Somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 men lost their lives during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Most of the Union casualties are now buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery, but not everyone who died amid the fighting is accounted for. Historians agree that it’s possible–and even likely–that there are still bodies in Gettysburg.
Now, you’re not likely to happen across a body in Gettysburg while driving around the park with your trusty audio tour guide, but that doesn’t mean they’re all confined to the Gettysburg National Cemetery. A visitor in 1996 stumbled across the remains of an unidentified soldier while touring the Railway Cut about a mile outside the town of Gettysburg! Only bones were left, and there was no way to determine whether the man had fought for the Union or the Confederate side. Still, the nameless soldier was given a full military burial and laid to rest in the Gettysburg National Cemetery alongside his comrades or enemies.
There are many reasons why there are still long-lost bodies in Gettysburg, but many of them boil down to this: there is not much time for the ceremony in the chaos of battle. While both Union and Confederate battalions did their best to gather their dead at the end of each day of fighting, it was hardly a priority. They had to focus on staying alive and winning the fight, first and foremost. So, many corpses were left to begin the decomposition process during those hot summer days of early July. When teams finally went out to recover their comrades, they met with a horrible sight. Here’s what one soldier wrote about the experience:
“Some with faces bloated and blackened beyond recognition lay with glassy eyes staring up at the blazing summer sun; others, with faces downward and clenched hands filled with grass or earth, which told of the agony of the last moments… Here a headless trunk, there a severed limb; in all the grotesque positions that unbearable pain and intense suffering contort the human form, they lay.”
Gruesome stuff! If you want more insight into the struggles of soldiers like these, don’t forget to download an audio tour of Gettysburg to fill you in on all their riveting stories. Even the recovered bodies seldom received a proper burial because there wasn’t time. Many were dumped into shallow, mass graves. These random burial places were meant to be temporary, but can you imagine how hard it was to keep track of all those unmarked graves? It got even more challenging when the people who had dug them also joined the ranks of the dead. When teams came in after the battle and started combing the field for bodies–which they then transported to the Gettysburg National Cemetery for a proper burial–they couldn’t possibly have found every single grave.
So when you visit Gettysburg and find yourself transported back in time with the help of a self-guided tour, remember that you may very well be walking over the long-forgotten bones of a Civil War soldier.