“New Lessons Caring for the Dead”

“This is not how we bury folks at home.”

SEPTEMBER 28, 1862

However stunned, exhausted, and overwhelmed, soldiers at the end of battle had more work to do. The carnage created by the Civil War’s major engagements, and even the casualties of smaller skirmishes, presented an immediate challenge to those still reeling from the fighting’s physical and emotional impact. Soldiers had to disregard their own misery and attend to the wounded and dead. The sheer number of bodies requiring disposal after a Shiloh, an Antietam, or a Gettysburg defied both administrative imagination and logistical capacity, for each death posed a pressing and grimly pragmatic problem: What should be done with the body?

Nineteenth-century Americans confronted this crisis of the Civil War slain within a broader context of assumptions about appropriate treatment of the dead. Humanity, not just particular humans, was at stake. As the trustees of the Antietam National Cemetery would explain in 1869, “One of the striking indications of civilization and refinement among a people is the tenderness and care manifested by them towards their dead.”1

Why do living humans pay attention to corpses? There is, of course, the compelling need for disposal. But that is simply the most tangible and immediate problem dead bodies pose. In 1854, well before the intrusions of war, Harper’s New Monthly Magazineoffered an extended consideration of the subject. Its editor, Henry Raymond, founder of the New York Times and one of Lincoln’s strongest wartime supporters, speculated whether the “sacredness of the human body” was a notion too outdated for a modern era of science and progress. Invoking history, philosophy, religion, and reason, he insisted otherwise. “There ever has been, in all places, in all ages, among all classes and conditions of mankind, a deep-feeling in respect to the remains of our earthly mortality.” The body, the essay continued, is not simply a possession, “like a picture, a book, a garment, or any thing else that once belonged to the deceased.” In the corpse, rather, there remains “something of the former self hood.” And, in the terms of prevailing Protestant doctrine, something of the future and immortal selfhood as well. The human body is “not like any other portion of matter,” for it “will be raised again—yea, the same body.”2

Redemption and resurrection of the body were understood as physical, not just metaphysical, realities, and therefore the body, even in death and dissolution, preserved “a surviving identity.” Thus the body required “sacred reverence and care” the absence of such solicitude would indicate “a demoralized and rapidly demoralizing community.” The body was the repository of human identity in two senses: it represented the intrinsic selfhood and individuality of a particular human, and at the same time it incarnated the very humanness of that identity—the promise of eternal life that differentiates human remains from the carcasses of animals, who possess neither consciousness of death nor promise of either physical or spiritual immortality. Such understandings of the body and its place in the universe mandated attention even when life had fled; it required what always seemed to be called “decent” burial, as well as rituals fitting for the dead.3

Civil War soldiers worried deeply about their own remains, especially as they began to encounter circumstances that made customary reverence all but impossible. A South Carolinian wrote from the Virginia front that “some how I have a horor of being thrown out in a neglected place or bee trampled on as I have seen a number of graves here.” His hope was to be transported home. Jeremiah Gage of the 11th Mississippi felt differently. As he lay dying at Gettysburg, he wrote to urge his mother not to regret that she would be unable to retrieve his body. With his last words, he asked “to be buried like my comrades. But deep, boys deep, so the beasts won’t get me.” Confederate Thomas J. Key shared the same gruesome concern: “It is dreadful to contemplate being killed on the field of battle without a kind hand to hide one’s remains from the eye of the world or the gnawing of animals and buzzards.” Another northern soldier expressed a different worry with his last breath: “don’t let the rebels get me.” To be returned to the bosom of family or, failing that, at least to be honorably buried with one’s comrades and preserved from the desecrations of enemies, human and otherwise: these concerns were shared by soldiers North and South.4

When the war began, military officials on both sides sought to establish regularized burial procedures, in no small part because decaying bodies and the “effluvia” that emanated from them were believed to pose serious threats to public health. Many of the deaths in the initial months of the conflict arose from epidemics of diseases like measles and mumps that broke out as men, often from isolated rural areas, crowded together in army camps and exposed one another to new illnesses. Both North and South ordered military hospitals to establish burial grounds. Each hospital of the Union army was charged to provide a “dead house,” for storage of corpses prior to burial and for post-mortem examinations. When circumstances permitted, hospital personnel kept careful records of those interred, provided them with respectful burials, and, if the army remained stationary for a period of time, maintained graves. In Virginia in 1861, for example, accounts of the Confederate hospital at Culpeper showed regular sums expended to local laborers for digging graves and making coffins for interments in its well-tended cemetery.5

But as war escalated and troops began to clash on the battlefield, these cemeteries became entirely inadequate for those who were dying at the scene of the fighting, on scattered grounds, or in hastily established field hospitals. At the end of the war, a former Union hospital steward remembered ruefully the failure to maintain careful records of the dead. Field hospitals, he explained, were organized on an emergency basis. “Everything…was therefore hurriedly arranged. You will therefore understand the seeming want of order in the burial of the dead…It was with the greatest difficulty and with terrible exertion on the part of my associates and myself that we were able to care for the sick and wounded—hence the little apparent care for those who were beyond help.” As a Union chaplain put it, “We learned new lessons as to caring for the soldier dead, or as to the necessity of failing to care for them in the exigencies of more active warfare.”6


“Soldiers’ Graves near General Hospital, City Point, Virginia.” Library of Congress.

The First Battle of Bull Run late in July 1861 yielded casualties that galvanized military officials to reconsider their lack of preparation for so many fallen. In September the Union army issued General Orders no. 75, making commanding officers responsible for burial of soldiers who died within their jurisdiction and for submission of a form recording their deaths to the office of the adjutant general. A little more than six months later, General Orders no. 33 detailed more elaborate instructions:

In order to secure, as far as possible, the decent interment of those who have fallen, or may fall, in battle, it is made the duty of Commanding Generals to lay off plots of ground in some suitable spot near every battlefield, so soon as it may be in their power, and to cause the remains of those killed to be interred, with headboards to the graves bearing numbers, and, when practicable, the names of the persons buried in them. A register of each burialground will be preserved, in which will be noted the marks corresponding to the headboards.7

“As far as possible…when practicable”: the very language reveals how utopian a measure this would prove. The structures and resources that would have been necessary to implement such policies were hardly even imagined, much less provided: the Union army had no regular burial details, no graves registration units, and until 1864 no comprehensive ambulance service. As late as Second Bull Run, in August 1862, a Union division took the field without a single ambulance available for removal of casualties. The Confederate army passed analogous regulations specifying the commanders’ duty to bury the dead, dispose of their effects—and even pay their laundry bills. But they gave no more systematic attention to how these exhortations might actually be heeded than did their northern counterparts. Burying the dead after a Civil War battle seemed always to be an act of improvisation, one that called upon the particular resources of the moment and circumstance: available troops to be detailed, prisoners of war to be deployed, civilians to be enlisted.8

