Confederate Tragedy at Hopkinsville and the Missing Graves

William Meacham

150 years ago, on September 30, 1861, Confederate troops entered Hopkinsville to establish a camp and recruiting station. A contingent of volunteers from Mississippi formed the main force, under the command of General James Alcorn. These troops were part of the Confederate strategy to secure a line of defense in western Kentucky. In a letter to his wife a few days later, Gen. Alcorn wrote of riding into town with General Simon Bolivar Buckner, regional commander: “I found the main street thronged with a multitude of men and women … our reception was quite an ovation.” The mirth would not last long, and one of the worst tragedies Hopkinsville has ever witnessed was about to unfold.

By early November, units from Tennessee and Texas had arrived, plus several hundred new recruits from Kentucky. The men (and boys of only 18 and 19 years) would suffer terribly in the winter that followed. Known later as “Camp Alcorn,” the troops were encamped on a number of sites around the city. A brief history of the Confederates in Hopkinsville has been compiled by Genevieve Netz, a resident of Christian county KY.

Only a few troops ever saw combat in minor skirmishes, they were ill-equiped for the harsh winter, an epidemic broke out and ravaged their ranks. According to research carried out by Larry Walston of Hopkinsville, around 300 soldiers died during that period. The harsh winter and the rash of deaths were recounted by an eyewitness in the booklet The Story of a Monument published in 1888. He contrasted the joyful environment at the unveiling of that monument to the Confederate Dead with those terrible scenes:

“… which I saw here from November till February in the winter of 1861-62, twenty-six years ago.” “What scenes do you refer to” asked a visitor. The old man replied: “The scenes which caused the erection of yonder monument and called the crowd here to-day. It was the death of some two hundred Confederates in hospitals, within two months, during their occupation of Hopkinsville at the beginning of the war, which suggested the monument, and, although hardly a sword was drawn or a musket fired in all that mortality, it is, to my mind, one of the most pathetic stories of the civil war. The deaths were so many that funeral marches soon ceased to be played, and salutes to be fired over the graves. The mortality was more than that of all the epidemics which have visited the town since its foundation. General J. L. Alcorn, of Mississippi, with 3,000 troops of General S. B. Buckner's command, from Bowling Green, Ky., entered Hopkinsville September 30, 1861, and made his head- quarters at the Bank of Kentucky building, whose assets had been taken to Louisville some time before. He was succeeded by General Tilghman and General Clark, the latter of whom remained until the soldiers were withdrawn to take part in the defence of Fort Donelson, where hundreds of them lost their lives. The Seventh Texas suffered frightfully, and was one of the finest bodies of soldiers that I saw during the war.”

“What caused the mortality here, if there was no fighting “ asked the visitor. “ The plague of the camps, ‘Black Measles,’ as the boys called it,” was the reply. “Hopkinsville was first selected as a recruiting station, and after a few weeks the soldiers were taken to more active fields of service, until there remained here only some 1,200 troops. The soldiers from the Gulf States wore light clothes when they came here, and the supplies of the quartermaster's department were indifferent in respect to winter outfits. Winter arrived, and the soldiers, hundreds of them mere boys – look at that headstone, ‘Aged 16 years,’ and that one, ‘Aged 18 years’ – began to suffer from lack of warm clothing and blankets. Then proper medicines and food were wanting. Most of the doctors were young and unfamiliar with the climate and its diseases. While half the camp were down with measles, cold, drenching rain set in, and death began its work in good earnest. There were so few well soldiers left in a short time that men were sent, still weak and staggering from disease, to do picket duty. Pneumonia and erysipelas followed. It was a reign of terror.”

“Were no regular hospitals established “ was asked. “Yes; ten of the largest buildings in the place were taken for that purpose. You can imagine what the amount of sickness was when you learn that the Ninth Street Presbyterian, Cumberland Presbyterian, Christian, Methodist and Colored Baptist Churches, the old County Seminary, the Ritter Hotel, South Kentucky College and Baptist Bethel College, and Mr. B. E. Randolph's resi- dence, then General Forrest's headquarters, were all filled with sick soldiers. Numbers of officers were taken to private houses. An officer of the Ninth Street Presbyterian Church told me that every pew in that church was occupied by a sick soldier. Of course the women did all they could to relieve the sufferers. They organized a society, including nearly every woman in the place, and two of this number were detailed to visit each hospital daily. A lady visiting the Ritter House one day saw twenty corpses laid out for burial. Dr. R. W. Gaines, President of the Kentucky State Medical Association, who was employed in Forrest's command for some time as assistant, states that there were thirteen deaths in three days at Bethel College. “They died like sheep,' said one of the visiting committee. Two soldiers were sent one morning to purchase shrouds for two of their dead comrades who were lying at South Kentucky College. On their way back one of them dropped dead on the street, and the other died a few minutes after reaching the college. It was no wonder, when soldiers, too feeble to leave the hospital, were sent to stand guard in the chilly rains and snows of winter nights, coughing pitifully as they shivered in ragged clothes and almost unshod feet. Several pickets died on guard.”

