Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers was mortally wounded leading his regiment on Mathews Hill during the First Battle of Bull Run. Solid shot from a Rebel battery smashed his right leg beyond repair. The shattered limb was amputated later that afternoon; Ballou died on July 28th. He was buried near the Sudley Springs Church in a spare coffin.
Rhode Island Governor William Sprauge led a detachment of 75 troops to the Church the following Spring. Their mission was to recover the remains of their fallen comrades. Local witnesses described the horrific events of that Winter. Rebel soldiers had exhumed the body of a Federal officer, robbed it, and desecrated the corpse. The party initially believed it to be the remains of Regimental commander Colonel John Slocum. Slocum’s body was in tact and properly exhumed by the party. Troopers discovered discarded clothing belonging to the Major Ballou. A young girl led them to a fire pit where the corpse was burned. Another witness provided Sprague with a lock of hair she managed to remove from Ballou’s head, before the Rebels severed it.
Governor Sprague was appalled at the actions of the Rebels(most likely soldiers in the 21st Georgia) and testified before a Congressional Committee investigating the allegations. Feeble attempts to attribute the desecration to American Indians in the employ of the Confederate government were easily dispelled by numerous eyewitnesses to the widespread grave robbing.
The historical record has been muddied by the sensational press coverage of the hearings and the later focus on Ballou’s heartfelt letter to his wife, Sarah. The Wikipedia entry for Ballou erroneously attributes the event as “Northern Propaganda.” The fact remains that Major Ballou’s corpse was robbed and desecrated by Rebel soldiers.