This lack of capacity and preparation was evident in the length of time it took to attend to the dead. Battlefield exigencies often delayed care for the wounded, much less the slain. If a military advantage seemed threatened, commanders might well reject flags of truce proposed for removal of casualties from the field. During the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, for example, Union colonel Henry Weeks reported to his commanding officer from Hanover Court House, Virginia, “the refusal of the enemy to admit our burial party.” Soldiers often lay on the field dead or dying for hours or even days until an engagement was decided. Josiah Murphey of Nantucket reported on June 6, 1864, that casualties from the Battle of Cold Harbor remained where they had fallen for three days. At last a twenty-four-hour flag of truce interrupted the unrelieved fighting and enabled soldiers to bury their dead. A northern paper explained Grant’s rejection of a forty-eight-hour “cessation of hostilities” to bury the dead during this spring 1864 campaign: “Lee was on his knees begging for time to bury his dead. But in this cruel war the business of generals is with the living.” Civilians and soldiers alike began to understand the meaning and urgency of the phrase they so often intoned: “Let the dead bury the dead.”9

More often delay resulted from the failure to mobilize necessary manpower and resources for the task. The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day of combat in American history, left both Union and Confederate armies staggering. Lee slowly limped southward, leaving the field—and the dead of both sides—to the Union army. McClellan appeared to be paralyzed by the magnitude of the engagement and failed to take strategic advantage of his victory by pursuing the Confederate army. A similar paralysis seemed to grip his troops as they confronted the devastation before them. Twenty-three thousand men and untold numbers of horses and mules lay killed or wounded. A Union surgeon reported that a week after the battle “the dead were almost wholly unburied, and the stench arising from it was such as to breed a pestilence.” He described “stretched along, in one straight line, ready for interment, at least a thousand blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.” A nurse arriving more than ten days later found men still scattered on the field.10


“A Burial Party After the Battle of Antietam.” Photograph by Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.

Some commanders at Antietam had detailed squads to inter the dead soon after the fighting ceased. New Yorker Ephraim Brown, who had proudly captured a rebel flag during the battle on September 17, found himself ordered two days later to bury Confederates along the line of his earlier triumph. His detail counted 264 bodies along a stretch of about fifty-five yards. Brown may have resented having his valor rewarded with this grisly obligation, as units were sometimes assigned to burial duty in response to some military infraction or shortcoming. S. M. Whistler of the 130th Pennsylvania ruefully reported that three days after the Battle of Antietam his regiment, “by reason of having incurred the displeasure of its brigade commander, was honored in the appointment as undertaker-in-chief” for a “particular part of the field.” In a gesture that was at once practical and punitive, officers often ordered prisoners of war to bury their own dead. A Confederate officer, for example, after an engagement later in the war, seemed to take satisfaction from the discomfort of Union prisoners “assigned to bury their neglected dead. The sight of their unburied comrades rotting in the woods & fields revolted them.”11


“Antietam. Bodies of Confederate Dead Gathered for Burial.” Photograph by Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.

Origen Bingham of the 137th Pennsylvania was comparatively rested after the Battle of Antietam because his regiment had been held in reserve. But then he and his men found themselves confronting “the most disagreeable duty that could have been assigned to us; tongue cannot describe the horible sight.” The soldiers had been killed on Wednesday, September 17; the 137th arrived on the field on Sunday. Although Union corpses had already been interred, probably by their own units and comrades, hundreds of Confederates remained. Bingham secured permission from the provost marshal’s office to buy liquor for his men because he believed they would be able to carry out their orders only if they were drunk. These were hardly conditions that encouraged respectful treatment of the deceased, and indeed ribald jokes and inebriated revelry abounded. Another burial party, overwhelmed by the number of bodies, tried a different means of making its task manageable. A squad of exhausted Union soldiers threw fifty-eight Confederates down the well of a local farmer who had unwisely abandoned his premises.12

The Battle of Gettysburg the following summer presented an even greater challenge, for the fighting stretched over three days, delaying attention to the dead as military demands on the living continued unabated. By July 4, an estimated six million pounds of human and animal carcasses lay strewn across the field in the summer heat, and a town of 2,400 grappled with 22,000 wounded who remained alive but in desperate condition. One Union medical officer, who was assuming responsibility for burying those he could not save, reported that he lacked even basic tools: “I had not a shovel or a pick…I was compelled to send a foraging party to the farmhouses, who, after a day’s labor, procured two shovels and an ax.” So many bodies lay unburied that a surgeon described the atmosphere as almost intolerable. Residents of the surrounding area complained of a “stench” that persisted from the time of the battle in July until the coming of frost in October. A young boy remembered that everyone “went about with a bottle of pennyroyal or peppermint oil” to counteract the smell.13

Responsibility for the dead usually fell to the victor, for it was his army that held the field. Early in the war soldiers expressed outrage when the defeated abandoned their comrades without providing for their burial. “No set of heathens in the world was ever guilty of such acts,” a Georgia soldier proclaimed after First Bull Run in July 1861. “They never did come back to bury the first one of their dead.” This was a scruple abandoned as rapidly as the bodies themselves. “I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield,” Union major general Meade baldly declared after his army’s costly success at Gettysburg in July 1863. When two of his comrades were shot down trying to retrieve the body of their colonel near Winchester in 1862, Confederate Theodore Fogel explained to his parents, “I knew it was not right to expose myself in that way. Colonel Holmes was dead, and it was not right for us to risk our lives simply to get his body off the field.” The needs of the living increasingly trumped the dignity of the departed.14


Black soldiers serving as burial detail. “Burying the Dead Under a Flag of Truce, Petersburg, 1864.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 3, 1864.

Practical realities dictated that retreating armies did not have time to attend to the dead but had to depend on the humanity of their opponents, who predictably gave precedence to their own casualties. This discrimination arose largely from ties of feeling with departed comrades, but there may have been an element of tactical calculation as well. Confederate surgeon John Wyeth described how by the end of the long night after the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, “most of the Confederate dead had been gathered in long trenches and buried; but the Union dead were still lying where they fell. For its effect on the survivors it was the policy of the victor to hide his own losses and let those of the other side be seen.” Sometimes, especially if armies found themselves on the move, enemy dead were not buried at all but were left to rot in places where troops found their bones as they circled back over ground where earlier engagements had been fought. Frank Oakley of Wisconsin encountered skeletons from the First Battle of Bull Run as he fought the Second thirteen months later; soldiers at Spotsylvania and the Wilderness in 1864 continually stumbled upon human debris from the Chancellorsville battle that had taken place almost exactly a year before.15

Armies developed burial techniques intended to make the daunting task of disposal of bodies manageable, but these procedures seemed horrifying even to many of those who executed them. Burial parties customarily collected the dead in a single location on the field by tying each soldier’s legs together, passing the rope around his torso, and then dragging him to a row of assembled bodies. A bayonet, heated and bent into a hook, could keep a soldier from having to touch what was often a putrescent corpse. The burial detail might then dig a grave, place a body in the hole, cover it with dirt from the next grave, and continue until the line of corpses was covered. But such individuation was usually reserved for one’s comrades and for circumstances where sufficient time and resources were available. Enemy dead were more likely to be buried in large pits. G. R. Lee described the procedure in his unit: “long trenches were dug about six feet wide and three to four deep. The dead were rolled on blankets and carried to the trench and laid heads and feet alternating so as to save space. Old blankets were thrown over the pile of bodies and the earth thrown on top.” One soldier worried that the process as he witnessed it after Shiloh reduced men to the status of animals or perhaps even vegetables. “They dig holes,” he wrote, “and pile them in like dead cattle and have teams to draw them together like picking up pumpkins.”16


“Dead Confederate Soldiers Collected for Burial. Spotsylvania, May 1864.” Library of Congress.

