A Sea of Headstones: The Unfathomable Cost of War as Depicted in Union Soldiers’ Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri

  • strict warning: Declaration of cck_facet::build_root_categories_query() should be compatible with faceted_search_facet::build_root_categories_query() in /home1/firstha3/public_html/sites/all/modules/cck_facets/cck_facets.inc on line 16.
  • strict warning: Declaration of author_facet::build_root_categories_query() should be compatible with faceted_search_facet::build_root_categories_query() in /home1/firstha3/public_html/sites/all/modules/faceted_search/author_facet.module on line 236.
  • strict warning: Declaration of date_authored_facet::build_root_categories_query() should be compatible with faceted_search_facet::build_root_categories_query() in /home1/firstha3/public_html/sites/all/modules/faceted_search/date_authored_facet.module on line 182.
  • strict warning: Declaration of taxonomy_facet::build_root_categories_query() should be compatible with faceted_search_facet::build_root_categories_query() in /home1/firstha3/public_html/sites/all/modules/faceted_search/taxonomy_facets.module on line 400.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.
  • : Function ereg() is deprecated in /home1/firstha3/public_html/includes/file.inc on line 895.

A Sea of Headstones: The Unfathomable Cost of War as Depicted in Union Soldiers’ Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri

Katherine Williamson, Boston College ‘10

In 1861, no one could have anticipated how deadly America’s Civil War was going to be. It was a war unlike any the nation had seen before; brother fought against brother and neighbor against neighbor for four long years.[1]  The war caused a national fissure that persisted long after the last gunshot was fired and even extended into the cemeteries that housed dead soldiers.  Approximately 620,000 soldiers perished over the course of the War, representing 2 to 3% of the American population, and graveyards became a vital necessity.[2]  The burial of fallen soldiers was not only an issue of health and sanitation, but also an issue of respect for the dignity of human life; cemeteries functioned as a final recognition of gratitude to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.[3]

Although death was a constant during the war, paintings or published illustrations of cemeteries were rare.[4]  However, the absence of these images from America’s nineteenth-century visual culture serves as a testimony to their importance, for they would have been too personal or too emotional to print.  The dearth of burial ground images alludes to the psychological state of the nation, both during and after the war.  Americans of this era did not need to be reminded of the staggering loss of life in an illustrated weekly, because it was a reality that they would have faced on a daily basis. The drawing, Union Soldiers’ Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri (see figure 1) from the Becker Collection, represents the reburial efforts and lingering friction between the North and the South during Reconstruction.  It quietly suggests that death remained a persistent and influential subject in the late nineteenth-century specifically in regard to the Union’s cause. However, due to the painful memories associated with such imagery and the general morbidity surrounding reburials, it was not considered appropriate for publication in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

The Victorian notion of the “Good Death” tremendously influenced the nation’s collective ideas about death and dying throughout the war.[5]  The ritual of a proper burial was considered a necessity to soldiers and civilians alike; an imperative in order to preserve the humanity of both the living and the dead.[6]  However, on the battlefield such ideals were often pushed aside for more practical solutions in favor of dealing with mounting casualties.  In her book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust states, “Haste and carelessness frequently yielded graves so shallow that bodies and skeletons reappeared, as rain and wind eroded the soil sheltering the dead and hogs rooted around battlefields in search of human remains.”[7]  Generally, military units were responsible for burying their dead, but as the war intensified, less time and attention were given to preserving their legacy.  The scale of the war’s casualties prompted civilians to assist in these burial efforts; many found bodies strewn on their own property while others traveled from neighboring towns to aid the troops.[8]  Families were so distraught over these rushed burials that many flocked (or hired agents to go) to battlefields throughout the Eastern seaboard to reclaim the bodies of family members. Citizens insisted that the government take action and provide proper accommodations for fallen soldiers. This action, coupled with the nation’s strong sentiments regarding a “good” death, hastened congressional legislation and fueled reburial efforts throughout the 1870s.[9]  

