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    • Jake Wynn

    National honors to Rebel dead? - A blistering letter about Confederate graves at Antietam

    On January 17, 1868, Representative John Covode of Pennsylvania sat his desk in the US Capitol and penned a lengthy letter in rebuke to the Governor of New York Reuben Fenton. The Republican of Westmoreland County directed his ire at Governor Fenton for a letter that was written on December 3, 1867 about the newly opened Antietam National Cemetery.

    Representative John Covode (LOC)

    In the letter written to John Jay, the New York commissioner on the board of the national cemetery, Fenton discussed his support for the interment of Confederate soldiers killed during the Battle of Antietam within the boundaries of the cemetery.

    Governor Reuben Fenton, New York (LOC)

    This suggestion enraged Covode. The politician lost one son leading the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry and dealt with the long-lasting consequences of another son who survived Andersonville. Covode's saw his published letter printed in newspapers across Pennsylvania and other Union states.

    Colonel George H. Covode, 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Covode was mortally wounded on June 24, 1864 outside Richmond, Virginia. (LOC)

    The letter itself grapples with the meaning of the Civil War, the consequences for those who fought and those they left behind, and how the Confederacy and its supporters should be remembered. Covode fell squarely into a group that sought only to honor the fallen of the Union.


    Governor Fenton was in the camp that sought reconciliation with the Southern states, supporting the interment of Confederate dead within Antietam National Cemetery. "They were Americans, misguided, indeed, and misled, but still our countrymen and we cannot remember them now either with enmity or unkindness," Fenton wrote to Jay.

    Graves of US soldiers at Antietam National Cemetery (LOC)

    Covode took umbrage at these words, telling the governor that the families of Union soldiers lost during the Civil War were "shocked and outraged by your recommendation to do honor to the author of their sorrows and the workers of their country’s woes."


    The Covode letter illustrates the perspective of a grieving father who lost one son forever and feared the loss of another as a result of his shattered health as a result of the conflict. Covode refused to see how reconciliation with the defeated Confederates would honor the sacrifices of his children and the thousands of others who perished or were maimed during the conflict. While Confederate dead were never interred in Antietam National Cemetery, the reconcilationist camp later began to gains as the war's wounds began to heal and former Confederates reentered the political fray.


    These battles over the Confederacy and its place in American history rage on today. The reconciliation model supported by Governor Reuben Fenton is threatened by a reawakening of Covode's sentiments about the legacy of the Confederacy and the soldiers who fought under its banner.


    Below, you can read the Covode letter to Governor Fenton, as published in the Brookville Republican of Brookville, Pennsylvania on February 12, 1868.


    National Honors to Rebel Dead


    John Covode to Governor Fenton


    House of Representatives,

    Washington, D.C., January 17, 1868.


    Sir: I have read with sorrow and astonishment your letter recommending national honors to rebels who invasion of the North was stopped by death in battle on the field of Antietam. You say:


    “A strong local and individual feeling in the neighborhood of Antietam and other parts of Maryland, naturally engendered by the invasion, may have erected some indifference in regard to the Confederate dead, and an indisposition to see them buried side by side with those who died in defense of our nationality. But it is confidently believed no such feeling pervades the breasts of the American people, or the surviving officers and soldiers of the Union Army.


    When we recall the generosity and moderation that marked the conduct of the people, the Government, and the army during the war, and the magnanimity that presided at its close; when we remember that our countrymen are now engaged in the work of reconstructing the Union on the basis of universal freedom, and with an earnest desire to restore the Southern States a prosperity infinitely greater than that which slavery and rebellion conspired to destroy. It is impossible to believe that they would desire to make an invidious distinction against the mouldering remains of the Confederate dead, or that they would disapprove of their being carefully gathered from the spots where they fell and laid to rest in the National Cemetery, on the battlefield of Antietam.


    Conquerors as we were in that great struggle, our stern disapproval of the cause in which they fought need not forbid our admiration of the bravery with which they died. They were Americans, misguided, indeed, and misled, but still our countrymen and we cannot remember them now either with enmity or unkindness.”


    I have read these paragraphs twice and thrice, but a dimness, other than the film of age, obscures them to my vision. It is in vain that I have wiped the spectacles of an old man, and endeavored deliberately and clearly to see in your words a justification for the recommendation they make. Two forms come between me and the printed page.


    They stay there and will not move away. One of them is the figure of my eldest son, the Colonel of the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry – as brave, devoted, and generous a boy as ever filled a father’s heart with pride, and made a mother happy.


    He covered with his regiment a retrograde movement of a column of our army under Sheridan, in June 1864, fighting every rod of his way. He fell badly wounded. His men endeavored to carry him off; but hotly pursued, several of them were killed or disabled. He told his Major to leave him and save himself and the command, and try to make a stand on the next height, and there gain time for the great wagon train ahead to escape to the James River.