Confederates at Gettysburg were buried in trenches containing 150 or more men, often hurled rather than laid to rest. Sometimes the rotting bodies ruptured, compelling burial parties to work elsewhere until the stench had dissipated. Soldiers stomped “on top of the dead straightening out their legs and arms and tramping them down so as to make the hole contain as many as possible.” The press of circumstance could, on occasion, require mass burial even of one’s own men. A Connecticut chaplain remembered a desperate encounter that killed twenty-three of his company during the very last days of the war: “The best that we could do in the brief interval of our stay was to bury our dead hurriedly in a common grave…in a long trench by the wayside, the officers by themselves, and the enlisted men near them.” Mass graves obviously obliterated the names of their occupants, although the living often tried to ensure that personal items remained with the bodies, preserving at least the possibility of later disinterment and identification. Trenches might also be marked, like one at Antietam, with a simple wooden sign indicating “80 rebels buried here.” Customarily, northern and southern soldiers were interred separately; a Union colonel expressed outrage when he discovered an instance of military hospitals burying the dead indiscriminately, with no “distinction between the graves of our Brave men who have died for our cause, and the grave of the worthless invaders of our soil. This,” he proclaimed, “is all wrong.” He could only think this had been the fault of the “Undertaker who cares only to get his money for covering their heads with earth.” Separate sections of the hospital cemetery should be selected “and the bodies kept separate,” he insisted.17

Weary soldiers took advantage of natural trenches and existing declivities. After Second Bull Run eighty-five dead were laid beside a ridge created by a railroad excavation and then “covered by the levelling of the embankment over them as the most expeditious manner of burial.” James Eldred Phillips of Virginia described burying the dead in the spring 1863 campaign by placing men “down in deep gulleys on either side of the road and the dirt was dug from the side to cover them over.” But spring storms followed, and Phillips learned, “after getting some distance down the road,” that “heavy rainfall had washed up all of the men that were buried in the gulley…and carried them down toward Fredericksburg.”18

Haste and carelessness frequently yielded graves so shallow that bodies and skeletons reappeared, as rain and wind eroded the soil sheltering the dead and hogs rooted around battlefields in search of human remains. For men buried on the field, coffins were out of the question; a blanket was the most a man could hope for as a shroud. As a northern relief worker reported about burials in Virginia in 1864, “None have been buried in coffins since the campaign commenced.” At war’s outset, many Americans would have designated the coffin as the basic marker of the “decency” that distinguished human from animal interment, and they would have agreed with John J. Hardin, an Indiana volunteer, who found it “dreadful…to see the poor soldier just thrown in a ditch an covered over without any box.”19


“A Burial Trench at Gettysburg.” Photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Library of Congress.

Burials like these dehumanized the dead and appalled many of the living. A Union chaplain observed that in pit burials bodies were “covered over much the same as farmers cover potatoes and roots to preserve them from the frost of winter; with this exception, however: the vegetables really get more tender care…Circumstances prevent such tenderness from being extended to the fallen hero.” Frequently corpses were quite literally naked—or clad only in underwear, which still permitted a distinction between Yankee and Confederate corpses, for northerners customarily wore wool and southerners cotton. Soldiers desperate for clothing robbed the dead with little feeling of propriety or remorse, and thieves and scavengers appeared on battlefields immediately after the end of hostilities. At the end of the Battle of Franklin in 1864 needy Confederate soldiers even stripped the bodies of their own generals, six of whom lay dead on the field. Captured at Spotsylvania, Union surgeon Daniel Holt recognized a friend among the two hundred dead Yankees “stretched out before a trench half full of water into which they were to be thrown at the convenience of their captor. Entirely naked.”20


“Rebel Soldiers After Battle ‘Peeling’ (i.e. Stripping ) the Fallen Union Soldiers.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 13, 1864.

Soldiers worried that the piles of dead might include those still living, unable to speak or let their presence be known or “extricate themselves from their former comrades.” William Gore of New York related the frightening experience of a fellow soldier in Virginia who described a “narrow escape from the grave” already dug, when a nurse happened to intervene and indicate she would arrange to have his body sent home to friends. While he lay awaiting shipment, he returned to consciousness—and soon to duty. Since at least the late eighteenth century Americans had displayed deep anxiety about premature burial, devising coffins with bells and special protocols for resuscitation to prevent interment of the living. These concerns represented a fundamental uncertainty about the boundary between life and death, a doubt that included the metaphysical quandaries of immortality, as well as the physiological definition of vitality. Coming to terms with the Civil War’s death toll began for many Americans with the difficulty of simply identifying and recognizing the end of life.21

When bodies remained in the control of their comrades and when troops were not hurried off to new encounters, dead soldiers fared better. Companies and regiments regularly preempted officially designated burial details by assuming responsibility for their own dead. Frequently closest comrades had sworn to provide one another with “a decent burial,” and men searched the field in the nights and days after great battles to locate missing friends and relatives. Soldiers did the best they could to make such interments respectful. A comrade of Private Albert Frost of the Third Maine described his efforts when he discovered Frost missing after the third day at Gettysburg. He and a companion received permission to return to where they had last seen Frost alive.

We found him face down and with many others the flesh eaten (in that hot climate) by maggots, but not so bad but that we could recognize him. When we went to bury him, all we could find to dig a grave was an old hoe in a small building. The bottom of the grave was covered with empty knapsacks, then we laid in our beloved brother and covered him with another knapsack, and over all put as much earth as we could find. The grave was dug at the foot of a large tree. We then found a piece of a hard wood box cover and cut his name on it with a jacknife and nailed it to the tree at the head of his grave.22

Albert Frost’s burial illustrates many of the central components of what we might call friendly burial on the field. His comrades expended considerable effort and ingenuity to provide him the dignity of an individual and identifiable grave. They tried to compensate for the general unavailability of coffins in the immediate aftermath of battle by using abandoned knapsacks to shield him from direct contact with the earth, thus providing the covering critical to the notion of a “decent burial”—of a human rather than an animal.

