate Union dead from battles in northeastern Mississippi, particularly Corinth and Iuka, but it eventually received remains from scattered battles and skirmishes, camp sites, and hospitals from Alabama and Tennessee as well as Mississippi. By late 1870, when the reinterment program was nearly finished, Corinth had received 5,688 remains representing 273 regiments from 15 states. Natchez National Cemetery, also begun in 1866, received the remains of more than 3,000 Union soldiers, collected initially from a fifty-mile-wide radius around Natchez in Louisiana and Mississippi. A number of these were naval personnel, including one seaman, Wilson Brown, who won the Medal of Honor for heroism during the assault on Mobile Bay on 5 May 1864.
By far the largest Federal cemetery in Mississippi was established on a portion of the Vicksburg battlefield in 1865 and opened for burials the next year. Soldiers interred there had originally been buried in a variety of locales in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi; some had died during engagements at Chickasaw Bayou, Grand Gulf, Jackson, and Meridian as well as during the Siege of Vicksburg. More than 17,000 Union soldiers repose in the Vicksburg National Cemetery, but as a consequence of poor record keeping and the often-hurried burials during the war, 75 percent of them are unidentified. Two Confederates were mistakenly buried in the Vicksburg National Cemetery, while three rest in the Corinth National Cemetery.
An expanse designated as Soldiers’ Rest in Vicksburg’s Cedar Hill Cemetery (also known as Vicksburg City Cemetery) contains the largest single group of Confederate dead buried in Mississippi. The Confederate government employed a local undertaker, J. Q. Arnold, to bury soldiers who died of illness and wounds at Vicksburg. Although Arnold kept meticulous records, assigning each deceased soldier a grave number, his list and map of the cemetery vanished after Vicksburg fell in July 1863. A portion of his list was discovered nearly a century later, allowing the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Veterans Administration to mark 1,600 of the graves, but approximately 3,500 remain unknown.
Elsewhere in the state, deceased soldiers hailing from not only Mississippi but virtually every state in the Confederacy are interred in an array of spots: in family plots, in church graveyards and city cemeteries, and near the sites of Civil War hospitals, camps, and battlefields. Unlike their Federal counterparts, Confederates were not typically exhumed unless relatives retrieved the remains and took them home. One exception occurred in Prentiss County, where citizens sought to find all the Confederate dead, placed them in new coffins, and laid them to rest in the Citizens’ Cemetery at Booneville. In 1904 Prof. R. W. Jones of the University of Mississippi published results of a questionnaire he sent to county chancery clerks seeking information on local Confederate cemeteries and monuments. He received replies for thirty-two counties indicating considerable numbers of Confederate dead buried near what had been wartime hospitals—in Columbus, Grenada, Holly Springs, Jackson, Newton, Okolona, and Woodville and on the University of Mississippi campus. Sizable numbers of soldiers were interred in Amite, Brandon, Canton, Corinth, Hernando, Iuka, Macon, and Magnolia Counties as well as in three cemeteries in Lauderdale County. Men killed during train accidents during the war had been interred along the right of way in Newton County and at Duck Hill.
Union soldiers hurriedly buried large numbers of Confederate dead in trenches, like those constructed after several battles during the Vicksburg Campaign. By the time Jones made his inquiries, these areas had become so neglected that there was “not the slightest trace to indicate their resting place,” although an August 1911 issue of Confederate Veteran magazine contains a photograph of a May 1910 gathering at the Confederate Cemetery in Raymond. In an era where death generally occurred at home and evoked powerful cultural expressions, the grief attendant to losing a relative in service was heightened when mourning relatives had no way to ascertain their loved ones’ final resting places. One probable impetus for gathering Union dead in the newly established national cemeteries was to provide at least some reassurance to northern mourners that their deceased relative was likely in a carefully tended locale among comrades. Southern families received no such reassurance, and this calamity struck both Mississippians (whose dead often were buried in distant locales) and residents of other Confederate states whose sons lie anonymously in graves throughout Mississippi.
- Dean W. Holt, American Military Cemeteries: A Comprehensive Illustrated Guide to the Hallowed Grounds of the United States, Including Overseas Cemeteries (1992)
- R. W. Jones, in Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 8 (1904)
- Gary Laderman, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes toward Death, 1799–1883 (1996)
- Vicksburg National Military Park website, www.nps.gov/vick