The Potter’s Field, Gettysburg Style
The images on the nightly news are searing and unforgettable. Long trenches being dug in New York City as a final resting place for scores of COVID-19 victims whose bodies went unclaimed or unidentified. The City Cemetery on Hart Island has long been the burial place for many of New York’s poor and marginalized, with more than one million interments since the city bought the land in 1868 for use as a “potter’s field.” Each year, more than 1,000 people are laid to rest there.
It is not a new concept.
During the first day of the battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, soldiers from the Eleventh Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac defended a wide hill known locally as Blocher’s Knoll for the nearest farmstead. The location, now part of Gettysburg National Military Park, is north of Gettysburg along the road that is designated as US Route 15 Business, then the Harrisburg Pike.
Prior to the current health crisis, hundreds of thousands of battlefield visitors drove on the park road that bisects Blocher’s Knoll (which after the battle gained the more well-known name of Barlow’s Knoll for the commander of the Union division that fought there). Those cars drive past a small antebellum cemetery — the graveyard of the Adams County Almshouse.
As the population of Adams County grew in the decades after the American Revolution, county officials in 1820 contracted the construction of a poorhouse for citizens down on their luck or had suffered financial setbacks. Over time, the almshouse (as poorhouses were often called) grew into a complex of buildings just north of town, with the burial yard situated across the rolling terrain several hundred yards to the north on Blocher’s Knoll (N 39° 50.688 W 077° 13.638). The poor, the indigent, the mentally ill, the unclaimed of Adams County often ended up in the Almshouse Cemetery after their demise.
The cemetery and the Almshouse complex were prominent landmarks during the battle of Gettysburg. The men fighting there included the same Confederate troops that had first marched through the streets of York on Sunday morning, June 28, 1863, on their way to attack state emergency militia and other Northern defenders of the world’s longest covered bridge at Wrightsville. Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Georgia brigade had unsuccessfully tried to seize the bridge before the Federals ordered four civilians to burn it during their retreat.
Now, on Wednesday, July 1, Gordon’s men swept Barlow’s outnumbered Federals off of Blocher’s Knoll, chased them past the potter’s field, and smashed a hastily improvised second line at the almshouse complex. Confederate artillery that had spent the previous weekend on the grounds of the York County fairgrounds, now unlimbered near the almshouse to fire at the rapidly retreating Yankees.
After the battle of Gettysburg, huge burial trenches were dug in scores of locations around the battlefield (and, later, on the farms that the army was using as temporary field hospitals). Most of the soldiers interred were unidentified in this era of warfare prior to the standardization of dog tags and other identification. Many of the bodies had been robbed of personal effects and days of exposure prior to burial had disfigured them, making visual recognition all but impossible.
By November 1863, most of the remains of Union soldiers killed or mortally wounded at Gettysburg had been disinterred from these burial trenches and reburied in the new Soldiers National Cemetery on Cemetery Hill south of town adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery, the town’s main cemetery for white inhabitants (a black cemetery, known later as Lincoln Cemetery was on the southwest side of Gettysburg and the Almshouse Cemetery was, as mentioned, well off to the north).
The Almshouse closed in 1964 and the last of the buildings, a postwar insane asylum, was razed in 1974. Adams County sold most of the Almshouse’s land holdings to the Civil War Trust several years later. The old cemetery, now restored and fenced off, is near the postwar monument to the 107th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which fought there on July 1, 1863.
Some of the Civil War burial trenches and individual gravesites at Gettysburg may not have been located, according to various authors and researchers, and the bodies still lie there. The locations of a few of the old mass graves that were emptied can still be found, particularly on Culp’s Hill (once the current COVID-19 crisis is over, hire a Licensed Battlefield Guide to show you the former burial trenches).
To read more on the mass graves at Gettysburg and the Almshouse, see the late Greg Coco’s classic book, A Strange and Blighted Land. Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle (reprinted in 2017 by Savas Beatie LLC).