In the earliest years of the war, when coffinless burials had not yet become commonplace, Yankees and Confederates alike expressed their distress and struggled to find acceptable substitutes. One inventive Union soldier, unwilling to permit his uncle to be buried without some barrier between his body and the bare earth, discovered a hollow log to serve as a coffin. By the time of Gettysburg, Albert Frost’s companions had abandoned all hope of even a substitute coffin and simply covered the body. The soldiers chose a spot near a tree—no doubt as much to serve as a landmark as an aesthetic feature of the gravesite—and they tried as well to mark the place of burial. Wooden panels from boxes of hardtack (the “cast-iron” crackers that served as an army staple), pieces of board from ammunition boxes, and crossed fence rails all routinely became makeshift grave markers.

Some soldiers enacted other rituals of respect for the dead: brief prayers either with or without the participation of a chaplain. Confederate Thomas Key described the burial of two soldiers in 1864 accompanied by Bible readings, prayers, and a hymn “in the midst of a heavy cannonading and singing of minié balls.” James Houghton of Michigan, “wishing to know that my tent mate was deasently buried,” returned to the field after Gettysburg and found that others had already performed the task in the course of interring dozens of his fellow soldiers. Houghton was satisfied that “all the painess possible was taken in their burial…in some cases their Blody garments were removed and washed and dried on limbs of treas then Replased.” Nurses in field hospitals performed services over the dead when time and circumstances permitted, but as the conflict wore on, these opportunities seemed to diminish. For months after assuming her duties, Confederate Fannie Beers explained, “I insisted upon attending every dead soldier to the grave and reading over him a part of the burial service. But it had now [by the fall of 1862] become impossible. The dead were past help; the living always needed succor.”23

In their efforts to find and honor comrades amid the bodies of thousands, soldiers demonstrated their resistance to the war’s casual erasure of the meaning of individual human life. As a Connecticut chaplain revealingly explained,


Coffined and coffinless dead side by side. The former were likely officers. “Burial of Federal Dead. Fredericksburg, 1864.” Photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Library of Congress.

To say that two thousand or twenty thousand men are killed in a great battle, or that a thousand of the dead are buried in one great trench, produces only a vague impression on the mind at the fullest. There is too much in this to be truly personal to you. But to know one man who is shot down by your side, and to aid in burying him, while his comrades stand with you above his open grave, is a more real matter to you than the larger piece of astounding information.24

Soldiers paid homage to their dead comrades out of respect for the slain men, endeavoring to reclaim the individual and what Harper’s had called “its…selfhood” from the impersonal and overwhelming carnage. But they also did it for themselves: to reassert their own commitment to the sanctity of human life and the integrity of the human self. They were reaffirming the larger purposes of their own existence and survival and hoping that if they were killed others would similarly honor them.

But some individuals inevitably seemed to matter more than others. Officers received privileged treatment on the field—at the hands of the enemy, who customarily returned their bodies, as well as from their own men. In 1864 J. W. McClure of South Carolina described to his wife a practice common throughout the war: a flag of truce used for the exchange of “bodies of prominent officers” who had been killed and left in enemy hands. By contrast, when Robert Gould Shaw died leading his black troops in an assault on Fort Wagner in 1863, Confederates explicitly dishonored him and his abolitionist commitments by refusing to surrender his body and interring it in a trench with his black soldiers.25

Both Union and Confederates provided their own dead officers with privileged treatment. In Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, where men were brought from surrounding battlefields throughout the war, the informal practice of burying officers together and apart from their men soon led to the establishment of an officially separate Officers’ Section. After the Battle of Cedar Mountain in 1862 most of the Federal dead lay unburied for days, although the bodies of their officers were packed in charcoal and sent to Washington, where they were to be placed in metallic coffins and shipped to their homes across the North. Confederate Charles Kerrison described a similar differentiation in treatment according to rank when he attempted to retrieve the body of his brother Edwin, a private killed in the spring of 1864. When one of four officers for whom metallic coffins had been provided proved lost, Kerrison hoped he might appropriate the surplus casket for Edwin. But he seemingly never questioned that a higher-ranking soldier should have been provided a coffin while his brother had none. A Texas soldier was less accepting. “The officers get the honor,” he wrote, “you get nothing. They get a monument, you get a hole in the ground and no coffin.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, searching for his son in the bloody aftermath of Antietam, took these contrasts for granted: “The slain of higher condition, ‘embalmed’ and iron cased, were sliding off the railways to their far homes; the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth.”26

A Commission of Inquiry investigating the conditions of Union prisoners of war in 1864 reported that these distinctions persisted and perhaps even intensified in captivity. Dead Yankee enlisted men at one prison camp were thrown into a cellar where they might be devoured by rats and dogs before being carted off for burial, while officers, “secured by contributions, made up among themselves, metallic coffins and a decent, temporary deposit in a vault…until they could be removed to the North.” This systematic privileging of rank marked the fact that an officer was in a quite literal sense some body. When captured Yankee surgeon Daniel Holt watched Confederate burial squads deny that identity to a group of his dead comrades, he forcefully articulated his conviction that their status in life ought to have carried over into death. “It is a sad, sad sight,” he wrote to his wife, “to see men who at home occupied position and place, possessing wealth…deposited as they are here, in the ground, with nothing but a blanket and mother earth over them.” Coffins, embalming, shipment home, a marked and honored grave: these were the privileges that Civil War Americans were most eager to provide their dead comrades and kin.27

It was not just soldiers who had to deal with the dead in the days after fighting ceased. Combat respected no boundaries, spreading across farms, fields, and orchards, into gardens and streets, presenting civilians with bodies in their front yards, in their wells, covering their corn or cotton fields. The capacities of existing cemeteries in towns like Richmond and Atlanta were taxed, then exceeded, as communities struggled to provide graves for the escalating numbers of the fallen.


“A Contrast: Federal Buried, Confederate Unburied, Where They Fell on the Battlefield of Antietam.” Caption and photograph by Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.

After three days of battle Gettysburg confronted the problem of 7,000 slain men and 3,000 dead horses, far too many for Union troops—who held the field as Lee rapidly retreated southwards—to inter with adequate dispatch. Civilians joined in the burial of the dead out of both sympathy and necessity. Fifty Confederates lay on George Rose’s fields; seventy-nine North Carolinians had fallen in a perfect line on John Forney’s farm; the widow Leister confronted fifteen dead horses in her front yard; Joseph Sherfy’s barn, which had been used as a field hospital, was left a burnt ruin, with “crisped and blackened limbs, heads and other portions of bodies” clearly visible in the rubble.28


One of the estimated 1.5 million horses and mules killed in the war. Sketch by Alfred R. Waud. Library of Congress.

