This iconic image from the Civil War is also one of its most grisly.
The photograph was taken on the site of the Battle of Cold Harbor. Wiki says the battle “is remembered as one of American history’s bloodiest, most lopsided battles. Thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in a hopeless frontal assault against the fortified troops of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.” Cold Harbor, Virginia, is located near the Richmond-Petersburg area. The battle took place in May/June 1864, but the photograph was taken in 1865.
Some estimates put the number of Union deaths from Cold Harbor at around 1800 men; wounded and injured at around 9000 men; and captured and missing at around 1800 men. By contrast, some reports state that the Confederates suffered under 100 deaths, around 3000 wounded, and captured and missing around 1000. But the numbers vary by source, as the wiki article for the battle shows.
Somebody had to deal with all the dead, and in this case, it appears that contrabands – runaway slaves who fled to the Union lines – got that duty. I’ve read at least one description of the photo which says these men were members of the Union army, but I haven’t seen enough evidence to establish that description as correct. Although, the hats on the men in the background, which we can’t see all that well, do resemble soldier caps.
The website for the John Paul Getty Museum describes the picture:
This gruesome scene depicts the unpleasant job of burying the remains of fallen Union soldiers from the June 1864 battles of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor. This task has fallen to a group of black men doing the menial work while a white man standing at upper left acts as overseer. The man seated in the center, next to the stretcher laden with human parts, looks directly at the camera, revealing no emotion that can be reconciled with his grisly cargo.
Already reduced to nothing more than a pile of bones, these bodies lay unburied for ten months until the war’s end, while the blistering heat and humidity of the Virginia summer hastened their decomposition. Local residents usually came forth to give a proper burial to the enemy troops that fell near their homes, but the scale of the casualties here–nearly sixty thousand Union soldiers were killed or wounded in this area–precluded this courtesy.
This picture highlights the fact that during the war, the Union army made good use of the newly-emancipated freedmen to perform these and other tasks. Thousands of black men and women provided noncombatant support for the Federals.
Source: Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. “[Cold Harbor, Va. African Americans collecting bones of soldiers killed in the battle]”
CALL NUMBER: LC-B817- 7926; REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-DIG-cwpb-04324 DLC (digital file from original neg.); LC-B8171-7926 DLC (b&w film neg.)
To view all of the photo images on this site so far, click here.
EDIT: Andy Hall, who publishes the excellent blog Dead Confederates, provided this:
Drew Faust reproduces this image in her book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. She identifies the men as being under the command of Captain James Moore, who would soon be transferred to the site of Andersonville to (with Clara Barton) supervise the disinterment and reburial of the Union dead there. The men in this image would seem to be USCTs:
InJune 1865 Captain James Moore, an assistant quartermaster who had’ been active in fledgling graves registration efforts during the war, was ordered to the Wilderness and Spotsylvania “for the purpose of superintending the interments of the remains of Union soldiers yet unburied and marking their burial-places for future identification.” Moore found hundreds of unmarked graves, as well as skeletons that had been left for more than two years without the dignity of burial. “By exposure to the weather,” he reported, “all traces oftheir identity were entirely obliterated.” Summer heat and “the unpleasant odor from decayed matter” prevented him from removing all bodies to a central location, but he made sure all were carefully interred, with remains appropriately “hidden from view.” On these two fields he estimated that he oversaw the burial offifteen hundred men, although the scattering of so many bones made an exact count impossible. Soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, not yet mustered out of service, did the often repellent work. Moore reported that 785 tablets were erected over named graves, and he submitted a list ofthe officers and men he had identified.
I think the men in this image are, in fact, USCTs, not only because of their kepis, but because their clothing is uniform and in good shape — contrabands generally appear in photos to be much less well clothed.
Library of Congress high-res TIFF versions available:
Keep up the good work. (I almost said “keep digging,” but, you know. . . .)