    My son was laid upon the grass beside the highway, his men obeying his orders to return to their ranks, and leave him with the dead and the wounded of his regiment to await capture.


    The rebels soon came up, and, as I have been told, shot him gain, when he lay helpless on the ground, stripped him of his sword, money, watch, boots and clothing, and left him naked to die. An old colored woman, living in the neighborhood, brought him water to drink while he was dying. The next day he was buried in her garden.


    Gov. Fenton, the figure of this murdered boy comes between my eyes and the text of your recommendation of national honors to the rebel dead, that I cannot see in it a reason from which fathers and mothers who love their children should not shock patriots who have loved their country, and have made sacrifices for it.


    There is, sir, another figure which makes filmy reading through my old spectacles. My youngest son, a private in the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, who entered the army before he was 15 years of age, was captured at Sulphur Springs, when Meade fell back to Centreville, with 156 of his regiment, 142 of whom afterwards died in prison.


    Twenty-four of those who died went out in the Covode cavalry, from my immediate neighborhood – all sons of my neighbors – all objects of interest and care to me. After passing from one den of imprisonment and cruelty to another, they were finally immured with thousands of other unfortunates in the death pen of Andersonville. Eighteen months of hunger and nakedness, exposure to the scorching sun and the winter’s freezing, did their work on these stalwart and brave men.


    Many of them died idiotic, some of them feebly insane – all the victims of a system of starvation and cruelly planned by demons and executed by devils. My son’s bodily vigor and resoluteness of spirit carried him through the horrors of Andersonville, with life left in him – with hardly anything more. He is home again with his mother, and I have just received a letter from her urging me to “try another doctor, for he grows worse.” But the energetic, intelligent, hopeful, self-reliant, brave boy, who left my house to fight the enemies of his country, has not returned to me, and he never will return.


    I think that you will find that, in common with me, hundreds of loyal men, whose hearts yet bleed with wounds received in the wicked war the slaveholders waged against the nation’s life, have been shocked and outraged by your recommendation to do honor to the author of their sorrows and the workers of their country’s woes.

    Had you served in the army, either in person or through a son, and presented your offerings of patriotism to your country on the picket line or the line of pitched battle, you would never have made the heartless mistake you have, in what your biographer, writing your life, will call “the Antietam Letter.”


    How much I wish you had imitated the manly and sympathetic behavior of Governor Geary, of Pennsylvania, a soldier and statesman, who thus repelled the proposition to mingle the rebel with the Union dead under the Antietam monument.


    “The custom has ever prevailed to specially honor those in death who won special honor by meritorious lives. The monuments reared to the memory of departed worth bear ample testimony that our people have not been unmindful of this custom. But where were such memorials ever erected for men whose actions were infamous, and who perished in an ignoble cause? Who would glorify the treason of Benedict Arnold with such monuments as have arisen to the memory of Washington? Who would dare to insult the loyal heart of this nation by proposing to lay side by side, in the same sepulcher, the body of the assassin Booth and that of Abraham Lincoln?


    No loyal man would take the heartless Wirz and the other demons that presided over the prison dens of cruelty, starvation and death, and the executed conspirators against the nation’s illustrious chief, and deposit them in the same tomb with the patriotic men who sacrificed their lives in battling for ‘the right against the wrong.’


    Yet it is proposed that the loyal States construct cemeteries for their heroic dead and then desecrate them by the burial therein of those who prosecuted against their country a warfare which for its diabolical ferocity is without a parallel in the history of civilization, and even to erect monuments to their memory. Carry out this purpose, and what inducement can be hereafter offered to the loyal citizen to fight against treason, when he feels assured that should he fall in battle the traitor’s grave will be honored equally with his own.


    The cause of the Union was a holy one, while that which opposed it must have been its converse. To one side along the glory belongs. This was not a war of nations but of treason against loyalty. It was a contest of rebels who would have drained the life’s blood of the government which had sustained and protected them, against its patriotic sons who fought to save it from destruction. It was a war carried on by the defenders and promoters of oppression, against the friends and lovers of liberty and their country’s integrity.


    While there is no reasonable objection to giving decent sepulture even to the rebel dead, those who consider them deserving of honorable testimonials may give them. It is our duty to render honor only to whom honor is due.”


    It is with grief, Governor Fenton, that I write this letter to you. The subject is painful to me. But there sits on my hearthstone, and there lies in my village graveyard, and their broods in my heart a controlling reason why, since the appearance of your Antietam letter, I should regard your entrance in the National Republican Convention, a candidate for office, as an intrusion to which the survivors of the Union Army, and the relatives of its dead and wounded, should sternly object.


    Yours, etc.

    John Covode

    No Confederate soldiers were ever buried at Antietam National Cemetery.