Prior to the Civil War, the government did not house or transport the remains of soldiers.  This responsibility fell to the families of the deceased until the summer of 1862.[10]  Nearly three months after the Battle of Shiloh, the Senate and the House passed an Act of Congress, creating eight national cemeteries scattered throughout the country. This legislation redefined the relationship between the individual and the nation, because the government publicly took responsibility for the remains of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice on the country’s behalf.[11]  It was prompted by the unprecedented carnage of the first two years of battle and the growing, desperate, need to find space for the remains of fallen soldiers.[12]  Gettysburg, in particular, transformed national policy regarding deceased soldiers. This battle claimed approximately 40,000 soldiers and made the loss of life tremendously apparent to northerners, prompting citizens to demand more action from the government.[13]

During the War, there was much discord between the North and the South when federal money was first allocated to dig, mark, and tend Union graves.[14]  None of these provisions were made for the fallen Confederate soldiers during or after the war, leaving the remains of many soldiers in mass battlefield graves.[15]  The vast majority of southerners could not afford to pay for transportation costs, coffins, or burial plots: so their heroes remained scattered throughout battlefields across the country.[16]  The national cemeteries were designed specifically to inter Union soldiers and were generally established in Northern strongholds.[17] 

Of the eight national cemeteries that were established in 1862, only one was founded in the Western Theater: Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Jefferson Barracks was established on land that President Thomas Jefferson obtained as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Located outside of St. Louis, Missouri the barracks was established in 1826 (the year Jefferson died). It was chosen because of its location on the Mississippi River, the nearby abundance of building materials, proximity to a major railroad system, and accessibility for the civilian population.[18]  In the summer of 1862, President Lincoln considered several sites for a national burial ground in the West.  He ultimately chose Jefferson Barracks because of three key factors: its strategic location, the availability of docking facilities for river steamers carrying wounded soldiers, and the presence of a recently completed military hospital.[19]  The cemetery played a crucial role both during and after the war: it was not only the final resting place for soldiers who died in the hospital, but also the site of many reinterments throughout the Reconstruction period.[20]

Union Soldiers’ Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri illustrates the prolonged reburial efforts of Union troops during Reconstruction, which continue to serve as a reminder of the discord, strife, and loss of the Civil War. The drawing can be dated to this era based on the visual information provided in the work itself: there are African American employees digging in the foreground, tourists ambling on paved paths in the middle-ground, and substantial burial monuments in the background.  These details support the conclusion that the scene is a product of the period following the war, because such objects and events are the result of time and would not have occurred simultaneously before, or during, the war.  Additionally, the drawing’s Reconstruction provenance can be further established when compared to another drawing from the Becker Collection, Chalybeate Spring (see figure 2).

Chalybeate Spring shows two men relaxing near the edge of a body of water, Chalybeate Spring, in Arkansas.  These hot springs were known for their healing properties and high carbonate content.[21]  During the war, the buildings surrounding the spring were pillaged and burned by guerrilla forces; however, during Reconstruction, there was an extensive rebuilding effort of houses and hotels.[22]  Chalybeate Spring is covered with written factual information about the hot springs and also mentions the prospect of supporting a hotel.  On the front of the drawing, the artist writes of an old mill that is now defunct, “Decayed trough that once conveyed water from the Chalybeate for the purpose of turning a mill, now [non est.]."  This information infers that the drawing was created at the beginning of the hot springs’ renaissance during the Reconstruction period.

Chalybeate Spring is connected to Union Soldiers’ Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri based on stylistic similarities.  In both drawings, the artist employs a unique vertical hatching method for articulating trees; the trees are roughly defined by these marks, and then a single tree is further developed with naturalistic shading and the outlining of leaves.  Additionally, written notations further describe elements in both works. These notes are in small rounded cursive that is written at a steep diagonal. Both Union Soldiers’ Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri and Chalybeate Spring are clearly labeled on the top of their respective scenes, in the center, with prominent script identifying the specific location as well as the state.

The drawings’ figures are well proportioned and modeled, speaking a great deal about the skill of the artist. However, the figures’ faces are not portraits but are instead generalized.  The figures bear several strong stylistic similarities: the most prominent figure in each drawing (In Union Soldiers’ Cemetery this is the man in the lower right corner with a crop or switch tucked under his left arm, in Chalybeate Spring it is the sole standing figure) has a shadow cast on his face, a result of a wide brimmed hat and bright sunlight. They both stand in strong solid poses that command attention and exude authority.  The areas directly around these figures are more developed than the rest of the picture, which is briefly described by light markings.  In Union Soldiers’ Cemetery, the figures surrounding the central character are rendered to scale and described with high value contrasts, and the open burial plots are executed in a similar fashion, appearing to be dark, coffin-shaped, silhouettes upon the earth.  In Chalybeate Spring, the artist follows this pattern, describing both the dock and the spring in great detail.

