The Stranger and the Man with Two Graves

Note: The following is research I completed during an internship with Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. This information was later passed along to a researcher I met on, who was looking for information about his ancestor- Charles H. Colley. Lt. Colley is at the center of a Civil War mystery as a Union soldier with two graves, and his fate is intwined with an unidentified Confederate soldier who ended up in Maine. Without further ado, the case of “The Stranger and the Man with Two Graves.”

Charles H. Colley of Gray, Maine, together with his younger brother William, enlisted in Company B of the Maine 10th Regiment on Oct. 4, 1861, two days after Colley’s 28th birthday. He was a skilled soldier who moved up the ranks from Private to Sergeant, and served as Acting First Lieutenant at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpepper County, Virginia on Aug. 9, 1862. The struggle was fierce and bloody. John Mead Gould in his recollections of Cedar Mountain wrote:

“The shells and solid shot came down faster and struck nearer…. Men turned pale…the battle promised from the first to be short and terrible.”

File:Battle of Cedar Mountain 02.jpg

(Wikimedia Commons)

Colley took a bullet to the knee and was listed as “mortally wounded.” He was sent to Alexandria Hospital, where he developed gangrene. He passed away more than a month later, on Sept. 20th, 1862. Two days before his death, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant.

Back in Maine, Colley’s mother received word of his death, and together with his older brother Amos requested Colley’s body be shipped back for burial in his hometown. When the body arrived, the casket was opened to confirm his identity, and they found it was not Lt. Colley in the plain pine box. A soldier in a gray uniform, the color of the Confederate Army, was in his place.

They found no personal effects to identify the young man, but the Colley family, and their friends and neighbors, felt compelled to give him a decent burial. Perhaps they comforted themselves with the hope that another grieving family in the South would tend to their son in the same dignified and compassionate manner. A grave was prepared, and the unknown soldier was laid to rest. A marker was later placed at the site, which reads simply:


A soldier of the late war

died 1862

Erected by the Ladies of Gray

Image result for the stranger gray maine

(Portland Press Herald)

The family wrote to the federal government explaining the mistake, and once more requested the body of Charles Colley be located and returned to his hometown. Another pine box arrived later in the fall of 1862. Legend has it that this box was opened, it’s occupant identified as the real Charles Colley, and the man was interred in his native soil. His marker in Gray, Maine reads:



Of Co. B 10th Me. Vols

among the first to rally

in defence [sic] of his Country,

was wounded at

Cedar Mountain Aug. 9.

Died at Alexandria

Sept. 20th, 1862

Aged 29

Image result

(Portland Press Herald)

However, Colley’s name graces a marker in Alexandria, VA, next to the hospital where he died. This marker reads:





Sgt Charles H Colley


Thanks to the burial records, we’ve confirmed this is the same C.H. Colley. What historians have yet to determine, and may never know, is which grave holds the body of Charles Colley? Who is the Stranger? Is one or both of Colley’s graves simply a memorial marker, or is yet another unknown soldier buried there? The questions we can answer revolve around the process of dying after battle, and retrieving a  deceased soldier.

Was it likely Charles Colley could have been identified two weeks to three months after his death?

Death in the Mid- Nineteenth Century

Many Americans of the mid-nineteenth century believed that death was a temporary separation, and that if their loved ones lived well, and more importantly, died a “good death,” they would be reunited in the afterlife.

The ideal “good death” generally took place at home. The dying, surrounded by loved ones, would utter last words affirming their faith in God, love for their families, and acceptance of their fate before quietly passing on. Elaborate mourning rituals were in place which dictated the appropriate funeral process, the style of dress, acceptable behaviors, and even the type of stationery to be used by the grieving family.Close family, friends, and neighbors performed most of the services modern funeral directors offer today. They cleaned, dressed and displayed the body for viewing, held a small service, carried the coffin to the grave, and buried the deceased. Then, family members observed a mourning period, which lasted more than two years for a widow. During that time, the bereaved went from wearing full mourning (generally an entirely black outfit) to shades of gray and purple, before returning to normal attire. Widows wore long, black veils to hide their faces for the first few months of mourning, avoided social gatherings and stayed out of public places as much as possible until their mourning was complete.

The Civil War disrupted the accepted grieving process. The American social and physical landscape became saturated with death. War robbed many families of a body to bury or even accurate information about the passing of their loved ones. This made it impossible for a family to go through the traditional mourning process, or for a dying person to fulfill the requirements for the Victorian ideal of the “good death.” Lacking this closure undoubtedly took a psychological and emotional toll on the deceased’s kin. The introduction of modern embalming gave families back some control over death.