No single Virginia battle matched Gettysburg’s toll of killed and wounded, but the fighting in the corridor between Washington and Richmond extended over years rather than days, incorporating local residents into what seemed to be a permanent landscape of war. The Peninsula Campaign of 1862 compelled Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery to acquire additional acreage in order to provide for the soldiers dying in nearby battles as well as in the city’s numerous military hospitals. Sometimes the pressure of burials at Hollywood became so great that as many as two hundred bodies would be awaiting interment. Chaplain Joseph Walker explained how he worked to be at once respectful and efficient in his treatment of the dead. “It was our habit to have one service for several bodies that were uncovered in adjacent graves varying the service to suit the numbers, or have a general service over the coffins while still above ground.” Strangers visiting the cemetery often joined these observances, providing mourners for those who had died far from home and claiming their lives and sacrifice for the broader community of Virginia and the South.29

The emergence of this impersonal connection with the dead, one independent of any direct ties of kin or friendship, was a critical evolution in the understanding of war’s carnage. The soldiers being interred did not belong just to their friends and relatives; their loss was more than just a diminution of their own families; these men were more than simply individual selves. In rituals like those at Hollywood, the fallen were being transformed into an imagined community for the Confederacy, becoming a collective in which a name or identity was no longer necessary. These men were now part of the Confederate Dead, a shadow nation of sacrificed lives to be honored and invoked less for themselves than for the purposes of the nation and the society struggling to survive them. These soldiers could no longer contribute to the South’s military effort, but they would serve other important political and cultural purposes in providing meaning for the war and its costs.30

One instance of a southern soldier buried by strangers became quite literally iconic, first within the Civil War South and then in the maintenance of Confederate memory after the war. The Burial of Latané, painted by Virginian William D. Washington in 1864, portrays the interment of a young lieutenant, killed during J. E. B. Stuart’s legendary ride around McClellan’s army during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. William Latané, the only Confederate casualty of the expedition, was left behind enemy lines, amid civilians surrounded by Union forces. Slaves built his coffin and dug his grave, and a white Virginia matron read the burial service over his remains. The women in attendance were all socially prominent, and the story became well known in nearby Richmond. Poet John Thompson, a former editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, commemorated the event in broadside verse extolling those

Strangers, yet sisters, who with Mary’s love

Sat by the open tomb and weeping looked above.


Gently they laid him underneath the sod

And left him with his fame, his country, and his God.31

Artist Washington decided in 1864 to portray the incident in paint and assembled a number of Richmond ladies to pose for his effort. The completed canvas was first hung in his small Richmond studio, where it attracted “throngs of visitors” eager to see this depiction of Christian and Confederate sacrifice. Soon the press of crowds forced its relocation to the halls of the Confederate capitol. There a bucket was placed beneath the painting for contributions to the Confederate cause. After the war Washington arranged for engravings of the painting. These were widely distributed in a promotional effort undertaken by the Southern Magazine, a publication founded in 1871 to honor Confederate memory. The prints enjoyed what historian Frank Vandiver has called “fantastic popularity” and became a standard decorative item in late-nineteenth-century white southern homes.32


The Burial of Latané, 1864. Painting by William D. Washington. The Johnson Collection.

Created in the midst of war, the painting undertook important cultural work, linking southern war death to Christian tradition and iconography through the representation of a Confederate pietà. The black slaves and white women whom Washington depicted burying the Confederate hero represented the artist’s effort to impart broader meaning to Latané’s demise by connecting it to a community that extended well beyond the white men who had fought alongside him. By 1864 both the Confederacy and the institution of slavery were disintegrating, rendering Washington’s depiction of home front solidarity and military glory at once illusory and telling. The painting seeks to define and celebrate Confederate nationalism, identifying the soldier’s corpse as at once the source of and the meaning for the body politic.

The women who buried Latané found themselves conscripted into the work of death by a war that invaded their homes and communities. Other civilians volunteered, traveling from afar by the hundreds, determined that their loved ones not suffer and die among strangers. Many families of moderate means flocked to battlefields in order to reclaim bodies, encase them in coffins, and escort them home. A focus of wonder and horror, battle sites in fact became crowded with civilians immediately after the cessation of hostilities: besides relatives in search of kin, there were scavengers seeking to rob the dead, entrepreneurial coffin makers and embalmers, and swarms of tourists attracted by the hope of experiencing the “sublimity of a battle scene” or simply, as one disgusted soldier put it, “gratifying their morbid curiosity.” A Massachusetts soldier who lay suffering in an Antietam field hospital after the amputation of his leg clearly resented these gawkers. “People come from all parts of the country. Stare at us but do not find time to do anything,” he complained.33

But most civilians appeared out of earnest desperation to locate and care for loved ones. The death of relatives far away from families and kin was, as we have seen, particularly disruptive to fundamental nineteenth-century understandings of the Good Death, assumptions closely tied to the Victorian emphasis on the importance of home and domesticity. Moreover, inadequacies in the means of reporting casualties in both North and South reinforced civilians’ desire to repossess the bodies of loved ones in order to be certain they were truly dead and had not just been misidentified. As a South Carolina woman wrote in anguish to her sister, “O Mag you don’t know how sorry I am about Kits dying I cant think of nothing else…did they open the coffin it looks like you all ought to have seen for certain whether it was him or not and how he was put away.”34


“Maryland and Pennsylvania Farmers Visiting the Battlefield of Antietam While the National Troops Were Burying the Dead and Carrying Off the Wounded.” From a sketch by F. H. Schell. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 18, 1862.

At the beginning of the war, when losses were still expected to be small in number, several states in the North announced their determination to bring every slain soldier home. As late as 1863 Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin of Pennsylvania declared that, at the family’s request, the state would pay the cost of removing a body from Gettysburg for reburial within the state, and several other northern states sent official agents to assist citizens in the removal of their lost kin. In response to early deaths the members of some army units joined in informal arrangements for returning bodies to loved ones. In November 1861 a Union regiment “voted…to raise money enough to send home the body of everyone who dies,” and in 1862 a Pennsylvania soldier wrote his parents that he and his comrades had contributed $140 to embalm and ship the bodies of two soldiers killed in his company.35

Mounting death tolls soon made such sweeping intentions unrealizable. A number of both state-aided and voluntary organizations, such as the Pennsylvania State Agency, the Louisiana Soldiers Relief Association, the Central Association of South Carolina, and the New England Soldiers Relief Association, nevertheless continued to help individual citizens bring their loved ones home. Late in 1863, for example, the record books of the Pennsylvania State Agency noted funds advanced to Alice Watts to transport her and her “husband Thomas Watts late a private” in the 24th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Cities and towns sometimes offered desperate residents assistance as well.36

In the North, as casualties mounted and war grew more intense, the Sanitary Commission played an increasingly significant role in burials and in handling the dead. This enormous philanthropic organization and its network of thousands of volunteers and hundreds of paid agents worked to provide needed supplies and assistance to soldiers. Sometimes agents in the field assumed care of hospital graveyards and registries of death; others worked to arrange for burials in the aftermath of battle; still others assisted families in locating lost loved ones and providing for their shipment home.37