Moreover, these two drawings were created in adjacent states (Missouri and Arkansas), which further supports the claim that these two works are the product of the same artist. Given the strong evidence for the date of Chalybeate Springs, it is likely that Union Soldier’s Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri was also created during Reconstruction.

Both drawings allude to the aftermath of conflict and rebuilding, when Union and Confederate soldiers were still being identified and reburied in proper cemeteries.[23] It was during this time that the national reburial program really took hold.  Prompted by a national outcry and the desecration of Union graves and bodies by southerners, the federal government established what would become the most elaborate federal program undertaken in nearly a century of America’s history.[24]  At the end of the war, the government had established seventeen national cemeteries, but by 1870, there were seventy-three due to increased federal funding.[25]

Although National Cemeteries were built solely for Union soldiers, many also contain Confederate remains.[26] Neither side was pleased with this arrangement, insisting that it was profane for enemies to be buried side by side.[27] In response, the cemeteries segregated the grounds based on political affiliation.[28]  At Jefferson Barracks the separation is visually striking because not only are the grounds divided, but Confederate and Union soldiers have different shaped headstones (Union troops have curved headstones, whereas Confederates have pointed ones), thus allowing one to tell with just a cursory glance how the cemetery was laid out.[29]

The reburial program was significant to both the families of fallen soldiers and to the entire nation. It represented an extraordinary departure for the federal government because of its extensiveness and invasiveness; it entered into the private realm of its citizens and assisted them in a trying time.  Never before had the American people shared such intimacy with their government.[30] Due to the fact that the program was a national effort, rather than state-run, the federal government was in effect taking responsibility for the lives that were lost on its account, virtually redefining the relationship between individual and country.[31]  The authoritative accountability aided in mending frayed relationships by declaring, through action, that the loss was not only felt by the individual families of deceased soldiers but by the entire nation.[32] The loss was greater than that of brothers, fathers, husbands, or sons; it was the loss of over half a million Americans.

The organization and design of Civil War cemeteries further emphasized the collective loss of the nation.[33] These burial grounds represented a great departure from prewar American culture; prior to 1861, graveyards consisted of clusters of family tombstones in churchyards or pastoral plots.  In contrast, the national cemeteries, like Jefferson Barracks, contained row after row of modest identical markers.[34] Though many bore names, many did not, and so the known and the unknown were intermingled.  In these graveyards, the identity of the individual became absorbed into a larger whole.[35] Here, the soldier became part of the symbolic national loss, a vital piece in the overwhelming cost of war.

The visual impact of these cemeteries cannot be underestimated.  As in Union Soldiers’ Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, each cemetery contained a sea of white headstones, serving as a visual testament to the loss of the nation. Although visually striking, nineteenth-century imagery of national cemeteries is incredibly rare. In the years following the war, the general public and the government focused on healing the nation via uplifting imagery and accounts detailing great military campaigns and rebuilding efforts, refraining from lingering on upsetting or disturbing memories. Despite the fact that the legacy of the dead was shocking, images of cemeteries were considered too morbid, and thus were rarely printed by publications like Frank Leslie’s.  Death on such a massive scale would not have fit into the sensationalist stories covered by the paper and would not have served its escapist and entertainment purposes.

Union Soldier’s Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri represents a significant period of American history: Reconstruction, a time when the nation was trying to mend itself.  The national cemetery program was essential to this goal, for it allowed the American people collectively to mourn the 620,000 lives lost for the nation and not solely their personal loss. The establishment of these cemeteries was essential to northern acceptance of the survival of the Union.[36] Although the North fought to maintain the Union, in the years during and after the war, there was much resentment and hatred towards the southerners, who were seen by many as troublemakers and murderers of loved ones.[37]  This drawing is a testament to the fact that the war remained a part of the American consciousness well after 1865 and that the Civil War dead, who were still being collected, identified, and buried, continued to impact daily life.  Reconstruction was a period of healing and acceptance, and it was imperative that the country move on and not linger on pre-war cultural and political divisions.  With this in mind, it is not surprising that images of cemeteries, particularly national cemeteries, were not popular after the Civil War.  Unlike other Civil War era images of battles and camp life, cemeteries did not highlight the glories of military victories or commemorate the heroics of individual generals or soldiers, but rather they emphasized all too clearly the unfathomable cost of such a conflict.

