Wars Drive Advances: How the Civil War Changed Funeral Practices

Wars Drive Advances: How the Civil War Changed Funeral Practices
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Wars are often responsible for medical and scientific advances, and the Civil War drove the need for a new science: an improved way to handle the dead. So many men died and so many were far from home, there was a growing need for a way to preserve a body for a decent burial once the body arrived home. Families wanted to see their fallen sons once more, and railroads added to the urgency by refusing to carry decaying bodies (identifiable by smell).

Today there is increasing interest in "green funerals" (for those looking for eco-friendly solutions), and about one-third of all Americans who die are cremated, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. However, the traditional funeral, along with embalming of the body that began in the Civil War, is still the most popular choice of how to handle the newly departed.

In the mid-19th century, the French developed a method of arterial embalming, and an American, a Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900), who trained and worked as a coroner's physician in New York in the 1850s, had begun experimenting with embalming methods used by the French.

First Military Fatality Embalmed
The first military fatality of the war, Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth (1837-1861), had worked for Lincoln in Springfield and later helped with the presidential campaign. Ellsworth died on May 24, 1861, when Union troops entered Alexandria, Virginia. Ellsworth sent his men to take over the railroad station, while he went to remove a Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House Hotel and was killed on his way down the stairs.

It was said that Dr. Holmes visited Lincoln and offered to embalm the body of Lincoln's friend at no charge. Ellsworth lay in state at the White House and then was taken to City Hall in New York City where Union soldiers lined up to pay their respects. Ten days after his death, Ellsworth was buried in his hometown, Mechanicsville, New York.

From an account in the New York Times (May 27, 1861), it seems that embalming was still a developing art: "The remains [of Ellsworth] were encased in a metallic coffin, the lid of which was so arranged that through a glass cover the face and breast could be seen. The body was dressed in the Zouave uniform of Colonel Ellsworth's corps, but it was generally remarked, did not bear that natural look so often seen in cases of rapid death. The livid paleness of the features contrasted strongly with the ruddy glow of health that always characterized the Colonel during his lifetime. The marked features and the firm expression of the mouth were, however, sufficient to remind the beholder of what once was Colonel Ellsworth...."

As a result of this successful effort to preserve the body, Dr. Holmes was given a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union officers in order that they might be sent home for burial. Holmes is said to have embalmed as many as 4,000 bodies himself, but he also created a fluid that could be used for embalming and sold it to other physicians for $3 per gallon. (At that time, the chemicals were a mixture of arsenic, zinc and mercuric chlorides, creosote, turpentine and alcohol. Formaldehyde, which soon became the primary ingredient, was not discovered until after the war.)

As physicians began to practice embalming, one challenge was lining up paying customers.
"At first, the embalming physicians approached soldiers directly before they went into battle," says James W. Lowry, a Charleston, West Virginia-based embalmer with the Charleston Mortuary Service, who participates in Civil War reenactments as an embalming physician and is also a frequent speaker on Civil War embalming at conventions of funeral directors and embalmers. "The physician provided soldiers with a card that stated that they had arranged for payment for embalming and transportation if they died.

"It soon became clear that this sales method was bad for morale, so the military put a stop to it," adds Lowry.

"As the war continued, embalming physicians began to follow the action and would take over a barn or shed near the battlefield or set up a tent and embalm bodies there," he continues. "Since officers tended to be from well-to-do families, embalming physicians instructed soldiers to bring the bodies of officers only. Then the physician would work out payment with the grieving family."

Some physicians were unscrupulous and charged extraordinary fees or threatened to hold the body "hostage" if the family didn't pay.

On December 26, 1862 the New York Times ran a revealing letter to the editor, written by H.W. Rivers, who is identified as a surgeon and medical director of the Ninth Army Corps. Rivers points out that embalming of the remains is a great advance of science but that the expense of the process is beyond the reach of people of modest means... Rivers' letter provides a recipe of sorts that could be used to preserve a body, but it is doubtful that this letter offered much help to the common man.

When President Lincoln died from a gunshot wound on April 15, 1865, Mary Lincoln had been aware of the treatment received by Colonel Ellsworth, and she requested that Lincoln be embalmed. The funeral train carrying his body left Washington D.C. on April 21, 1865 and stopped for public viewing in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Michigan City, and Chicago. The procession finally pulled into Springfield on the morning of Wednesday, May 3, 1865 with the body well-preserved.

With the end of the Civil War, the practice of embalming died out for a time since people were likely to die near home and could be buried more quickly. Embalming surgeons became a thing of the past, and when interest in embalming returned again in the 1890s, undertakers began to perform these duties. Companies that wanted to sell embalming fluid sent salesmen around the country to demonstrate the process and provide certificates of training, and the practice grew. (State licensing finally entered the picture in the 1930s.)

Though the practice of embalming established itself during the Civil War, the actual numbers of people who were embalmed were actually relatively small. Because of the difficulty in identifying bodies and communicating with families about sending a body home, only about 40,000 of the approximately 650,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War were embalmed.

The reality was that the carnage was often so vast that there was no hope of getting the majority of the soldiers home. Communities near battlefields had little choice but to go out to help cover the dead or put them in mass graves.

Another week I'll write about the post-war efforts to locate these bodies and get these soldiers properly buried.

For more information, visit the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. This area is part of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground.

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