1863 Train Wreck Victim' Graves Remembered
By Keith L. Justice
An important part of Newton County’s lost history may have been found.
On February 19, 1863, a train filled with Confederate soldiers was speeding westward to help defend Vicksburg from Gen. Sherman. A heavy rain had caused flooding in Newton County, and unknown to the engineer, the raging floodwaters had pushed a bridge out of line.
The train hit the bridge, went into the raging torrent of water, and many lives were lost.
Nearly a hundred soldiers died in the train wreck, and as the dead were recovered over the succeeding days, they were interred near the wreck site. Wooden markers were placed on the graves, but in time, those rotted and returned to the earth, leaving no sign of the location of the graves.
Eventually, all memory of the location of the grave sites was lost. The story of the train wreck became part of history and legend, something to read about in a history book. The event itself no longer had a connection to an actual place, a site where someone could stand and see the graves and know that a tiny piece of Civil War history was buried here as a result of the tragic wreck that occurred just over there.
Now that bit of history has come full circle, and has been rendered real once again. A man who specializes in locating lost and forgotten gravesites believes he has found the graves of the souls lost in that long-ago tragedy.
The Newton County Genealogical and Historical Society invited Emory Morgan, a retired computer specialist who lives in Aberdeen, Mississippi, and had been using the art of divining for 25 years to locate lost graves, to attempt to find the graves of the wreck victims. On February 20, 2004, Morgan stepped into a pasture that members of the NCHGS suspected might be the general location of the forgotten cemetery, and within seconds located a grave.
We arrived at the property at 9:10 a. m., said Dr. Harold Graham, president of the NCHGS and one of several members of the organization to accompany Morgan to the site. It was a remarkable circumstance that the burials would have begun 141 years ago to the day we began to search the pasture.
There was no conscious decision to force the dates to coincide. Greg Boggan and Ralph Gordon asked Morgan to come when he could, Graham said. It just worked out to be on that date.
Graham said Morgan stepped from the vehicle, walked eight to ten steps and found the first grave.
It was remarkable to see. That first grave was the start of a row, and he found three rows and a total of 97 graves, Graham said.
The first grave was comprised of 30 graves, the second row 39, and the third row 28.
Our interpretation, based on what Morgan found, is that of the first day of burials, 30 were buried and given individual graves. The second and third rows turned out be trenches where the bodies were laid side by side. Probably on the second, third and fourth days after the wreck, they were still finding bodies. After the first day the bodies would have been in a state of decomposition, and those burying the bodies were exhausted, so they just began putting bodies in the ground, Graham said.
The long-lost makeshift emergency cemetery is located on privately-owned property, and the NCHGS obtained permission to make the attempt to find the graves, Graham said. It was a noninvasive search involving no digging.
Less than a hundred yards from the railroad track, which runs east and west, Graham said the rows of graves were laid out north to south. But the graves of 97 Confederate soldiers was not all Morgan found.
Morgan walked around the field and found a place where there had been a row of three buildings he described as slave quarters, Graham said. Farther along, he found a place where there had been two or three sheds, and also found a place where he said two pots, probably cooking pots, had been.
He also found what he described as an Indian village on the east side of the field, and several Indian graves. Considering what is known about the area for the last several hundred years, everything he described was completely credible, Graham said.
That the Confederate graves should have been forgotten for most of the 20th century is understandable. They probably did have wooden markers, and in time the wood rotted and fell apart, the old-timers who knew of the gravesites died off, a new generation or two came along, and people just forgot about it, Graham said.
The NCHGS will write a technical report and submit it to the State Department of Archives and History so the exact location of the gravesites will be a matter of record, but Graham is not sure about the placement of a monument.
The property is privately owned, and ultimately it will be the landowner who will determine what can and cannot be done to commemorate the deaths of the soldiers who died in the train wreck.
The 97 Confederate soldiers who were rushing to defend Vicksburg have waited 141 years. They may have to wait a little longer to be commemorated, but at least it is unlikely they well be forgotten again.
On April 28, 2003, Louis Foley and Greg Boggan placed a wreath at the site of the Chunky Creek Wreck that occurred on February 19, 1863 and killed an estimated 100 Confederate soldiers and civilians. As part of the ceremony, the names of 26 identified soldiers and civilians were read. This was the first such ceremony since the accident some 140 years ago and was done in observance of Confederate Memorial Day, Louis Foley, Commander of Jefferson Davis Unit 1862, Sons of Confederate Veterans, presiding.