“Were they all buried here” inquired the stranger. “About one-half,” was the reply. “ One hundred and one lie buried at the foot of the monument, and a comparison of the statements made by the undertakers, physicians and nurses of the place leads to the conclusion that more than twice that number perished in the mortality of that autumn and winter.”

The sadness of the soldiers’ fate was expressed eloquently in a letter by George Thompson, President of the Hopkinsville City Council, in 1885:

[no one] rushed forward not more impetuously than did these, in all the pride and flush of young manhood, when the tocsin of war sounded throughout the land, and the high blast of battle summoned them to arms. They came from the Sunny South, and, with high hopes, strong arms and brave and loyal hearts, to sicken and die among strangers. No good father, no loving mother, no faithful wife, no gentle sister, no tender and plighted maiden, was by the weary couch of pain, to cool the parched lips or wipe the death-damp from the burning brow. … how bitter to linger day after day, through long and solitary nights, with bodies racked with pain and fever, with no kindred eye to watch the wasting form, no kindred hand to cool the throbbing temples, and no kindred heart to beat in love and sympathy. Such was the fate of those that lie here.

Most of the dead were buried in the Potter’s Field section of the city cemetery, now part of Riverside Cemetery. The ordeal of the dead was not over, however. They were buried in rows with wooden markers and penciled inscriptions. In the years after the war, these markers were lost and the area neglected. The Story of a Monument narrative continues:

The Latham Confederate Monument, at Hopkinsville, Ky., is a flower which sprang from the soil of filial love. It was in May, 1886, that Mr. John C. Latham, Jr., of New York, standing by the monument which he had recently erected in the City cemetery of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, over the grave of his venerated father, who was for many years president of the Bank of Hopkinsville, determined to erect the monument to the Confederate dead which now adorns that cemetery. The younger Latham had left Hopkinsville, his birthplace, twenty-four years before, to enter the Confederate army as a private, in his seventeenth year; had continued in service until the final surrender at Greensburg, N. C., in May, 1865, and, with the exception of three years, had been absent in Memphis in commercial pursuits, and afterwards, for over seventeen years, in New York, as the head of the banking-house of Latham, Alexander Co., of Wall street.

The eminence on which he stood overlooked a green and densely shaded lawn, studded with many elegant and costly monuments; but there were evidences in some places of a lack of attention, which contrasted unpleasantly with the carefully tended spot where rested the ashes of his own dead. There are hours in every one's life when the spirit of the past rises from its tomb, and will not depart until it is appeased with sacrifice. The shade of the great civil strife, whose voice had been hushed for twenty-one years, passed before him as he gazed over the field where slept in eternal rest the dead warriors of both armies, many of them his old towsnmen and schoolmates: Colonel Tom Woodward, the daring Confederate cavalry leader, killed in a raid in the streets of Hopkinsville; General J. S. Jackson, the fiery Hotspur, who used to express the wish to die in a cavalry charge, and whose wish had untimely fulfilment in a charge at Perryville. Side by side with the victims of war were the sacred ashes of valued friends who had gone to rest in peace, full of years.

Among the saddest sights of all were the unmarked graves of more than one hundred Confederates who died in the Hopkinsville hospitals in the Autumn and Winter of 1861-62, and were then lying in the “Potter's Field” of the lawn, where tangled weeds and vines sheltered reptiles and repelled approach. Some of the more fortunate had, years before, been taken home by their relatives, but the poor and friendless were left as drift and seaweed cast aside by the receding tide of war. The pathos of the situation and tender thoughts of sweet home appealed irresistibly to Mr. Latham. He determined to perform friendship's last office for the unknown Confederate dead, who for quarter of a century had lain unhonored in the cemetery around him. And yet his original purpose, as the reader will soon perceive, had a wider scope than a monument to the martyred soldiers of one side only. The first step was to remove their remains to an eligible lot …

Unquestionably Mr. Latham's purpose and intent, from the inception of his work, was unsectional, non-partisan and national. It was found on investigation that, with the exception of some who were interred in private lots, the remains of the Federal soldiers had been removed years before to the National Cemetery at Fort Donelson. This fact necessarily modified Mr. Latham's original purpose, and restricted it to the re-interment of the Confederate dead.

