Authored by Meg Thompson.
No one knows for sure just who decided what the final disposition of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth’s mortal remains would be. I think it was Mary Lincoln. The President was very upset about the shooting, and so were Ellsworth’s parents. Mary was having a rare episode of sensibility just then, and probably felt she should do something, especially after her husband told everyone Ellsworth would lie in state in the East Room.
Upon the return of Ellsworth’s body to the Washington Navy Yard, Dr. Thomas Holmes, a recent arrival to the D. C. scene, visited the Lincolns and offered to embalm the body free of charge. Before the Civil War, bodies had rarely been embalmed. Death occurred at home, or at sea, or no one cared. Graves were dug and en-coffined remains were buried, letting Nature take her course. In case a large number of deaths occurred in a similar geographic area, mass graves were dug and bodies dumped in without a great deal of ceremony.
Some found this “inattention to detail” disturbing. By mid-century, the search for a safe but antiseptic embalming solution had become an item of health concern. The science of embalming had been around since the Egyptians. Essentially, it involves the removal and replacement of blood with some sort of liquid preservative. Many different chemical combinations were tried, including vinegar and grain alcohol, but early attempts had mixed results. Bodies often began to decompose before burial, especially if they had to be sent any distance.
Dr. Holmes, a well-respected graduate of Columbia University’s Medical School, had developed a method of preserving bodies which included the intra-arterial injection of an arsenic-based embalming fluid. As America moved steadily toward war, Holmes quickly realized the commercial potential of embalming and moved his practice to Washington, D.C. There, Holmes handed out thousands of fliers to soldiers who had joined the war effort, offering to preserve their bodies in case of death. In 1861, when Virginia ratified its letters of secession, Holmes approached the U.S. government and tried to obtain exclusive rights to embalm Union soldiers so they could be shipped home for burial. His efforts at self-promotion paid off, and started the course of events that made embalming a common practice.
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. Holmes must have realized that his “art” would be on display before very prominent people, so he did his best job for the public. Newspapers of the day, as well as Mary Lincoln, said Holmes’ work left Ellsworth looking as “natural as though he were sleeping a brief and pleasant sleep.” Ellsworth held up long enough to get through the White House funeral, a brief ocean voyage to New York City and another funeral, and finally a journey by train to western New York and another funeral, and then on to Mechanicville, where the last funeral was observed, and he was finally laid to rest in the Mechanicville Cemetery.
By the time the war had started in earnest, the embalming tent was a battlefield staple. Embalming surgeons traveled from site to site looking for the dead and pumping a mixture of arsenic and other chemicals into their veins which delayed the decaying process. Most charged around $7 for enlisted men and $13 for officers.
Embalmers were often accused of extortion and dubious practices. Not only did they hover around the departed like vultures, they often unfairly charged for their services. One conversation with a particularly enterprising embalmer was related by a Yankee news reporter: “I would be glad to prepare private soldiers. They were wuth a five dollar bill apiece. But, Lord bless you, a colonel pays a hundred, and a brigadier-general two hundred. There’s lots of them now, and I have cut the acquaintance of everything below a major. I might, as a great favor, do a captain, but he must pay a major’s price. I insist upon that! Such windfalls don’t come every day. There won’t be another such killing for a century.”
It is certainly true that officers were given preference in the disposition of their remains, but bereaved families of enlisted men did their best to retrieve their loved ones and bury them “at home.” Embalming was a much rarer occurrence in the Confederacy than in the North, but Northern embalmers advertised in Southern newspapers, pointing out the convenience of their newly opened “field offices” on the site of recent battles. Embalmer and medical doctor William Maclurepromised “persons at a distance” that “BODIES OF THE DEAD” would be “Disinterred, Disinfected, and SENT HOME” from any place within the Confederacy.
There were other embalmers besides Dr. Holmes. Dr. F. A. Hutton advertised that, “Bodies embalmed by us NEVER TURN BLACK!” Dr. William J. Bunnell’s embalming tent did a grand business after the Battle of Fredericksburg, embalming as many as one hundred men a day. Dr. Richard Burr was a battlefield embalmer, as were Doctors C. B. Chamberlain and Benjamin F. Lyford. Burr, from Philadelphia, was a good example of a bad embalmer. He was well known for his price gouging, and selling and reselling the same grave marker for locally buried soldiers. His method of arterial embalming used an artery in the armpit rather than the carotid artery. This method was faster, easier, and left almost no marks on the body. It bypassed the filling of the abdominal cavity altogether. After all, with corpses piled up at the door, speed was of the essence!
In the South, Doctors Sampson and George Diuguid, of Lynchburg, Virginia ran the oldest mortuary in the Confederacy. Founded in 1817, by the Diuguidfamily, it was responsible for the burials and embalming of over 3000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate. Because the business had been established long before the War, the record keeping processes concerning each body were already firmly established. Accurate records were kept for every burial or removal during the War. Each body was documented listing name, place of death, date of burial, military unit, place of burial, along with coffin and body measurements. These records proved invaluable when, after the War, the Federal government wished to remove the remains of over two hundred soldiers for reburial in the National Cemetery near Petersburg.
One particularly interesting embalmer was Prince Greer, America’s first African American embalmer. He was the personal slave of a Confederate cavalry officer who was killed in Tennessee. Greer took it upon himself to return the body of his former master to his estate, and contacted a Nashville undertaker, Dr. W. P. Cornelius, for help in this endeavor. Cornelius embalmed the officer, and his body was shipped back to Texas, but during this time Cornelius’ assistant decided that embalming was not quite the job he wanted. Upon the departure of the assistant, Prince Greer stepped forward. He offered to learn the embalming trade in exchange for room and board, and Cornelius was glad to have him. “Prince Greer appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he himself became an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war and was very successful at it. It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone. He was always careful, always . . . coming to me in a difficult case. He remained with me until I quit the business in 1871.”
So many complaints regarding embalmers following the Union Army were made that, on January 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 7, from City Point, Virginia:
All embalming surgeons having been excluded from the lines of the armies operating against Richmond, the friends and relatives of the officers and soldiers are hereby notified that hereafter the bodies of officers and soldiers who die in general or base hospitals can be embalmed without charge upon making personal application to the chief medical officer of the hospitals. Applications for the embalming of officers and soldiers who die at division hospitals at the front or on the field of battle must be made to the medical director of the corps to which such officers or soldiers belonged. By command of Lieutenant-General Grant: T. S.Bowers, Assistant Adjutant-General.
As for Dr. Holmes, thanks to the Union’s Elmer Ellsworth, his excellent reputation was secure. He not only embalmed Colonel Ellsworth, he embalmed Willie Lincoln, when the child died in 1862 of typhoid. He was responsible for the embalming of over 4000 soldiers, returning many men to their grieving families. He not only embalmed the first Union casualty of the War, he embalmed the last. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Lincoln called upon his services a final time, requesting that he embalm the martyred President.
Walt Whitman has lately become a touchstone for the Civil War, thanks to 1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart. I will let Whitman have the last words here. And, as to the Zombie Apocalypse? A proper embalming will keep a soldier in his grave, I am sure.
A Clear Midnight
This is thy hour, O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.