Sunday, September 22, 2013

Things were different then

~~Libtaty of Congress
Victorian society in America was aghast at many things and one thing they would certainly have been aghast at could be our dark and gruesome Halloween images. Though Victorians like their drama, they liked their Halloween  light hearted and almost silly,  for people who picnicked in graveyards on Sunday afternoons and where masters of the "ghost story".  

Both Halloween and the ghost story became more popular in this country after the Civil War, and according to the History Channel this was  do at least in part to the many who died and who's bodys were never returned to their families for burial.   Lacking that closure there was always the hope that the loved on would return some day, and many of the ghost stories of the time were about just that.

The following is an article that explains in VERY GRAPHIC DETAIL the problems faced in an time before "dog tags" and refrigeration.


Monday, September 9, 2013

How the Civil War taught us to deal with the business of death.

The American Civil War was a brutal war but it brought on great awareness of how to handle and bury our war hero’s.

The government for both the North and South saw the coming conflict as a war that would not last much more then 90 days. A grave underestimate all around, they would soon would find out that the war would continue with unfathomable loss of life. Neither side was prepared for the numbers of dead that they would suffer.

There was absolutely no structure in place on how to identify or how to handle thousands of dead soldiers.

After word of a battle, whole communities went on a quest for information on who may have become a casualty. With no responsibility on either side for notifying the next of kin, newspapers from both north and south published long lists of the dead after every major engagement, taken from official military reports - which were not always accurate. So people went missing; people went buried unidentified or miss identified and the missing in action disappeared.
Zouave ambulance crews remove the wounded from a battlefield.

Imagine your loved one being 18 years old, he leaves for war, far from home. You later read your sons name in the newspaper as dead. Or maybe you receive a letter from one of his comrades explaining that your son has died and he was buried in a shallow grave or worse, a mass grave upon the battlefield...

Now it is up to you to either let him rest eternally there, to make the trip to yourself to locate his remains, or to possibly pay someone to locate the remains, retrieve them, and hope the that body is successfully shipped back home to you.

One of the major problems was trying to trying to identify the thousands of bodies after a battle since dog tags had not been issued yet. Many men were reported as missing presumed dead only later to be found wounded in a hospital or in a prison after being taken a prisoner of war. It was the responsibility of the field commanders for identification and burial efforts. However, these efforts were not well organized or executed, and were often given low priority.

A privately purchased Civil War ID tag

In order to help them go home if they became a casualty, men would soon start pinning their names inside their coats and some would buy a brass tag from a sutler with their name, regiment and state stamped onto it to. These were not government issued to soldiers. Modern forms of soldier identification, i.e. dog tags would not come about until WWI.

If you could afford shipping the body home you then would be challenged on how to preserve the remains in order to hold a viewing. Bodies were sometimes packed in ice or just shipped in a pine coffins. Nurses would sometimes gather flowers to be placed within the coffin to mask the stench of the decaying remains. Occasionally the people who were hired to locate and ship the remains home would lie about finding the remains and have stones placed within the coffin. This would simulate the weight of a body and ensure a payment for their "efforts". It would be a terrible shock to the family if they decided to get one last look at their loved ones.

Embalming, which was used to preserve for medical studies, would soon be used to preserve remains for shipping... for a price. Thomas Holmes who pitched himself as the father of embalming and was given the rank of captain in
the U.S. Army Medical Corps would charge $50 for an officer and $25 for an enlisted man. As the war continued and embalmers were in high demand, those figures rose to $80 and $30, respectively. Feeling he could make even more money if he worked in the private sector performing the same duties, Holmes resigned his commission and began to charge $100 per embalming.

As surgeons and pharmacists became aware of the profits to be made from embalming, they traded in their instruments for those of embalmers and followed the troops into war. After the battle, the embalmers would converge on the scene and quickly find dead officers to embalm, knowing that the family of an officer would be grateful and able to pay the fee. One embalming company went so far as to try to obtain a government contract to embalm all Federal dead. A bill was introduced to allow the creation of a corps of military undertakers for each division, but it was never passed.

To market embalming, a Washington embalmer showcased an embalmed soldier in a display window for days.

Richard Burr, a Union surgeon who served with the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, became an embalming surgeon when he saw the profit to be made. Known for severely inflating the price of embalming services, he created and distributed handbills after the battle of Anita offering “Embalming for the Dead.” The handbills invited the curious to watch the procedure.

Some remains were sent to the wrong families who were shocked when they opened the wooden coffins to find out that it wasn't their loved ones inside...

One such story "The Stranger" comes from Gray, Maine:

Upon hearing of the death of their loved one the family of Lt. Charles H. Colley, Co. B., 10th Maine Vol. paid the government for embalming and transportation of the remains. When his body arrived they opened the casket in farewell. Instead of their son, they found a fully uniformed Confederate soldier. They were grief stricken but finally decided to bury the lad in a Gray Cemetery. That no ill will was borne the soldier was evidenced by the erection of a tombstone over his grave shortly after. Inscribed on the slab was, "Stranger-a soldier of the late war. Erected by the Ladies of Gray." No one knows for sure how the mistake was made. Lt. Colley's body arrived shortly after. He is buried about 100 feet southwesterly from the Stranger. Local historians guess that both Lt. Colley and the Confederate might have been wounded in the same battle, hospitalized together and both must have died about the same time. And there's always the possibility that the Confederate soldier may have been named Colley. Similarity in names could have accounted for the error.

With the awareness of the amount of bodies needing burial Congress approved the purchase of land in 1862, twelve military cemeteries located on or near major battlefields, Union camps and hospitals, and other military sites were authorized. Most of them, including Robert E. Lee's estate, which became Arlington Cemetery, were on Southern soil. In the midst of the war and in the immediate aftermath these cemeteries made profoundly political statements about Northern power, resources, and determination.

The sheer numbers of those needing gravestones also altered the way in which we carved final memorials in general... but that, as they say, is the stuff for yet another blog.

Thank You to
Daniel Meehan,

Civil War Historian
and Reenactor,
for sharing his vast knowledge and expertise on this topic.

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