The donation of funds by John C. Latham for a monument to the “Unknown Confederate Dead” was accepted and augmented by the City Council. An exhumation project was then commissioned to exhume the soldiers’ remains and re-bury them in a trench around the monument. A total of 101 sets of skeletal remains were recovered. The monument itself is a 37-foot high obelisk, described as “elegantly wrought, of the finest quality of granite, and is remarkable for its classic taste and simplicity.” It lists the units that lost men during that winter. The monument was unveiled with much fanfare on May 19, 1887.

[Ceremonies marking the monument's unveiling][The monument today]

By a strange quirk of fate, in 1899, eleven years after the exhumation and reburial at the monument of 101 remains, an old notebook was discovered in the basement of the Bank of Hopkinsville. Its contents were reported in a full-page article (“Dead Soldiers’ Names Brought to Light after 37 Years) in the Kentucky New Era newspaper of March 4 of that year. The article began thus:

An insignificant looking little memorandum book, which had lain for years in the dust and debris of an old desk in the Bank Of Hopkinsville, has brought to light the names of the “unknown confederate dead” over whose dust a magnificent granite shaft was unveiled on May 19, 1888. By one of those singular coincidences which seem to emphasize the hand of providence in the doings of men, the man who had gathered the bones of the dead from their unmarked graves discovered the little book which tells who they were, when they died, and to what regiment they were attached. Had he discovered the book eleven years sooner the inscription on the granite base would not have been to “the unknown dead.”

This notebook had a total of 227 graves recorded at the time by Sgt. George Anderson with the Texas regiment. This detailed record included the names, dates of death, military units and occasional personal note about the dead, except for 14 that were listed as unknown. It also included the following description [verbatim] of the arrangement of the graves in military-style rows:

“They were buried in rows in the North-east corner of the cemetery. The list beginning in row next to the East Fence and goes by rows Westward. The No. in the rows begin at the South end of the row and go Northward to the end of the rows. The names and rank of the dead are taken from the penciled inscriptions at the head of the graves.”

A reconstruction based on this description is shown below, along with information about possible and likely exhumations and reburials prior to 1886.

[Plan of burial ground]

The names and dates of death recorded in the notebook have proven to be highly accurate and in complete agreement with existing regimental records. Sgt Anderson left the city with his unit on Feb. 7, 1862, but a few of the very sick were left behind in Hopkinsville. Two deaths occurred later that month and their burials were recorded in the notebook by someone else. The death of one other soldier left behind in the city is known from records, and also from a letter written by Sgt Anderson to his wife in July 1862, but that name does not appear in the notebook.

The 1886 exhumation removed the remains from their position in the rows that would have allowed them to be identified individually. Ironically, they were thus rendered “unknown” by the well-intentioned exhumation and reburial at the monument.

Very useful details on the location and condition of the graves were described in the article “Removing the Dead Soldiers” that I found in the South Kentuckian newspaper of October 15, 1886:

“There are 155 graves in the valley in the northeastern portion of the old part of the city cemetery. With two or three exceptions, these graves are unmarked by even a board or stone and the graves are all covered over with a matted sheet of myrtle vines. The depressions in the ground are all that serve to mark the resting places of the dead soldiers. ... their bodies were buried side-by-side and their graves are known today simply as the resting places of unknown soldiers. The work of disinterring the bodies is being done ... the graves were five feet deep and the bodies were enclosed in cheap coffins. The boxes have long since rotted and nothing now remains but a few mouldering bones, with occasionally a few buttons, a cheap ring, a chain, a piece of clothing. The bones and dust are collected and placed in a plain wooden box one foot by two feet by eight inches deep. ... About ten are dug up each day, the dirt from one being used to fill up the preceding one.”

The Missing Graves

Aside from the 227 burials described in the “old notebook”, other soldiers who died were presumed to have been taken home by relatives, or shipped home for burial. Some may have been buried in private burial places in or around the city.

