Tuesday, April 24, 2012
U is for Undertakers in the Civil War
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.