 

Appendix

Figure 1

Figure 1. Union Soldiers Cemetery, Jefferson Barracks, MO. From Becker Collection.



 

Figure 2

Figure 2. Chalybeate Spring. From Becker Collection.

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Albert A. Teaching America to Draw: Instructional Manuals and Ephemera

  1794-1925. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries, 2006.

Bookbinder, Judith. Class Lecture. Firsthand Civil War Era Drawings. Fine Arts, Boston

College, Chestnut Hill, Boston, MA. 5 February 2009.

Brugioni, Dino A. The Civil War in Missouri : As Seen from the Capital City. Jefferson

City: Summers Publishing, 1987.

Brown, Joshua. Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded

Age America. Berkeley : University of California Press 2002.

“Cemeteries - Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.” Department of Veteran’s Affairs. 8   January 2009. 15 February 2009.    <http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/jeffersonbarracks.asp>.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York:      Vintage Civil War Library, 2008.

Fusco, Tony. The Story of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. St. Louis: 1967.

Gallagher, Sheila. “Class Lecture”. Firsthand Civil War Era Drawings. Fine Arts, Boston

College, Chestnut Hill, MA. 5 February 2009.

“Jefferson Barracks”. The Missouri Civil War Museum. May 2008. 5 February 2009.

<http://www.mcwm.org/jefferson_barracks.html>.

Richter, Wendy. “The Impact of the Civil War on Hot Springs, Arkansas”.  The

Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 1984), pp. 125-142.

JStor. Boston College Lib., Chestnut Hill, MA. 12 April 2009. 

<http://www.jstor.org/stable/40027699>.

Schantz, Mark. Awaiting the Heavenly Country: the Civil War and America’s Culture of Death.

  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Simpson, Lewis P. Mind and the American Civil War : A Meditation on Lost Causes.

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Sloane, David Charles. The Last Great Necessity : Cemeteries in American History. 

  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University  Press, 1991.

Thompson, William F. The Image of War : The Pictorial Reporting of the American Civil War.  

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Triveldi, Nirmal. “Class Lecture”. Firsthand Civil War Era Drawings. Fine Arts, Boston

College, Chestnut Hill, MA. 22 January 2009.

Varhola, Michael J. Everyday Life During the Civil War: A Guide for Writers, Students and

Historians. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999. 

Winter, William C. The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour. St. Louis: Missouri Historical

  Society Press, 1994.

Yalom, Marilyn. The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our

  Cemeteries and Burial Grounds. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.

 


[1] Marilyn Yalom. The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008), 153.

[2] Mark Schantz. Awaiting the Heavenly Country: the Civil War and America’s Culture of Death. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 96.

[3] Ibid., 97.

[4] Drew Gilpin Faust. The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. (New York:Vintage Civil War Library, 2008), 65.

[5] Ibid., 67,

[6] Ibid., 76.

[7] Ibid., 82

[8] Ibid., 80.

[9] Yalom,162.

[10] Faust, 99.

[11] Schantz, 99.

[12] David Charles Sloane. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991),167.

[13] Faust, 98.

[14] Ibid., 122.

[15] Sloane,167.

[16] Ibid., 168.

[17] Schantz, 102.

[18] William C. Winter. The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour. (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1994), 89.

[19] Ibid., 89.

[20] Tony Fusco. The Story of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. (St. Louis: 1967), 15.

[21] Wendy Richter, “The Impact of the Civil War on Hot Springs, Arkansas”.  The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 1984), 135.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Faust, 103.

[24] Ibid., 135.

[25] Ibid., 164.

[26] Yalom,166.

[27] Sloane, 167.

[28] Schantz,100.

[29] Yalom,166.

[30] Faust, 135.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 219.

[33] Ibid., 220.

[34] Yalom, 168.

[35] Faust, 225.

[36] Ibid., 249.

[37] Ibid., 248.