In the Kentucky New Era article reporting the discovery of the old notebook, it was stated that many of the bodies buried in Potter’s Field were exhumed by relatives during and after the war. This does not seem to be the case. Extensive searches several years ago by Mr Walston and recently by me have not yielded a single confirmed example of exhumation, with the possible exception of five who have old tombstones in a plot on the edge of the old city cemetery, facing Potter's Field. (See footnote for discussion of these five cases.) Four other instances have been found where there is limited but not conclusive evidence that a corpse was exhumed and taken home for re-burial. These nine cases are indicated on the figure above.

It is particularly instructive that only two out of the 41 Kentuckians and 12 Tennesseans listed in the old notebook can be confirmed to have been exhumed, namely those that were buried with old headstones at the edge of what was then the city cemetery. The county of origin of most of the Kentuckians is known, and research has been conducted in the county cemetery books, family bibles and histories, census records, contacts with descendants, etc. It would seem logical to assume that if the family members went to the considerable effort to reclaim the body from its grave and transport it home, a tombstone would have been erected for the deceased. Perhaps in a few cases only a wooden marker was made, and in others the tombstone may have fallen down or otherwise been lost over the years. But it is very doubtful that there would be more than a handful of such cases.

Of the remaining 174 graves, belonging to soldiers from Mississippi and Texas, one can be quite confident in concluding that exhumation of the bodies buried in Potter’s Field would have been extremely rare, surely not more than five or ten at most.

It is thus reasonable to conclude that out of the 227 burials recorded in the old notebook, at least 200 or so remained intact with human remains when the exhumation project began in 1886. The fact that only 101 sets of remains were found at that time raises the obvious question – how could so many graves have been missed in that project?

And what can be made of the reported 155 graves counted (from depressions) vs 101 skeletons recovered? It is quite likely that some of the “depressions” counted as graves were either exhumations in the winter of 1861-62, before the old notebook was compiled, or they were not graves at all but subsidence due to erosion or other causes. These circumstances would explain why only 2/3rds of the presumed graves yielded bones. Since a good portion of the burial ground was most probably in the flood plain, it is probable that many of the depressions left by graves at the lower elevations would have completely silted up, thus not appearing as old grave depressions and thus missed during the 1886 project.

To take a contrarian position, one could argue that the report in the South Kentuckian suggests a rather high rate of exhumation by relatives before 1886, if it is assumed that all of the “155 graves” based on “the depressions in the ground” were really graves. The 1886 exhumation project found only 101 remains, so it might be claimed that one third of the bodies were missing and presumably retrieved by the families – an extraordinarily high rate of retrieval. There are problems with this reasoning, notably that from all the extensive research that has been done only three instances can be cited of any evidence at all (albeit inconclusive) to suggest that a body was exhumed from Potter’s Field and taken home to Mississippi or Texas. The same considerations described above regarding the Kentuckians and Tennesseans would apply even more to relatives so far away. Much greater effort and expense would have been required to bring the body home, making the absence of tombstones in the home cemeteries all the more striking. Furthermore, during the war long-range travel would have been very difficult, and after 1865 there is doubt that the wooden name boards remained legible or even in place at all (due to vandalism, pilfering for firewood and weathering).

In sum, a significant number of graves was missed and the skeletons of those men still lie unmarked in Potter’s Field. This number is probably close to 100, but even if one assumes that all 155 counted from the depressions were actual graves corresponding to those in the old notebook, 72 are still missing and unaccounted for. And even assuming the high rate of retrieval by family members, this still leaves 48 soldiers remaining (ie 2/3rds of the 72). It is still quite a significant number and most worthwhile to locate them.

Location of the Burial Ground

In the booklet The Story of a Monument one reads:

“Among the saddest sights of all were the unmarked graves of more than one hundred Confederates who died in the Hopkinsville hospitals in the Autumn and Winter of 1861-62, and were then lying in the ‘Potter's Field’ of the lawn, where tangled weeds and vines sheltered reptiles and repelled approach.”

The Potter’s Field (area for the indigent) in the old city cemetery was the lowland to the east. Sgt. Anderson’s notebook mentions the “northeast corner of the cemetery” and the rows starting from the “East fence”. The exact location of these features and the extent of Potter’s Field itself have not yet been determined, and county historian William Turner has promised to assist in defining the exact location of these features in 1862. In the figure below an approximate position of the “East Fence” and the Confederate burial ground has been suggested, but it could well be further to the east and/or south.

