Southern Men Who Could not Return Home, the 53 Unknown
Updated: Apr 11
by Gordon Thorsby
Evergreen Cemetery, Chester SC
National cemeteries often have unknown soldiers who died without identification. Others were unknown because the headboards decayed and their names were lost. Fifty-three Confederate soldiers are buried in the civilian Evergreen Cemetery in Chester (Chesterville in 1865), SC. What is the story regarding the 53 Unknown and the few knowns buried amongst them?
Casualties from the Siege at Petersburg mounted and the Richmond hospitals could not handle the numbers so the decision was made to move sick and wounded deeper into the South. The railroad brought supplies, war materiel, and troops north. The return trip took wounded and dying south. The route went through Raleigh, Salisbury and on through to Charlotte where three different railroads converged there. Two tracks, the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad, connected through to Columbia and Chester. Beside the tracks were “Wayside” Hospitals and relief centers. The soldiers they served were huge. The Columbia Wayside Hospital served approximately 75,000 soldiers before being burned during Sherman’s occupation in February, 1865. Chester did not have a Wayside stop because it had four general hospitals in the small town of around 2500 and the hospitals and its arsenal was why Chester was important. This is where the “53” came to stay.
By mid-February, Chester was the southern-most point in the dying Confederacy that could be reached by rail (Columbia burnt.) The trains rolled in and ladies provided food, medicine, blankets, clothes and shoes. The wounded were treated by doctors and attendants. The bandaged and those on stretchers arrived on almost a daily basis. Over time, some continued on south to their homes while others died in Chester or while in transit from Charlotte. Their next trip was by wagon to Evergreen Cemetery across the track and less than a mile away. The “53” are highly likely to have been those that died in Chester after February, 1865 when Chester was “the end of the line.”
Today the "53" are marked as “Unknown CSA.” Many were believed to have been known, and marked with wooden boards. Names and markings disappeared or became illegible (similar i.e. Gettysburg National Military Park.) Documentation was made and placed at the Chester City Hall for future possible reference. Unfortunately, the building had a fire sometime between 1880-1900 and the records were destroyed. When one visits the markers, they face due north. (Most Confederate markers in Evergreen face north.)
The Sons of Confederate Veterans have succeeded in one recovering name (discovered in 2007) thus far. On the front right corner of the group is Private Reuben T. Ashley, Co. I, 19th South Carolina Infantry. His marker identifies him as having died in 1865. The 19th was with the Army of Tennessee and he would have been somewhere near Raleigh at the surrender in 1865 in North Carolina. (Photo at bottom.) The regiment's role call reported 79 at Bennett Place.
Properly spaced among the 53, six feet apart from adjacent graves and twelve feet apart from rows, the grave of a Union soldier. Charles F. Emerson (photo below) has a civilian marker. Charles was said to be 18 at his enlistment as Private on Jan. 21, 1862, in Co. G of the 15th Maine. He re-enlisted on Jan 25, 1864, and soon thereafter was promoted to Corporal. The 15th was in Louisiana during most of its service and was part of two brigades sent to South Carolina as occupation forces during reconstruction. In October 1865, his company was transferred to Chester to deal with violence. According to his headstone, he died on March 14, 1866. He was interred at Evergreen in amongst the "53" at 19 years and 7 months that would actually make him 15 at his enlistment. The regiment in the previous summer suffered over 100 cases of malaria with 70 deaths. Charles’ death may very been from lingering effects of malaria.
There is another Confederate soldier who requested to be buried with the "53," Ashley and Emerson. His name was William G. Parker, Pvt., Co. G, Cobb’s Legion, (1828-1911.) Cobb’s Legion was formed south of Athens, GA and the remnants of the regiment surrendered at Appomattox. Parker would have traveled through Chester on the way to home and may have been a patient there. Parker's (photo below) request was to be buried by his comrades but we do not know if he knew one or more of the “53.” Parker’s marker also faces north.
After Appomattox and Bennett Place, a main route home for Southern soldiers was through Chester and the Wayside relief was still in use.
They came through Chester to get home. but life ended in Chester. They made Chester that home.
Note: Charles’ brother, George was a sergeant in the same company of the 15th Maine and was in Chester at his death. He would want his brother buried among other soldiers, where he could be safe and where he could be at peace. Being with 55 other soldiers would be that place. (Charles has his name on George’s tombstone in Litchfield, ME.
"Southern Fried Common Sense Stuff", C.W. Roden, 3/4/15, http://southernfriedcommonsense.blogspot.com/2015/03/chester-county-south-carolina-in-war.html.
Story of the 15th Maine, by Henry A. Shorey, Bridgeton, ME 1890
Historical Data Services, Inc., PO Box 25, Duxbury, MA 02331.
Tom Downey, “Wayside Hospitals,” University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, July 7, 2016, https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/wayside-hospitals/.