Buried history: Research effort revealed for Friendship Cemetery

Researchers believe the southwest corner (pictured) of Friendship Cemetery in Columbus could hold as many as eight unmarked graves from the Civil War (Photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN)
Staff Writer

The city of Columbus has a rich history in the origins of what is now known as Memorial Day, but another layer of history could be somewhere underground in the back corner of the city’s Friendship Cemetery.

An informal announcement ceremony was held in the southwest corner of the cemetery Thursday morning, which saw academics and local historians reveal their intent to use technology to find what could be as many as eight unmarked graves of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War as a result of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.

Local newspaper columnist Rufus Ward, who serves as chairman of the Billups-Garth Foundation, said the discovery of a 1877 newspaper article led researchers to believe that several Union soldiers were buried in the cemetery.

“Somewhere in this area are possibly eight Union soldiers buried who died within the months following Shiloh and were buried here,” Ward said. “They would have been Grant’s soldiers and they need to be remembered and with Memorial Day coming up, we wanted to announce this project to try and locate their graves.”

Ward discussed some local history to add context to the project, which is a collaborative effort of the Billups-Garth Foundation, The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State and Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi.

“Columbus was a major hospital center during the Civil War and after the Battle of Shiloh, there were over 3,500 wounded soldiers said to be ‘stacked like cordwood’ along the railroad tracks just north of the cemetery,” Ward said. “Some of those soldiers died in the hospital here and we know that during the Civil War and afterwords, at least 51 union solders died in Columbus.”

Researchers were aware of at least 40 Union soldiers who had been buried in the Columbus cemetery, but said 32 were removed and taken to the National Cemetery in Corinth.

“(The newspaper article) said that for Decoration Day, the ladies of Columbus were still decorating the graves of the Union soldiers who were unmarked and never been moved,” Ward explained.


At the Battle of Shiloh, which took place in Hardin County, Tennessee roughly 150 miles from Columbus, more than 13,000 casualties and losses were recorded for the Union side while nearly 11,000 were documented on the Confederate side.

The battle saw the Army of Tennessee led by General Ulysses S. Grant, along with the Army of the Ohio led by Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell face off against the Army of Mississippi, led by General Albert Sidney Johnston and second in command P. G.T. Beauregard.

Mississippi State University’s John Marszalek and his team are certainly no strangers to Grant, as he heads the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library and Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana on the MSU campus.

“This is a hidden treasure and whatever your position on the war is, I think the very fact, if it works out, that we can talk about Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers buried right next to each other is going to open up a lot of possibilities,” Marszalek said.

The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library and the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana officially opened on the MSU campus in November 2017.

Marszalek expressed his excitement for the project and what it could mean for the newly-opened museum.

“This is one of those occasions we sometimes get where we are able to look at something we forgot about,” he said. “Here in the Golden Triangle, we have as good of an example of Civil War history that you will find.”

He then urged all attendees and community members to visit the library, the cemetery and other historic locales in the area.

“I think what this is going to do is just be another example of where people can come to this area,” Marszalek said. “They can come to (The Grant Presidential Library), they can come visit Lincoln, they can come here."


Researchers plan to search for the eight unmarked graves using non-invasive imaging technology that will help the get a visual of what's beneath the service without breaking any ground.

Tony Boudreaux, who serves as director of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Mississippi, said he didn’t want to oversell the possible results, but did say he believed the conditions would be right for the technology used.

“In those situations where the soil is right and the technology works, you can literally see exactly where the graves are,” Boudreaux said. “In some cases, it just doesn’t work.”

Boudreaux then explained that the instruments can sometimes be sensitive to metal, which can negatively impact the image.

“The soil conditions, like in the Delta, is not good soil for some of these instruments but here, we could be OK, so when the soil conditions are right this technology can be fantastic.”

His team hopes to also conduct surveys with the technology of places where graves are marked, to better develop a signature for researchers to keep an eye out for when going over the corner of the cemetery that could hold unmarked graves.

Research on the project will begin this summer and the actual field work is scheduled for the fall.

Boudreaux then said his team had no plans of digging if and when the graves are discovered.

“We provide that information and for me, the endgame would be to identify a place,” he said. “Something about archeology is it’s tangible. You might find artifacts that are tangible or places that are tangible, like where a house was, in this case a place where these soldiers were interred, and to identify this is the spot, I think there is something powerful for a lot of people being able to visit that kind of space.”

Ward then said he couldn’t be certain what the federal government’s plans would be if the search proves successful, but said he hopes to raise money for a memorial if the unmarked graves are found.