[Possible location of burial ground]

The South Kentuckian article provides this detail: “There are 155 graves in the valley in the northeastern portion of the old part of the city cemetery.” The use of the word “valley” suggests that the “northeast corner” may have been further south than indicated in the figure, and likewise the Confederate burial ground. The currently defined flood plain intrudes into the area, following lower contours that could be considered as a “valley” of sorts. David Thomas, former director of Riverside Cemetery, states that some years ago he tested the area in the far western portion of the old Potter’s Field, but found the soil loose, disturbed, containing bits of material. This could be the area of the 1886 exhumations..

Search Methodology

Based on the reconstruction of the burial ground from the description in the old notebook, its size would make it a particularly large and thus easy archaeological target. The disturbance to the natural soil stratigraphy would be immediately clear once a depth of 3 to 4 feet was obtained in a trial trench. There are remote sensing methods such as ground penetrating radar that also can be employed.

It is possible however that the graves were exhumed by digging a trench down each row. Having excavated a series of similar features, I know that this method can be quicker than digging up each individual grave. Such a long trench would leave a very characteristic signature in the soil and would simplify the search for unexhumed graves. However, the information given in the South Kentuckian article, namely that “About ten [graves] are dug up each day, the dirt from one being used to fill up the preceding one” makes it more likely that each grave was dug out individually. Therefore, coming upon the graves’ disturbances to the natural soil, one could not know whether or not the graves still contained human remains, since the grave fill would appear similar in either case. It would be necessary to probe at least to the head of each grave to make a determination.

If the rows of graves can be identified, and some contain human remains, it should be possible to identify the names of the soldiers whose remains are still there, since most of the rows have differing numbers of graves. Even if some of the bodies have been exhumed and one or two added after the old notebook was compiled, the configuration of the rows should allow for an identification of most human remains found, with the exception of the first 14 in row 14 which were recorded in the notebook as “names unknown.”


It has long been said in veterans' circles that no fallen soldier should be left to lie in an unmarked grave, and indeed this is the policy of the US Government. The men and boys who died in the Confederate camp in Hopkinsville were patriots in their own right, and if there is any chance that some of them still lie in the old Potter's Field, it is a most worthy endeavor to search for them. Whether close to 100 or closer to 50, they deserve to be identified, and their resting place commemorated. What John C. Latham wrote to the City Council in 1885 remains true and compelling today: “The graves of those brave men deserve every care and mark of respect.”

If human remains are found and can be linked with names, the markers currently in the “Camp Alcorn Confederate Cemetery” (a memorial garden) can be placed over their true graves. And if most of the remaining 100 can be found, an additional benefit would be that those who were exhumed and re-buried around the Latham Monument would also be identified by default, and a plaque bearing their names could be placed at the Monument.

Whatever the outcome of the project, it would be a most fitting endeavor to mark the 150th anniversary of the occupation of Hopkinsville by Confederate troops. And to commemorate the sacrifice of the soldiers who tragically lost their lives in that terrible winter without ever seeing the battlefield.

Note on the five possible re-burials.

[The five old tombstones]

These five marker stones are very old, but no records are available concerning when or by whom they were erected, or the plots were bought. It now seems very likely to me that these are memorial markers erected by family members or former comrades-in-arms and not actual tombstones over the remains. From the fact that the date of birth is given in the stones for Ballenger and Buntin, and the parents named on Buntin's, it is safe to conclude that family members erected those, whereas for Dyer, Davies and McCloud only date of death and information about the soldiers' military unit is given, indicating that these markers were put up by their comrades, surely after the war was over.

If the bodies of these five were actually exhumed and re-buried under these markers it would have to have been quite soon (perhaps two or three years at most) after their original burial in 1861 to early 1862, when the wooden markers were presumably still in place and legible. It is probable that the old notebook was not available for long after the Confederate withdrawal from Hopkinsville in February,1862, and one assumes that if it was consulted for the location of an individual's grave for the purpose of exhumation, a notation would have been made to that effect in the notebook.

Furthermore, several considerations make it seem highly unlikely that the bodies were re-buried. First is the fact that it would have been very difficult and costly for fmaily members to travel from Texas (in the case of Ballenger) during the war. Secondly, it is unlikely that family members or old comrades-in-arms would have wanted to disturb a corpse buried years ago. And then, if family members exhumed the corpse surely they would have transported it home, not simply moved it a few dozen yards to re-bury it there. Comrades from the military unit surely would have put the tombstone directly over the grave of the deceased, if its location was known.

The ground penetrating radar survey took place October 16-20, 2012. For details click here.