Two Union soldiers died more than 150 years ago. Now three craftsmen are making them old-fashioned coffins.
By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: August 17, 2018
The three craftsmen stood around the partly finished wooden coffin, stumped.
The pieces of elegant oak had been measured, cut and glued.
The first coffin they had built, a neat "toe-pincher," had fit together beautifully and stood open in a corner.
But the second one had a piece of warped wood. "How much is it off?" asked Jim Davy, a National Park Service volunteer.
"Quarter inch," said Mike Weibush, a Park Service historic preservationist.
For the coffins of two Union soldiers who had given their last full measure of devotion on the battlefield of Manassas in 1862, that would not do.
Friday, in the wood shop of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, Davy, 66, Weibush, 45, and volunteer Russ Muter, 67, were working to make them perfect.
The old-fashioned coffins were being built for the remains of the two soldiers found in a battlefield "limb pit" four years ago. They are scheduled to be buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 6.
They will be the first burials in a new 27-acre section of the cemetery, officials have said.
To honor the soldiers, who were killed at the Second Battle of Manassas 156 years ago this month, the Park Service decided to build them coffins from their times. The remains will be wrapped in Civil War reproduction Union blankets. The wooden coffins will then be placed inside modern military caskets, the Park Service said.
But their remains will rest on wood cut from a 60-foot-tall tree that had fallen on the battlefield in a windstorm this year.
"I think it's really cool that they're going to be laying on wood that's from the park," Weibush said Friday. "That means more to me than anything, [and] to know that from tree to burial I had something to do with the entire thing."
"When I walked in today . . . it kind of hit me, that this was going into Arlington National Cemetery forever," he said. "This is going to be someone's final resting place forever."
The tree that provided the wood was about 90 years old, he said. Planks were cut from the trunk, then dried in a special kiln. Boards were made, and the pieces were glued, clamped and cut to the old design the men found on the internet.
A toe-pincher coffin is narrow at the feet, wide at the shoulders and narrow at the head.
As the men worked Friday, the room was filled with machinery. Sawdust littered the floor, and sometimes clouded the air. A large rack of handsaws hung on one wall. A bottle of wood glue sat nearby.
Weibush kept an orange carpenter's pencil stuck under his ball cap.
Measurements were made in fractions of inches. Some fastening was done with "pin nails" driven with a pneumatic gun. The wood, with strong, tight tree rings, was sanded until it looked almost like marble.
Excess planks, still with the bark on, leaned against a wall.
Evidence of the pit was discovered in 2014 during excavation for a utility line but was not fully examined until 2015, the Park Service said.
The agency, after many months of background research, revealed the discovery in June.
The pit contained two fairly complete skeletons, along with the amputated limbs of 11 other men, according to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, which helped study the remains.
The pit was probably located near a battlefield hospital where wounded and dying soldiers were treated after the fighting.
The Second Battle at Manassas involved almost 125,000 combatants in the Union and Confederate armies.
It was fought Aug. 28 through 30, 1862, over much of the same ground as a battle the year before. The Union army lost both battles, but the second was especially bloody and devastating.
Roughly 1,700 Union soldiers and 1,200 Confederates were killed, and more than 14,000 were wounded.
Amputation of a damaged arm or leg was a common remedy, and surgeons worked feverishly with saws and knives. The severed limbs were often placed in a pile or special pit.
In this case, the pit was also used to bury the dead.
The two soldiers - referred to as Burial 1 and Burial 2 - were placed side by side. They have not been identified. The amputated limbs were carefully arranged next to them.
The Burial 1 soldier had been hit in the right thigh by a Confederate bullet that shattered his leg and buried itself in the bone. It was still embedded there when a Park Service archaeologist removed the remains from the earth.
The man in Burial 2 had been laid to rest in his Union coat. Its four eagle-imprinted buttons were found in the pit with him.
He had been wounded by one large bullet that smashed his upper right arm, a smaller one that hit him in the groin and a smaller one that struck near his right shin. Several of the rounds were found in the dirt near him.
The Park Service believes the men may have been hit during a doomed Union attack on Aug. 30 against Confederate forces hunkered down in an unfinished railroad cut at the top of a ridge.
Friday, the Park Service trio was intent. The warped piece of wood "is so bowed it's killing me," Davy, who makes small cabinets as a hobby, said. It would leave a tiny space once the coffin was assembled.
"Do we have another one?" he asked.
"We have an ugly one already cut," Weibush replied.
It would work.
Muter said his great-great-grandfather served in the Union Army's 128th New York Infantry Regiment, which fought elsewhere in Virginia.
"To me it's an honor . . . to be a small part . . . of coming up with a final resting box for two bold young men who gave up their life, gave up their home, and came to protect the Union," he said. "I'm very humbled by that."