Cemeteries and the Civil War: How a Conflict Changed American Funerals

If you died in America any time prior to the Civil War, odds are pretty good that your funeral would have taken place right in your home. Your body would have been washed, dressed, groomed, and watched over by your family members. Mourners would visit and express condolences over the course of a few days, then friends and family would process along with your wooden coffin to your burial place. The family surviving you would display outward signs of mourning for an appropriate period of time: black clothing, black drapery in the home, and avoidance of certain activities.

An example of Victorian mourning photography.

Because everything happened in relatively short order, there wasn’t a need for any type of embalming or extreme preservation measures. In the hours and days immediately after death, a dead body will look, well… dead, but not ghastly or upsetting, assuming it’s kept from unfavorable conditions like heat and humidity. Some families opted to use ice as a temporary preservation aide. In fact, on display right now in Laurel Hill’s museum is the Corpse Preserver – a coffin specially fitted to hold ice close to the body, so it could be displayed for longer, especially if relatives were traveling a long way to pay their respects.

However, the Civil War had a drastic effect on the way American’s handled their dead. The conflict recorded an astonishing 620,000 deaths on both sides, a number which hasn’t been matched by any other U.S. conflict. Thanks to new weapon technology like Gatling guns, and more familiar perils like heavy cannon fire, and even edged weapons, young men lost their lives in huge numbers.

So many were lost so quickly, battlefields became grisly sights to behold. Bodies piled up fast, leaving soldiers no time to drag their fallen friends away. Wounded men were left to die among the already dead as the fighting raged on relentlessly.

Civil War Reenactment, Illinois – Creative Commons

Fewer and fewer families ever got their sons back to bury. Many bodies were in no state to be shipped home, and the ones that were had little chance of surviving the long train ride back in decent shape. In an any case, trains refused to carry decomposing bodies at the time. The heat and humidity of the southern states threatened to speed up decomposition, and in the cases of the larger, bloodier battles, soldiers and townsfolk alike were often left with three equally unpleasant choices:

  • Leave the fallen bodies where they were and let them decompose in the open.
  • Quickly bury or cover over bodies in shallow graves.
  • Dig mass graves, and pile all the bodies in with little to no identification.

In other words, no options which would bring comfort to families, or a sense of peace to the soldiers and townspeople faced with the choice.

This chaotic state of affairs made way for the practice of embalming. The preserving of corpses through embalming has been in practice since ancient times. Egyptian mummies are a particularly impressive example of the care and preparation which went into funerals for the VIPs of millennia past. There are also examples of embalming from ancient Greece, and even a mention of Leonardo da Vinci practicing a precursor to modern preservation techniques.

Chemical embalming as we know it today, was still in its infancy during the Civil War, but there’s nothing quite like a war to push science and innovation, even (or perhaps especially) if it’s the science of death. At the time, compounds made of risky substances such as mercury and arsenic were used to help preserve bodies for the train ride home. Formaldehyde – the main ingredient used in today’s embalming techniques – was not yet in wide use.

“Embalming surgeons,” as they were known, began setting up tents near battlefield areas so they could more quickly see to the preservation of fallen soldiers. For a while, some embalming surgeons took to approaching soldiers prior to battle, but that practice stopped when everyone realized that it was terrible for morale among the troops.

Dr. Burr, Embalming Surgeon – Creative Commons

The widespread practice of embalming was still slow to start, however. For one thing, it was pretty expensive, and apart from officers, few soldiers’ families had the means to pay for such treatment. This led to stories of embalming surgeons taking it upon themselves to treat the bodies of soldiers, then contacting the next of kin via telegraph, and threatening to hold bodies hostage until payment was arranged. Those tales didn’t do much for PR, so many were still resistant to the practice.

If there’s one person who made the practice of embalming trendy, it was none other than President Abraham Lincoln. When Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was killed taking down a Confederate flag at the Marshall House Hotel in 1861, it marked the first notable fatality of the Civil War. The colonel had worked closely with Lincoln on his campaign for the presidency, and Lincoln was saddened to hear of his friend’s death. He ordered an honor guard to escort Ellsworth’s body back to the White House where he lay in state, before being transported to New York’s City Hall where thousands of Union soldiers lined up to pay their respects.

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, Source: Wikipedia

Obviously, this kind of ceremonial viewing would take time, and it was important that the Colonel look good for his final trip. Dr. Thomas Holmes approached Lincoln and offered to perform a relatively new embalming technique at no charge. Ellsworth’s body held up throughout the extended funeral, and Dr. Holmes was commissioned to begin embalming the bodies of Union officers. It’s estimated that he embalmed 4,000 bodies over the course of the Civil War.

So, if you’re visiting a cemetery (and not a mass grave) where Civil War soldiers are buried, they just might be there thanks to the embalming methods of the time.

Lincoln’s relationship with embalming would sadly come full-circle, as Dr. Holmes would eventually perform the procedure on Lincoln’s son, Willie who died of Typhoid, and later, on Lincoln himself after he was assassinated.

Over the course of three weeks, a train carried Lincoln’s body on a staggering journey of over 1600 miles, through 180 cities and 7 states before delivering him to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. Three weeks is a long time to display a body, and indeed, the embalming could only do so much, but the impressions left on America by the Civil War and Lincoln’s own death would change the funeral industry completely. Today, bodies are embalmed before burial as a matter of routine. Would this have been the case if not for the Civil War?

LincolnTrain

As a historic cemetery, Laurel Hill obviously has a long history with the funeral industry, but we also have a long history with the Civil War – particularly the Battle of Gettysburg.

This weekend at Laurel Hill, you will have your chance to visit the final resting places of the men who fell in the Civil War, as well as veterans who survived the conflict. Gettysburg and Beyond: The Ultimate Civil War Tour is happening on Saturday, July 7th at 10 am, and tickets are available here.

To stay up to date on all our tours and events here at Laurel Hill Cemetery, be sure to sign up for our newsletter!

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