After the bloody battles in the West during the last year and a half of the war, Sanitary Commission agents in Chattanooga, for example, worked with a network of their counterparts in northern cities to return Union soldiers’ remains. M. C. Read arranged for disinterment of bodies, embalmers’ services, metallic cases, and shipping costs, telegraphing families when their loved ones were at last en route home. “body of maj. r. robbins goes north today,” he wired on June 16, 1864. Often families deposited funds with a commission agent in the North to cover anticipated expenditures associated with locating and returning kin and to avoid the difficulties of transferring money to the front.38

During a six-month period in 1864 the Chattanooga office handled thirty-four requests for disinterments, chiefly though not exclusively the bodies of officers. In October Mary Brayton, a Sanitary Commission worker in Cleveland, wrote in search of Henry Diebolt of Company A, 27th Ohio, who had been killed May 28 in Dallas, Georgia. “The grave is about 11/2 miles from Dallas near the cemetery & has a headboard properly marked,” she explained. “Metallic case preferred. Forward soon as possible.” The family of George Moore of Illinois had more specific and personal requests. “Have the undertaker secure a lock of his hair as a memento,” the commission agent wrote. “Let his face be uncovered, and inform us when the body is shipped.”39

When armies moved operations, commission agents often made records of camp graveyards so that soldiers’ bodies might at some future point be reclaimed. Orange Judd gathered details of burials when the Union army undertook a “change of base” from Belle Plain, Virginia, in May 1864, and he assembled them into an elaborate map. The graves had been marked with headboards made of cracker boxes and inscribed with penciled names, but Judd feared these might easily be “obliterated by storm or by the enemy” if the ground changed hands. His effort, he hoped, would “enable friends to find the bodies indicated.” He outlined twenty-six graves, mostly with names and regiments attached. Six bodies remained unknown, but he offered descriptions that he thought might prove useful. “About 23; Black hair, Intelligent Countenance, Buried May 15.” In nearby Port Royal commission records of another cemetery mapped twenty-three graves, including three plots occupied by soldiers who had arrived in ambulances “with their pockets cut off and all records gone.” They had been robbed of both their possessions and their identities while they lay on the field. With the departure of Union troops from the vicinity imminent, the commission agent reported, “the graves were put under the guard of george Smith A colored man who lives just south of the ground & who will do all he is allowed to do to keep them in order.”40

The resources of the Sanitary Commission stretched only so far, however. For the most part the bereaved were forced to rely upon themselves and upon the emerging network of embalmers, undertakers, and private “agents,” who followed the armies, finding work and profit for themselves in assisting grieving families who had little idea of how to find or retrieve their lost husbands, brothers, and sons. Undertaker W. R. Cornelius, who worked regularly with the Sanitary Commission in Tennessee, also offered his services to families directly. He reported that he “shipped colonels, majors, captains and privates by the carload some days,” sending them both to the Union and to the Confederacy. Sometimes families procured friends to locate missing loved ones and arrange for the return of bodies; sometimes they set off themselves, often arriving at the battlefield unsure whether they had come to nurse a wounded man or to transport his body home.41

In March 1863 Henry Bowditch left Boston by train as soon as he received a telegram reporting that his son Nathaniel had been wounded. “dangerous. come at once,” a cousin and fellow soldier had wired. “It was like a dagger in my heart when I first heard the horrible news,” the father wrote. But in the course of the trip Bowditch grew hopeful and “bought books and papers calculated to amuse a wounded man.” When he descended onto the platform in Washington, however, a friend who met him brought the news that Nathaniel was dead. Bowditch, a prominent physician who had himself volunteered his medical services in Virginia the preceding fall, was taken by train and wagon to the camp of the First Massachusetts Cavalry, where he was reunited with his dead son. There he was able to gain some comfort by hearing from Nat’s fellow officers “beautiful things” about his courage and his profession of faith and hope as he died. Yet he still found himself almost incapacitated by the shock of Nat’s death. “I scarcely know what to think or do,” he wrote his wife. “I seem almost stunned by the news.” Eventually Nathaniel Bowditch’s embalmed body was shipped home and buried beneath a stone likeness of his saber in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.42

Even those of privilege and position faced challenges as they sought to retrieve and honor their dead. Henry Bowditch, already distressed by the lack of ambulances and more general provision for the wounded in the Union army, now saw the direct results of this lack of system in the death of his son, who had lain unattended on the field. His son’s death, he recognized, gave him “greater moral influence” to pursue his cause. The state, he insisted in a pamphlet published in the fall of 1863, had an obligation to its soldiers. “If any government under Heaven ought to be paternal, the United States authority, deriving, as it does, all its powers from the people, should surely be such, and should dispense that power, in full streams of benignant mercy upon its soldiers.” Bowditch’s arguments not only contributed to the establishment of a comprehensive ambulance system by the following year but articulated a logic of obligation that applied not just to the wounded but also to the dead.43

Stanley Abbott’s brother left home under circumstances very like Bowditch’s, after being notified by a telegram that Stanley had been wounded in the chest at Gettysburg. Although the message insisted, “Doctor says not mortal,” Abbott died the next day. His brother arrived promptly enough to find his grave easily. Procuring a coffin was more difficult, however, for thousands of other parents, wives, and siblings were searching for them as well. After five days he at last succeeded and shipped his brother home, one of an estimated fifteen hundred Yankee bodies privately expressed to relatives after Gettysburg, even though the commanding Union officer ultimately felt compelled to prohibit disinterments in the heat of August and September in deference to the “health of the…community.”44

Confederate officers were often retrieved and escorted home by slaves who had accompanied them into service. More than six thousand blacks traveled with Lee’s army into Pennsylvania in 1863, and Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, who had himself brought two slaves with him from the South, described the scene at the end of the battle: “Negro servants hunting for their masters were a feature of the landscape that night.” Elijah, property of Colonel Isaac Avery, was determined to bring his body back to North Carolina, but in the chaos of Lee’s retreat he managed to get the corpse only as far as Maryland, where it was buried. Peter, who belonged to General James Johnston Pettigrew, and Joe, owned by General William Dorsey Pender, were more successful; both accompanied their masters’ remains home to the South after their deaths in the Gettysburg campaign.45

The Adams Express Company and its Confederate counterpart, the Southern Express, did a booming business during the war, establishing careful and elaborate regulations for the safe and sanitary transport of bodies. At the beginning of the conflict many bodies were shipped in wooden coffins, but weather and delays created situations that led Adams to require metal caskets. Joseph Jeffries was one of dozens of entrepreneurs who flocked to Gettysburg after the battle to sell their services in retrieving and shipping bodies. He advertised “METALLIC COFFINS…Warranted Air-Tight” that would not only meet shipping requirements but could “be placed in the Parlor without fear of any odor escaping therefrom.” A “zinc-lined box covered with cloth plated mounting” for expressing Captain R. G. Goodwin of Massachusetts cost fifty dollars in 1862, no small sum even for a person of some means. No wonder one shipping agent, at least, continued to be presented with wooden coffins. He responded by creating a small cemetery to hold the bodies he could not send and, in one particularly demanding week, buried more than forty men. At the end of the war these bodies were at last disinterred and returned to their families.46

