Four Bodies Found in Colonial Williamsburg Belonged to Confederate Soldiers

Researchers are trying to identify the men who died after the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862

Burial site
Excavations near the Powder Magazine in Williamsburg, Virginia, where the four bodies were found The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Last year, the skeletal remains of four Civil War soldiers were unearthed in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg. Archaeologists said they belonged to men who fought in the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862. But the soldiers’ identities—and the side they fought for—were a mystery.

“Unfortunately, there were no uniforms or other items so far that we’ve been able to use to determine if they were Confederate or Union,” Jack Gary, head of archaeology at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, told Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post in May.

Now, the mystery has been solved: The four men were Confederate soldiers, reports Wilford Kale of the Virginia Gazette.

Researchers came to this conclusion based on records from a church that served as a makeshift Confederate hospital after the battle, the ledger of a local undertaker and several other historical sources. “Multiple buildings” in Williamsburg “were taken over to be used as hospitals” following the battle, as Gary tells Eugene Daniel of 13 News Now, a local TV station in Virginia.

Gold coins
The gold coins found with one of the bodies were likely sewn into the soldier's clothing. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The bodies themselves, along with the artifacts found among them, are a grisly insight into life during wartime.

Two of the soldiers had been shot: One was found with a bullet in his spine, while another had a bullet lodged in his hip. The latter, however, likely didn’t die of his injuries. “Bone had started to grow over it, so it was not the cause of death,” Gary tells the Washington Post. “It is something that he had been living with.” The injury had happened during an earlier battle, or perhaps even a conflict before the Civil War.

Nearby, archaeologists also found the remains of three amputated limbs, one of which had been shot in the foot.

One of the men was buried with emergency money: two gold $1 coins from 1855. Gary tells the Washington Post that the coins were almost certainly hidden in a secret compartment sewn into the soldier’s pants. “If they had been in a pocket, they most likely would have been taken,” he says. “Hard currency was rare. So you’re going to hold on to that.”

Other artifacts discovered include a toothbrush, an empty snuff bottle, copper buttons and a belt buckle. Eventually, these items will be reburied with the bodies, Gary tells the Virginia Gazette.

This bone handle toothbrush is one of the artifacts found among the soldiers' remains. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The Battle of Williamsburg took place on May 5, 1862, during Union forces’ campaign to capture Richmond. The battle had no clear winner: While the Confederate forces ultimately withdrew, “the battle was considered inconclusive since it was a delaying action meant to buy time for the retreating Confederate army,” according to the American Battlefield Trust. The fighting resulted in approximately 3,800 casualties on both sides.

Last year’s dig was conducted near Williamsburg’s Powder Magazine, a structure built in the early 1700s. According to Colonial Williamsburg, it was the first dig at the site since the 1930s.

Now, researchers are studying the remains, with the goal of identifying who they belonged to. They’ve compiled a list of some 20 names that might include the four soldiers, and they’re hoping to continue narrowing it down.

When the research is complete, several organizations—including the Williamsburg Battlefield Association, Civil War Trails and the Office of U.S. Army Cemeteries—will work together to find an appropriate burial site for the four bodies, Gary tells the Virginia Gazette. It will likely be located somewhere in or near Williamsburg.

He adds, “I’m really happy we’re able to work toward identifying these guys,” providing “some level [of] dignity” by reburying them.

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