Forgotten Road Found Buried Beneath Civil War Cemetery in Virginia

Archaeologists excavated the site ahead of the planned reinterment of remains discovered near a former battlefield hospital in 2015

An Underground Road
During the Civil War, four major battles took place in the area surrounding Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Northeast Archeological Resources Program via Facebook

Archaeologists surveying a Civil War cemetery in northern Virginia have chanced upon a surprising find: a buried pathway from the 1800s.

As Mark Price reports for the Charlotte Observer, researchers from the Northeast Archeological Resources Program (NARP) uncovered the 19th-century road—as well as a brick-lined culvert—at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields National Military Park. The team was using ground-penetrating radar and magnetometer surveys to identify a suitable location for a proposed burial vault.

“Projects like this show just how complex park sites can be even just a few centimeters below the surface,” notes NARP in a statement. “Doing archaeology in advance of any excavation on federal land provides new interpretive materials and ensures that important work, such as reinterment, can proceed without disturbance.”

Excavations began in late June, with researchers digging at Fredericksburg National Cemetery in search of unmarked burials or historical structures that could interfere with the new gravesite. As Price writes in a separate Charlotte Observer article, officials plan to rebury unidentified human remains found near a former battlefield hospital in Fredericksburg in 2015.

“[I]n this part of the process, the archaeologists need to make sure that the location of the proposed grave is clear of any other burials or archaeologically significant material,” says NARP in a separate statement.

After spotting the “interesting feature” later identified as a road, the team opened up a 3.3- by 8.2-foot area around the anomaly. Per the statement, the researchers realized that the newly discovered pathway wrapped around a site originally planned to house a monument. The memorial was never completed, and sediments eventually concealed the road.

NARP didn’t specify how long or wide the path is, notes the Charlotte Observer. But officials did state that no unmarked graves were discovered during the excavations.

Ground-Penetrating Radars
Researchers used ground-penetrating radar and magnetometer surveys to examine the site. Northeast Archeological Resources Program via Facebook

During the Civil War, four major battles—Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House—took place in the area surrounding the cemetery. The earliest of these clashes, the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, ended in a “crushing Union defeat [that] immeasurably strengthened the Confederate cause,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

“No place more vividly reflects the War’s tragic cost in all its forms,” notes the National Park Foundation (NPF) on its website. “A city bombarded and looted. Farms large and small ruined. Refugees by the thousands forced into the countryside. More than 85,000 men wounded; 15,000 killed—most in graves unknown.”

Three months after the conflict drew to a close, in July 1865, Congress established Fredericksburg National Cemetery “to honor the Federal soldiers who died on the battlefields or from disease in camp[s],” per the National Park Service (NPS).

Today, the site is home to the graves of more than 15,000 United States soldiers, the majority of whom remain unidentified. Though most of the cemetery’s tombs house men who fought for the Union during the Civil War, the site also serves as the final resting place for around 100 20th-century soldiers and several of their spouses.

The remains set to be reburied at the Virginia cemetery will be the first soldiers or veterans interred at the site since 1949. Per the Park Service, burial plots are numbered consecutively rather than organized by state, unit or campaign. Most of the deceased are privates, as higher-ranking officers’ remains were typically sent home to their families.

“The fading scars of battle, the homeplaces of bygone families, and the granite tributes to those who fought still mark these lands,” says the NPF. “These places reveal the trials of a community and nation, a virtuous tragedy that freed four million Americans and reunited a nation.”

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