Civil War Embalming:

Thomas Holmes perfected the process of embalming for the U.S. market by using chemicals that were less poisonous to the practitioner. This made trained surgeons more willing to embalm than previous generations. Embalming was touted as a miraculous preservative, which allowed dead bodies to be better preserved, lasting in a fair condition potentially for weeks, while being shipped to their final resting places. In an 1862 article entitled “Soldier’s Graves” the New York Times claimed that soldiers who had been embalmed and disinterred “two weeks after burial” released “not a particle of unpleasant odor.” Due to the conditions the body is placed in, the ambient temperature and the exact formula used by the embalmer, results could vary on the cosmetic longevity of the corpse, which determined the family’s ability to hold viewings. Abraham Lincoln was embalmed for a two-week funeral procession from Washington D.C. to Illinois that included stops in many major cities for public viewing. Many major newspapers reported that the embalming was well done, noting that the President had a stately appearance and seemed as if he was simply resting. However Lincoln’s scheduled burial was moved up two days, from May 6th to the 4th, as it became clear to his entourage that the body was not holding up well under the stress of travel, the frenzy of spectators, and the spring’s warm and humid conditions.

Embalming was introduced to the Union Army in 1861 as death tolls began to rise. Previously considered the responsibility of a soldier’s family, managing the war dead became the responsibility of the U.S. Government due to the distance between soldiers and families, and the overwhelming number of bodies. Northern families clamored to have their sons sent back home instead of leaving them in enemy territory, where graves and bodies risked desecration by rebels. That would mar their chance of a “good death” and dishonor their service to the Union. Southerners also wanted to bury their sons close to home and honor their service to the Confederacy, but lacked the manpower, access to preservative chemicals and the diligent record keeping needed to make that possible.

Railroad companies agreed to ship soldiers back home, but only if their bodies were odor free, making the prospect of a home burial a race against the clock. Retrieving a soldier was by no means easy or cheap. A family wishing to reclaim their son’s body had to first locate the remains, by one of several methods:

* keeping watch over battle reports in newspapers which listed dead and wounded men.

* writing letters to their regiment, travelling to the hospitals and battle sites themselves.

* hiring someone to find their loved one.

Next the family would pay to have their loved one embalmed or placed in an airtight casket. They were then charged to have him shipped home. A letter from William S. Brown to the family of a deceased soldier from Sebago Lake, Maine detailed the expenses, writing “We Shall have his Boddy Embalmed & you can have it any time within four weeks. The whole expence of getting him home will be as follows five Dollars for Box fifteen for Embalming & thirty five Express bills $3500 [sic] to Gorham.” Embalming rates were high and embalming surgeons often only performed their art on officer’s bodies, knowing their families were more likely to pay for the service.

So, it is a toss up as to whether or not Colley could have been accurately identified. One would have to know for sure if he was embalmed and shipped right away but a mistake happened during his travel, or if he was disinterred in Virginia.

We lack the information to know who the Stranger was, as the Confederacy did not build an effective bureaucracy to keep those records. The Union, while better equipped, struggled to keep accurate records due to the unprecedented numbers of War dead. The story itself, while leaving many questions unanswered, highlights the complicated emotional, economic and physical aspects of death during the Civil War. Confederates and the Union alike fought brutally, and Maine was a hot bed of abolition and not at all forgiving of the treason the southern states were committing. Yet, the people of Gray buried a stray rebel soldier with as much dignity and compassion as one of their own. The cost of retrieving a fallen son was huge, and there was no guarantee it would be him arriving in the end. Yet the Colley’s paid for the service, because they loved their son and wanted to give him the best chance to be remembered honorably and met in the afterlife. This is a story of humanity in an inhumane time, of seeking control and peace in chaos, and of coming to terms with the unthinkable and the macabre mixture of day to day concerns and death that overlap when considering the process and expense of shipping a fallen soldier.

Fast Facts:

-In the infancy of modern embalming, it took up to three gallons of embalming fluid to treat an average sized man.

– A letter to the editor of the New York Times, entitled “Embalming the Dead- a Practice Practicable to All” was published in 1862, detailing a simple recipe for embalming fluid to be used by medical personnel.

-178 Union Soldiers rest in Gray Village Cemetery, and 1 Confederate.

-The Battle of Cedar Mountain was the only battle in which Gen. Stonewall Jackson actually drew his sword. When he pulled on the hilt to use it, he found the sword was rusted to his scabbard. He waved it around anyway, to rally his troops.

-The Battle of Cedar Mountain was fought on a 98 degree day, and Union troops were outnumbered 2 to 1.

-Clara Barton performed her first field duty on the Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners wounded at Cedar Mountain.

-625,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, more American men than in all other American military conflicts combined. 2 out of 3 of those soldiers died of disease.

-It’s estimated that 40% of Civil War dead were never identified.

-180,000 African Americans served in the Union Army. That was 85% of the eligible northern Black population at the time.

-An estimated 20% of soldiers were under 18.

-Embalming fluid was generally based in arsenic, and hydrochloric acid and zinc were also popular ingredients at the time. Formaldehyde didn’t come into popular use as an embalming agent until the early 20th century.