Bowen Moon of New York refused to be daunted by shipping regulations when he went in search of his brother-in-law William Salisbury after Antietam. A soldier from Salisbury’s regiment described his dead comrade’s gravesite, and Moon managed to purchase a serviceable, if not elegant, wooden coffin from one of several local carpenters now devoting themselves to filling the sudden and almost overwhelming demand. Moon hired a local farmer to help him exhume the body. Even though Salisbury shared his grave with two other men and even though two weeks had passed since the battle, Moon was able to identify him with little difficulty. But he faced an unexpected setback when the railroad refused to accept the consignment, insisting it “did not carry dead bodies that had begun to decompose.” Moon caulked the coffin, bribed the baggage manager, and succeeded in bringing Salisbury’s remains home.47

Some Americans had attempted before the war to preserve bodies by using coffins that rested corpses on ice, and such inventions grew ever more elaborate as families sought to retrieve growing numbers of war dead for burial at home. The Staunton Transportation Company, for example, distributed handbills to civilians thronging Gettysburg in July and August 1863, promising that its new “Transportation Case preserves the body in a natural state and [as] perfect condition as when placed in it for any distance or length of time in any weather.” The case was “so arranged as to readily expose the face of the dead for inspection,” and the broadside promised that it would seem “as though the subject had died on the day of arrival at home.” It worked because “ITS CONSTRUCTION makes it a portable refrigerator.” J. B. Staunton offered a variety of other services to the bereaved: regular coffins, “exhumers and guides who had surveyed the whole Battle-field,” as well as “Deodorizers and Army Disinfectionists.”48

But even the elaborate refrigeration mechanism of the Staunton Transportation Case could not rival the advances in bodily preservation achieved by the spread of embalming. Significant technological advances had been made in the process in the years just prior to the war, as Americans adopted and patented chemical embalming procedures that had been known in Europe since the first decades of the century. In the 1850s embalming had been chiefly used not to prepare bodies for funerals but to contribute to the study of anatomy and pathology by providing cadavers preserved for dissection. It was during the war that embalming first became more widely practiced, not just generating a transformation in physical treatment of the dead but establishing a procedure that would serve as a foundation for the emergence of the funeral industry and the professionalization of the undertaker.


Staunton Transportation Company. “Transportation of the Dead!” The Library of Company of Philadelphia.

But more was operating here than purely practical concerns about how to arrest decomposition of bodies in order to ship them home. Americans did not want to endure the unprecedented separation from deceased kin that war had introduced. Families sought to see their lost loved ones in as lifelike a state as possible, not just to be certain of their identity but also to bid them farewell. Embalming offered families a way to combat at least some of the threats the war posed to the principles of the Good Death. To contemplate one’s husband, father, or son in a state of seemingly sleeplike repose was a means of resisting death’s terror—and even, to a degree, its reality; it offered a way of blurring the boundary between life and death. Corpses, at least those that had not been dismembered in combat, could be made to look lifelike, could be made to appear as if they were on the verge of awakening in a new life to come.49

Embalming attracted attention early in the war when the body of Union colonel Elmer Ellsworth, killed in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 24, 1861, by a Confederate sympathizer, was preserved. Ellsworth had been a law clerk in Lincoln’s Springfield office, and the press, in this moment before casualties became commonplace, detailed every aspect of his death, from his heroic sacrifice of life, to the honoring of his body in state in the White House, to his lifelike corpse. His embalmer, Thomas Holmes, became the best-known practitioner of the war, setting up an establishment in Washington, D.C., where he embalmed more than four thousand soldiers at a price of one hundred dollars each. The war made him a wealthy man.50

Neither the Union nor the Confederate government routinely provided for embalming deceased soldiers. Surgeons would sometimes offer this service to prominent individuals who died in army hospitals, and the undertakers contracted by the federal government to assist with disposal of the dead might do embalming for a fee charged to grieving families or comrades. In a spirit of benevolent paternalism, Union officers sometimes arranged for special care of the bodies of their men. For example, a captain left directions with a nurse at a hospital of the Army of the Potomac, “TO THE EMBALMER AT FALMOUTH STATION: You will please embalm the body of Elijah Clifford, a private of my company. Do it properly and well, and as soon as it is done send me word, and I will pay your bill at once. I do not want this body expensively embalmed, but well done, as I shall send it to Philadelphia.” For a private, “well done” was seemingly good enough.51

Embalming remained much rarer in the Confederacy than in the North, no doubt because the invaded South was compelled to focus more directly on survival than on elaborate treatments of the dead. But embalmers advertised throughout the war in the Richmond press, announcing their readiness to perform “disinfections” and directing potential customers to newly opened field offices on the sites of recent battles. Dr. William MacClure promised “persons at a distance” that “bodies of the dead” would be “Disinterred, Disinfected, and sent home” from “any place within the Confederacy.” While the southern funeral industry remained far less developed and embalming far less common than in the North well into the twentieth century, the oldest funeral home in the South, G. A. Diuguid and Sons in Lynchburg, Virginia, handled 1,251 soldiers in 1862, including both Union and Confederates embalmed and sent home for burial.52


Business card for undertaker Lewis Ernde, Hagerstown, Maryland. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

The Virginia battlefields provided a booming business for undertakers of both North and South, and Washington, D.C., included three embalmers in its 1863 City Directory. Dr. F. A. Hutton of 451 Pennsylvania Avenue took a full page to advertise his services. “Bodies Embalmed by us NEVER TURN BLACK! But retain their natural color and appearance…so as to admit of contemplation of the person Embalmed, with the countenance of one asleep.” Embalming promised to transform death into slumber. Like MacClure, Hutton pledged “particular attention paid to obtaining bodies of those who have fallen on the Battle Field.” Embalmers advertised both themselves and the process by exhibiting preserved bodies—often unknown dead simply collected from the field and embalmed—as Thomas Holmes did on undertakers’ premises in downtown Washington, in Georgetown, and in Alexandria. Happily, no record survives of an unsuspecting mother or wife coming upon her lost loved one displayed in a store window.53

