For war’s enemies, common ground Union and Confederate soldiers buried side by side in North Carolina cemetery

THOMASVILLE, N.C. This is a place you have to look for.

It’s not Gettysburg or An- tietam, historic sites ringed by minivans and sport utility vehicles, complete with costumed re-enactors and stores peddling postcards, T-shirts and ghost tours.

But the little grass plot and low stone markers in the middle of Thomasville’s city cemetery has a big claim: Local historians believe it’s the only place in the country where Confederate and Union soldiers were buried side by side in orderly graves.

Some national Civil War scholars say it would be too difficult to prove that the plot is unique. But they acknowledge that it is unusual to have a place where enemies are buried next to each other.

It’s one reason why Chris Watford, a high-school history teacher and local historian, has nominated Thomasville and its cemetery to be included on the state’s Civil War Trail system. The historic routes wind through Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina and attract tourists interested more in history than amusement parks or beaches.

It’s also one of the last physical remains of Thomasville’s role in the war.

In 1865, Thomasville was 13 years old, born from a railroad depot. The railroad brought stores and factories and churches along new city streets. It brought death and sickness, too, and Confederate surgeon Simon Baruch was ordered to Thomasville to open hospitals to treat the wounded from the retreating Southern army, and Union soldiers from faraway battlefields.

Two churches and a tobacco warehouse became hospitals, Watford says. In the spring of 1865, several hundred men wounded in the battles of Averasboro and Bentonville in eastern North Carolina would pass through them. In the next months, about 30 died and were buried in the young city’s cemetery.

The war ended. The hospitals closed.

In 1908, a minister from Macon, Ga., appealed to Southern veterans for money to mark the graves.

"Some of the sick and wounded soldiers were carried to Thomasville, N.C., and the Baptist church building was turned into a hospital, where faithful and patriotic women ministered to them in their sufferings, wiped the death damp from their brows, and tenderly laid their bodies to rest in the little cemetery hard by," the Rev. William Rich wrote in the October 1908 issue of Confederate Veteran.

Rich didn’t note anything remarkable about the list of dead buried in Thomasville that followed: B.H. Badge, of Co. D, 2nd North Carolina Regiment, near D.D. Starmin, "a young Federal prisoner," next to a C. Lane, of the 10th Illinois Regiment.

Most died in the hospital. A few may have died of smallpox, and one North Carolina corporal buried there was killed in action along the Potomac River in 1864.

There are at least two Union soldiers buried in the plot. Several other names on Rich’s list do not indicate the dead soldiers’ home states.

But these arrangements, Tarheels laid next to Yankees in marked graves, would have been highly unusual during what some still call the War Between the States.

At least 10 Confederates accidentally were mixed in with Union dead buried in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., according to Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute.

Whether the Thomasville plot was a gesture of reconciliation or merely a convenient burial site near the hospitals is unanswered. "That’s the mystery to me as a researcher," Watford said.

Leah Wood Jewett, the director of the United States Civil War Center at Louisiana State University, said that whatever the reason, the important thing is that Thomasville acknowledges the plot now. "That’s almost as important as if they were buried that way in the first place," she said.

Markers eventually were placed over some of the graves, each engraved with the soldier’s name, but not his affiliation, rank or even his state also unusual, Watford said, given that soldiers in Gettysburg were separated by state.

In 1995, the local United Daughters of the Confederacy placed a larger monument not far away, "dedicated to the men of the blue and the gray" to honor both armies.

A former Marine, Paul Mitchell, likes to see it that way when he visits. Now a lawyer, Thomasville’s solicitor, an amateur historian and a member of the Davidson County Civil War Round Table, Mitchell also is an impromptu tour guide of the site.

To him, country comes first, he said as he stood among the dark-gray markers recently. Weed trimmers whined behind him, tidying up more modern graves: headstones of Thomasville’s dead, put there by relatives; graves with less mystery.

Mitchell said that he also likes to think that early Thomasville residents had the decency to nurse both their enemies and their own soldiers back to health, and then had the heart to treat them equally in death, too. "You can stand [here] and think, ‘There’s a boy from Michigan, and his parents never knew what happened to him,’" Mitchell said.

© 2004, Media General, Inc.