Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Undertakers in the Civil War

When the Civil War broke out, the art and science of undertaking was in its infancy. Most people buried the dead themselves within a day or two of death, so there was no need for an undertaker's services. With so many people dying far from home, however, there was soon a demand for a process that would preserve the dead so they could be brought back home to be buried.

Preservation of the dead was done on-site by Embalming Surgeons, who followed the armies and preserved those who could pay for the service. Men with enough money, usually officers, would make arrangements for payment in case of death. Thousands were embalmed and sent home. The vast majority of Civil War dead, however, were simply buried where they fell. Embalming was too expensive, and the embalmers too few, to treat more than a tiny fraction of the dead. It appears that embalming was only a Northern phenomenon. There’s no record of Southern Embalming Surgeons, probably because of shortages in chemicals, medical supplies, and transportation.

Embalming got an early start with the Civil War’s first casualty. On 24 May 1861, Col. Elmer Ellsworth went to remove a Confederate flag flying from the Marshall House Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. A secessionist shot and killed him. His body was taken to the Washington Navy Yard, and Dr. Thomas Holmes, considered “the father of modern embalming” visited President Lincoln and offered to embalm Ellsworth for free. Mrs. Lincoln was so impressed with the result, that when her son Willie died she asked that Dr. Holmes embalm him too. When Lincoln was assassinated, he became the first president to be embalmed.

For more information about embalming in the Civil War check out the Civil War Undertaker site.

Photo of Civil War embalming surgeon Dr. Richard Burr, courtesy Library of Congress.


  1. Hi Sean .. well that was interesting - had never thought about that before .. fascinating reading - thank you .. cheers Hilary

  2. I've seen documentaries on this and it's very interesting stuff. I just discovered your blog through the A - Z Challenge and will look forward to following it closely. It's fun to study history when it's presented like this:)


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