For all its increase in popularity, embalming provoked ambivalence and suspicion. Embalmers were frequently accused of extortionate and dubious practices, and they were disturbing, too, in their intimacy with the dead. A Yankee reporter revealingly described his encounter with an embalmer who was following Union troops toward Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. “He was a sedate, grave person, and when I saw him, standing over the nude…corpse, he reminded me of the implacable vulture…His battery and tube were pulsing like ones heart and lungs, and the subject was being drained at the neck…‘If you could only make him breathe, Professor,’ said an officer standing by. The dry skin of the embalmer broke into chalky dimples, and he grinned very much as a corpse might do: ‘Ah!’ he said, ‘then there would be money made.’” Public discomfort with embalmers appeared most often in regard to this issue of money and the unsettling commodification of the dead that their business represented. In an expression of dismay at the war’s emerging market of death, a Yankee newspaperman reported—and, one suspects, at least partly invented—a conversation with an especially ambitious and frank embalmer: “‘I would be glad to prepare private soldiers. They were wuth a five dollar bill apiece. But, Lord bless you, a colonel pays a hundred, and a brigadier-general two hundred. There’s lots of them now, and I have cut the acquaintance of everything below a major. I might,’ he added, ‘as a great favor, do a captain, but he must pay a major’s price. I insist upon that! Such windfalls don’t come every day. There won’t be another such killing for a century.’” Making a killing seemed to be in every sense the work at hand.54

The U.S. Army was deluged with anguished protests from families of dead soldiers who believed they had been cheated by embalmers operating near the battlefront. An officer at City Point, Virginia, protested to Inspector James A. Hardie in 1864 that “scarcely a week passes that I do not receive complaints against one or another of these embalmers…[They] are regarded by the medical department of the army generally as an unmitigated nuisance…the whole system as practised here is one of pretension, swindling, and extortion.” In 1863 a case was lodged against Hutton & Williams, “EMBALMERS OF THE DEAD” in Washington. Hutton was imprisoned and the company’s records were seized. The suit alleged that the pair regularly recovered and embalmed soldiers without permission and then demanded payment from grieving families, threatening to disinter or refuse to return the bodies if their conditions were not met.


“Embalming Surgeon at Work on Soldier’s Body.” Library of Congress.

In the fall of 1864 Timothy Dwight of New York pursued a grievance with Secretary of War Stanton against Dr. Richard Burr, a prominent Washington embalmer, claiming that Burr was guilty of extortion for preying upon him in his distress after “the loss of a most excellent Boy.” Burr defended his fee of one hundred dollars to the provost marshal, saying his employees had risked their lives recovering the body from near the picket line and then carrying it several hundred yards under fire. He had then disinfected the body “by means of my embalming fluid and charcoal” and enclosed it in a zinc coffin, sealed it, and shipped it—clearly warranting, he insisted, his charges. On January 9, 1865, General Ulysses Grant responded to the chorus of grievances by withdrawing all embalmers’ permits and ordering them beyond the lines. The distances separating the dead and their loved ones nevertheless continued to encourage embalming, in spite of great uneasiness about the practice and widespread hostility toward its practitioners.55


“Dr. Bunnell’s Embalming Establishment in the Field (Army of the James).” Library of Congress.

Embalming was expensive. So were refrigerated cases; so too were trips to battlefields to recover kin. Richer Americans had resources to invest in managing and resisting death that their poorer countrymen and-women lacked. All but taken for granted through much of the war, this differential treatment began to be challenged as the federal government assumed new responsibility for the war dead. In 1862, in response to logistical problems presented by the growing number of bodies, the U.S. Congress passed a measure giving the president power to purchase grounds “and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” Without any appropriation or formal policy with which to implement this legislative action, the War Department established cemeteries as emergency circumstance demanded—chiefly near concentrations of military hospitals where many dead required burial. But under the terms of this measure, five cemeteries of a rather different character were created in the course of the war. These were burial grounds for the dead of a particular battle, usually established when a lull in active operations made such an undertaking possible. Three of these cemeteries, Chattanooga, Stones River, and Knoxville, were created by Union generals, and two, Antietam and Gettysburg, by joint actions of northern states whose citizens had participated in the battles. In each case the purpose of the effort extended well beyond simply meeting the need for disposing of the dead. These cemeteries were intended to memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes. Gettysburg represented a particularly important turning point. The large numbers of casualties in that bloody battle were obviously an important factor in generating action, but it is not insignificant that the carnage had occurred in the North, in a town that had not had the opportunity to grow accustomed to the horrors of the constant warfare that had battered Virginia for two long years. Gettysburg made the dead—and the problem they represented—starkly visible to northern citizens, so many of whom flocked to the small Pennsylvania town in the aftermath of battle. Perhaps even more critical was the fact that the North had resources with which to respond, resources not available to the hard-pressed Confederacy.56

The impetus for the Gettysburg cemetery arose from a meeting of state agents in the weeks after the battle. With financial assistance from Union states that had lost men in the engagement, David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, arranged to purchase seventeen acres adjoining an existing graveyard. In October contracts were let for the reburial of Union soldiers in the new ground at a rate of $1.59 for each body. In November Lincoln journeyed to help dedicate the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. This ceremony and the address that historian Garry Wills has argued “remade America” signaled the beginning of a new significance for the dead in public life. Perhaps the very configuration of the cemetery can explain the force behind this transformation. The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s speech, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station. This was a dramatic departure from the privileging of rank and station that prevailed in the treatment of the war dead and different even from the policies of the Chattanooga cemetery that would be created later in the year.57

The establishment of the Gettysburg cemetery marked the beginning of significant shifts in attitude and policy produced by the nation’s confrontation with Civil War slaughter. Chaplain H. Clay Trumbull wrote of “new lessons” imposed by the necessities of war, as Americans North and South endured and even practiced ways of handling the dead that would previously have seemed unthinkable. Not only did these actions dishonor the slain by treating them more like animals than humans; they diminished the living, who found themselves abandoning commitments and principles that had helped to define their essential selves. Out of the horror of Civil War burials, there grew, even in the midst of the conflict itself, a variety of efforts to resist these unwanted transformations, to establish different sorts of “lessons” as the product of the nation’s experience of war. Civil War Americans worked to change death in ways that ranged from transforming the actual bodies of the dead through embalming to altering the circumstances and conditions of interment by establishing what would become the national cemetery system and a massive postwar reburial program—the latter federally sponsored in the North but also executed on a far smaller scale by private voluntary actions in the South.58

The engagement of the Union government in these matters, first made highly visible in the Gettysburg dedication ceremonies, acknowledged a new public importance for the dead. No longer simply the responsibility of their families, they, and their loss, now belonged to the nation. These men had given their lives that the nation might live; their bodies, repositories of their “selfhood” and “surviving identity,” as Harper’s had put it, deserved the nation’s recognition and care. The dead, as well as the living, had claims upon a government “deriving,” as Henry Bowditch proclaimed in his plea for ambulances, “all its powers from the people.”59

Yet these soldiers’ selfhood and their identity were also inseparable from their names. The project of decently burying the Civil War dead required more than simply interment. The work of locating the missing and naming the tens of thousands of men designated as “unknown” would prove one of the war’s most difficult tasks.

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