Sunday, April 24, 2016

18 burial trenches at Salisbury National Cemetery in N.C. bespeak war's misery

Burial trenches are in open area to right of monuments (Picket photos)

Unlike at Camp Sumter (Andersonville) in Georgia, Union troops held at Salisbury Prison in North Carolina had no Dorence Atwater to record the names and number of fallen comrades.

When conditions in the overcrowded stockade reached a crisis stage, Confederate officials resorted to burial trenches – an estimated 18 – to hold the dead. Bodies were placed above one another in 240-foot lines; there were no markers and few coffins.

While initial Army death estimates ranged above 11,000, the National Park Service now maintains about 3,700 men died between October 1864 and February 1865. No one knows for certain.

On Saturday afternoon, I got off Interstate 85 and made a brief visit to the bucolic site southeast of downtown. Save one car, I was the only visitor to this portion of Salisbury National Cemetery on a fine spring day, a light breeze barely rustling leaves.

The cemetery has three monuments – for the unknown dead and men from Maine and Pennsylvania. Just beyond the Maine and taller monument to the unknown is an open patch of grass above the burial trenches. It’s a sobering sight.

The Keystone State has an iron placard with a title that speaks to the suffering: “Many Pennsylvania Soldiers Are Buried Here.”

I was taken by the eloquence of the panel’s message, including a reminder that the 1910 monument was erected in memory of the dead and “not as a commemoration of victory.”

Most of the individual gravestones are for unknown soldiers. Medal of Honor recipient Lorenzo Deming is among those who died at Salisbury.

The prison opened in October 1861 on the site of an old cotton factory. It was first intended to hold Confederates who had committed offenses, but it was quickly switched to hold Union troops. By the end of October 1864, the population had more than doubled to 10,000 on a site originally built for 2,500.

Description of the 18 burial trenches
View of prison, made 20 years later (Wikipedia, public domain)

Adequate shelter, rations and sanitation quickly evaporated.

“The prison quartered prisoners in every available space,” the NPS writes. “Those without shelter dug burrows in an attempt to stay warm and dry. Rations and potable water were scarce. Adding to the poor conditions was an unusually cold and wet winter. Disease and starvation began to claim lives, and all buildings within the stockade were converted to hospitals to care for the sick.

The trench graves were dug in a cornfield west of the prison. About 200 Union troops died in a November 1864 mass escape.

Maine monument (left) and one for unknown dead

With a death rate hovering near 28% in the camp’s last several months, it’s no surprise Federal forces burned the site in April 1865. (The death rate was much lower during much of the conflict). The cemetery opened in 1874.

NCpedia writes: “The most painful period for the Salisbury prisoners was from October 1864 until their release in February 1865. Accounts from POW diaries indicate that the prisoners took in about 1,600 calories per day, whereas 2,000 calories was considered the minimum for survival under the adverse conditions that existed at Salisbury. It is not surprising that diarrhea was the most common disease as well as the most deadly, due in large part to the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

Salisbury’s commandant was acquitted of war crimes.

Peaceful scene of Salisbury prison life (Library of Congress)

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