Civil War Monument of the unknown, Arlington, Virginia.
Historian, Drew Gilpin Faust, has stated that at least half of the soldiers who died in the Civil War were never identified. Past historians have suggested a lower number, but Faust’s recent research indicates a more realistic amount.
In the 1860s, absent were the systems for solid record keeping of soldiers. Both armies lacked the resources to staff and train enough men to be in grave units. A process to notify families about their loved ones did not exist. And, due to the very high number of battle casualties, and the lack of any method of preserving the bodies for long, those killed were buried in mass graves. In the battle of Antietam, for example, over 23,000 soldiers were killed.
Knowing that their sons would likely die in battle, it was not unusual for families, sometimes hundreds, to gather near the site of a battle. Once the fight was over, family members would rush on the battlefield and search for their loved ones.
Fanny Scott of Virginia searched for three years for her son Benjamin. He had fought in the 1862 battle of Antietam; after Antietam, she never heard from him again. Fanny, like so many other parents, refused to accept the belief that he had been killed. She contacted the generals for both sides, even requesting and receiving permission to pass through enemy lines, and personally search for her son.
Even those dying wanted to make sure that their loved ones found them. On May 10, 1864 Private James Montgomery of Mississippi lay mortally wounded. With blood dripping on the paper, James wrote a letter to his father telling him about his tragic plight. His only request was that he hoped his family would visit his grave and possibly re-enter his body in the family graveyard. His family never found his grave.
Many families searched for their loved ones until they died.
If you are interested in additional readings on this subject: The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust, and Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death, by Mark S. Schantz.