July 29, 2013

‘In this bivouac of the dead’

The story of the Confederate Cemetery at Resaca

By Ann Millican

— A quiet secluded valley surrounded by towering trees and gentle slopes cradles the remains of about 400 Confederate soldiers who lost their lives in the bloody two-day Battle of Resaca, May 14-15, 1864.

That the Civil War-era cemetery exists at all can be credited to two sisters whose home lay within the battle zone.

According to the Bicentennial History of Gordon County, Col. John F. Green was forced by the battle to take his family and flee. When they returned, members were stricken by the sight that greeted them — the Federals had collected and properly interred their dead, but the fleeing Confederates had not had time to properly bury their own.

Around the house on all sides were scattered graves of soldiers who had been buried where they fell. Low mounds and shallow depressions dotted the battle-scathed land for hundreds of yards. Some of the bodies were exposed; others only hastily covered with dirt.

Col. Green’s daughters, Mary and Pyatt, with the help of their black cook and black maid, dug graves with their own hands and began burying the fallen soldiers in their flower garden. This was the beginning of the Resaca Confederate Cemetery, the oldest Confederate military burial ground in Georgia and one of the two oldest in the South.

No money for the gruesome task

Later the girls conceived the idea of collecting all the bodies and interring them in a plot to be known as a Confederate cemetery. There was only one problem. They had no money for the project and work would be expensive.

ln the early summer of 1866, Mary and Pyatt began writing to friends around the state, trying to raise money for the cemetery. Though the entire South was poverty-stricken, people gave what they could: a nickel, a dime, 25 cents or a dollar. The appeals resulted in free-will offerings of $2,000 coming from a number of states.

Col. Green donated the land within the battlefield area. Around two acres was cleared of undergrowth and surrounded by a picket fence. Rustic bridges spanned the stream that ran through the grounds. Bodies of the dead were removed and placed in graves concentrically according to states represented by the soldiers: Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana.

But expenditures exceeded the costs by $500. The General Assembly of Georgia was asked to pay the deficit, and Mary Green became the first woman ever to appear before the Legislature. As a result of her petition, she was granted not only the $500 she requested, but $3,500 more. In granting the additional money, the state asked Mary to oversee the reburial of soldiers who had fallen at Chickamauga.

‘Carry me home to Mother’

Finally, all the 450 who had fallen in the Resaca area were re-interred. The project, started in early summer, was finished in October. By the end of December, all debts had been paid. The following is the account of the first Memorial Day, written by Mary Green:

“The day selected for the dedication, Oct. 25, 1866, was bright and beautiful, one of those charming days of our Indian summers where no sound was heard save the fluttering of falling leaves — a suitable accompaniment to our sad thoughts as we stood in the bivouac of the dead ...”

Mary goes on to describe the cemetery and to tell of the men buried there, including a 16-year-old upon whose grave someone had placed the line, “Somebody’s darling lies here.” Mary also tells of the 246 who could not be identified. A headboard inscribed “Unknown, C.S.A.” marks this portion of the cemetery.

“The History of Gordon County” recounts a “strange but true” Resaca battlefield incident told by Dr. John Jones, chaplain of the state Senate of Georgia for a number of years:

“During the War Between the Sates, among the beardless boys who enlisted in the Confederate army was the 18-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, of Griffin, Ga. This brave boy met his death in the Battle of Resaca on the Western and Atlantic Railroad. His comrades buried him in a pine coffin constructed of rough planks torn from a bridge.

“In 1866, when peace had spread her wings over the land, Mr. Jackson, after receiving instruction from a comrade of the dead boy relative to the location of the grave, went to the battleground at Resaca for the purpose of moving his son’s remains to Griffin. But although a thorough search was made, the place of burial could not be found, and the broken-hearted father returned home.

“A few nights afterward he dreamed that his son came back to him, and, standing by the bedside, said, ‘Father, I am buried under a mound which was thrown up by the Yankees after I was killed. You will know the mound when you see it by the pokeberry bushes growing upon it. Go and take me up and carry me home to Mother.’

“So strong was the impression made on Mr. Jackson by his dream, he returned at once to Resaca, taking with him one of the comrades who had buried his son.

“The mound was found with the pokeberries growing upon it as described in the dream. An excavation was made revealing a rough pine coffin a few feet below the surface of the Earth. It contained the body of young Jackson. He was fully identified not only by the coffin, but by his shoes, a recent gift from his father, and by the name marked on his clothing.

“The remains of the young soldier were placed in a fine casket and ‘carried home to Mother.’”

‘My right arm lies about a mile south’

Another incident related to the cemetery is related by CDC Magazine, Georgia Division Special Issue. This from a letter dated 1896 from John C. Portis, who served as a private in the Eighth Mississippi Infantry, and which contained a $1 donation to be used at the cemetery.

“My right arm lies about a mile south of Resaca,” he wrote. “It was put in a board box and buried by a comrade ... on the date I was wounded, I was trying to make my way to Cheatham’s Division Hospital ... when a man (someone called him Moses) came along with an ox wagon ... and insisted I ride to the hospital ... Sunday morning my arm was amputated at the shoulder ...

“In the streets of Resaca I saw enacted a deed of heroism which challenged admiration of all who witnessed it. A wagon occupied by several ladies was passing along north of the river and just west of the railroad, when a Yankee battery opened fire on it ... A young woman stood erect in the wagon waving her hat, which had a red ribbon on it ... seemingly to defy the cowards who would make war on defenseless women ...

“I was taken to a bush arbor on the west side of the railroad where I expected to die. A middle-aged woman dressed in black came with nourishment and (God bless her forever) fed me, and during that awful day ministered to the wants of the wounded and dying. Who she was I may never know, but she was a noble woman ... I am now nearly 60 years old ...”

These are but examples of the many stories that have been told — and perhaps still could be if chronicles survived — of soldiers who fought and citizens who witnessed the fighting and the aftermath. All of them have become a part of our history and our heritage after they played out the roles handed to them in this most tragic war — and as memorialized in places like the Resaca Confederate Cemetery.


Ann Millican is a retired teacher from Whitfield County Schools.