Twenty Acres of Skulls

A burial party at Cold Harbor with a bier full of skulls of bones. Library of Congress

A remembrance of the horrors of war for this Memorial Day weekend.


Malvern Hill, One Year After the Battle, Was a Field of Skulls.

“I think the ghastliest sight I ever saw,” said Sheriff Barnes yesterday, “was during the late war on the field of Malvern Hill. I was in the battle, and a more terrible battle I never witnessed. But that is not the exact time to which I refer. About a year after the battle was fought my regiment was ordered out into the neighborhood of the same old field. We went over the very same ground, and there in the open field,  exposed to the torrid sun, were bleaching the bones of our comrades who fell in that awful engagement. It was a sight I shall never forget. On every side lay a waste of skulls—skulls of almost every shape and size—a modern Golgotha. We could not identify them, however, and could only gaze with a feeling of sorrow on the aggregate pile of human heads that had once been full of life and feeling. After the deeper emotions excited by the spectacle had worn away, I thought of the infinite variety of shapes that were presented by the heap. There were no two of the same shape or size, and it was rather a matter of course, though melancholy, interest, to inspect the different skulls as they lay crumbling in the sultry atmosphere of that August day. It was, after all, a mournful sight, and one that was full of abiding pathos, to think that all that was left of the gallant men that figured in the fight of that eventful day was a lot of skulls that were now beyond recognition, and that would soon be a part of the dust on which we were standing. Such is a picture of that awful sight, and only one of the many horrid scenes in the portraiture of war.” Atlanta Constitution. 

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 25 March 1893: p. 12

Abiding pathos did not long abide in the face of economic development:


The Confederate Dead –Twenty Acres of Human Bones.

A correspondent thus writes of the Confederate burial place at Malvern Hill, Virginia:

“The cemetery keeper offered to act as our guide, and, after showing us the fort and its adjacent rifle-pits, he escorted us to a large field on the northwest side of the fort, and there a most terrible scene presented itself. Thousands of Confederate soldiers, who had fallen in their desperate and persistent attempt to take Fort Harrison, were buried by the Confederates where they fell. Twenty acres or more have just been plowed up by the owner of the field, and the plowshare turned to the surface all these skeletons. Over the whole tract the bones are strewn in profusion, and grinning skulls stare the visitor in the face on every hand.

“When the farmer was questioned, he said the land was now the richest piece he had, and in justification of his sacrilegious act, stated that ‘he didn’t put ‘em there, nohow.’ We learned afterward that the bones had been taken away by the cartload and sold to fertilizing mills in Richmond. Two humane men, too poor to do anything else, came one day we were there, and attempted to burn some of the bones to prevent the wretches from carting them off. But a long job they will have if they attempt to burn them all.”  

Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 3 May 1869: p. 6

For background on The Battle of Malvern Hill.  At this, the last battle in the Peninsula Campaign, the Confederates lost over 5,000 men without gaining any military advantage whatsoever.

As General D.H. Hill said after the Battle of Malvern Hill, “It wasn’t war, it was murder.”

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Soldier’s Mother: 1864


In 1864, notice was given that a boat-load of prisoners from Andersonville would be exchanged, and that they would be landed at Annapolis, Md.  Men and women came from every part of the United States, each with the hope of meeting a friend whom they knew to be confined at Andersonville. Of course, among such a large number there could not be more than one in a hundred that could find the friend they came after. When the boat came up to the wharf there was a great crowd to welcome the forlorn creatures, and to inquire after others who did not come.

Among the expectants was the mother of a soldier in the twelfth Connecticut regiment, who rushed on board the boat, asking every soldier she saw, for her boy. From deck to cabin, in the cots and among the barrels she searched for him; but he was not there, and no one had heard of him. She had brought a cap, a shirt and a pair of pants, that he might have a clean change, and with these across her arm she wandered among the crowd saying, in a half-inquiring, vacant tone, “He has not come; he has not come.”

For a year after she went regularly to the wharf at sunrise from her lodgings, which nobody could find, and gazed for an hour down the bay, and murmuring, “He has not come,” would go to the post surgeon with the same cap, shirt and pants, and ask why her boy had not come. They shut the door in her face, and she wandered down to the wharf and was found the next morning stiff and cold, sitting upright behind some old barrels on the wharf, with her glassy eyes still gazing down the bay toward the point where steamers first came in sight.

“He had not come to her

But she had gone to him.”

Jamestown [NY] Journal 15 October 1869: p. 2



Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.