Once the Battle of Chickamauga was over, both Union and Confederate armies moved on to prepare to fight again. Left in their wake was the utter destruction of three days of fighting: utterly ruined farms and homes, ravaged forests and fields, and dead bodies everywhere.
The winner controls the battlefield after a battle is over so the Confederates were in charge at Chickamauga. They did what had become the norm for both sides in the war. According to a Confederate surgeon who was on the scene, by the end of the first night after the battle, most of the Confederate dead had been gathered and buried in long trenches. The Union dead were left to lie where they fell. This was a way for the winning side to conceal its own losses and let the losses of the losing side be clearly seen.
Eventually, the national cemetery was established at Chattanooga and the Union dead were disinterred from Chickamauga and moved there. The Confederate dead were moved to a Confederate cemetery at Marietta, Ga., but it took some time for this to happen. In the meantime, those left in the area of the battlefield had to simply do the best they could to deal with the situation.
After some battles, prisoners of war were used to bury the dead on the field, so this often meant that soldiers who had been captured in battle had to bury their own comrades who had fallen in those same battles. Often, in the South, slaves were delegated to do the burying.
Although it’s a surprise to many people to hear, numerous slaves accompanied the Confederate armies as they travelled and fought. The more well-to-do Southerners, often officers, brought “body slaves” with them to war. It was initially the job of these people to take care of the owner in terms of maintaining his clothing, seeing that he was properly fed, shaved, et cetera. We don’t know how many slaves may have been at the Battle of Chickamauga, but one source indicates that, when Robert E. Lee’s forces briefly invaded the North in September of 1862, as many as 6000 slaves may have accompanied his army on that campaign. In cases where the master was killed or died of disease, this presented an opportunity for freedom for the slave, but also represented terrible risks as the Fugitive Slave Law was in effect and “slave-catchers” were rewarded for capturing former slaves and returning them to their owners.
As the war wore on, both the Union and Confederate governments became more and more stressed and less efficient in carrying out their responsibilities to the dead and the dying. Remember that, in the beginning, neither side thought the war would last long so neither side did much planning for what would need to be done if it did. There were procedures in place for keeping up with soldiers and assuring that the government was aware if a man had been injured or had died, but there were no mechanisms put in place to notify families of such a loss. It was the responsibility of officers to make these notifications, but they were often overburdened and could not or did not do so. Many times, the only notification a family received was a letter from a fellow soldier to let them know what had happened to their family member.
Sometimes families never knew what became of their loved ones. Not long ago, I came across a pension application filed by a distant relative of mine in South Georgia whose husband was lost in the war. On the application she stated, “On the 30th of August, 1862, my husband left to go to the war and I never saw or heard from him again.”
This was not an unusual occurrence, but it changed the way people viewed and dealt with death and dying, especially in the South. Before the war began, people died at home. If a doctor was available, he came to the home of the dying person and tended him. When a person died, someone, usually a family member washed the body and prepared it for burial. Someone in the community made a coffin and the family, together with other community members, laid the person to rest in a family, church or local cemetery which was easily accessible to those who wanted to visit the grave and remember the deceased person.
Such consolations were unavailable to many if not most of those who
lost relatives in the Civil War. In doing family history research, I have discovered close to 20 relatives of mine who went to war. About half never came home and, of those, I know the burial sites of only three: two who died in Richmond, Virginia, hospitals of disease and one who died as a prisoner of war and is buried at the site of the prison cemetery in Illinois. Imagine having to deal with not only the loss of a loved one, but with having no idea what happened to that person or even where they lay in death.
Both governments put out casualty lists after major battles and campaigns that were posted in local communities but, because of the confusion of battle, these were notoriously unreliable. Those listed as wounded were, as often as not, dead by the time the list was posted. Also, there were numerous cases in which a soldier was listed as killed only to show up at home after the war.
There were many things that were changed by this war--things that were terribly painful and for which people had to make significant adjustments in their lives. And the ramifications of
many of these changes are still with us today.
NOTE FROM THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY: The Good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise (literally), we will commence with the long-awaited Cole City Hike into the ruins of the Dade Coal Company on SATURDAY, March 23, at 10:30 a.m. from the property of William Back. If you have signed up for the hike (by calling the library or doing so before Thursday morning) you will receive an email by Friday with the exact details and a liability waiver form which will need to be signed and brought with you to the hike. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a meal or snacks and water. A walking stick is advised. We are excited to see you on Saturday---finally. Donna Street