“I Regret To Inform You . . . “

New approaches to counting the Civil War dead have raised the count considerably. From about 1900, the number of dead had remained at 618,222 men, counting deaths on both sides of the conflict. New estimates, however, have raised the total as high as 750,000, and may reach as high as 850,000. It was easier to count dead Yankees than dead Rebels, but reports on both sides were incomplete and inaccurate. The new numbers come from U. S. Census calculations.

It did not matter if a soldier died at the hands of the enemy in a now-famous battle, or from measles his first week in camp, dead he was, and almost every soldier left someone behind who loved and cared about him. One of the unremittingly sad facts of any war is that deaths occur, and they need to be recognized and respected. In the Civil War, this was doubly true.

Before the War, over 85% of people died at home. Then suddenly, young men began to die in great numbers, and most were far from the caring hands and hearts of those who would have prepared them for death, if possible, and certainly prepared the body for burial. Loved ones were left bereft of any type of closure, not knowing if the man they loved was dead, in prison, or lost forever.

Confederate Hospital.

A letter of condolence from someone associated with the deceased was all-too-often the only word a family received about a missing husband, son, brother, or father.  These important letters all reflect a common sense of decency concerning the dead.  It often fell to commanders, comrades, or even total strangers to compose the condolence letter.  In the middle of inhuman conditions, soldiers tried to give fallen friends the very best they could.  All soldiers struggled within themselves to make sense of the slaughter, but even more so, they struggled to communicate this to those eager to know the fate of the men so dearly loved and missed.

The condolence letter tended to be formulaic, mentioning most, if not all, the necessities for a Good Death.  No matter the real cause or circumstances, condolence letters informed loved ones that their soldier had died bravely, welcoming death and confident of going to a “better place.” Relatives of soldiers who were not religious, or even anti-religious, were often informed that, miraculously, a deathbed conversion had occurred.  Rakes, drinkers and gamblers were mostly rehabilitated, and “last words” of concern for loved one were recorded, or invented and recorded.

Knowing the remains of the deceased might never be found and moved to a home cemetery, the letter of condolence assumed an importance it had never enjoyed before.  The homage given to the dead was not only offered out of respect for the general effort.  It was also a way of reclaiming a sense of self-hood in a situation where individuality barely existed.  The sanctity and integrity of human life, so obviously absent from a pile of severed limbs or corpses, could be reaffirmed in a personal letter, even if facts were stretched a bit (or even a lot).

Most soldiers hoped that, if they died, someone would do the same for them, recognize and honor their existence.  Sometimes a man might die alone in a hospital.  Hospital nurses often provided the support of a family, playing the role of a wife, sister, or mother to a delirious patient.  Not all nurses were women, and Walt Whitman wrote many letters of condolence, pretending friendship where none existed. Here is an example of his efforts:

Walt Whitman

Frank H. Irwin, company E, 93d Pennsylvania—died May I, ’65—My letter to his mother.—DEAR MADAM: No doubt you and Frank’s friends have heard the sad fact of his death in hospital here, through his uncle, or the lady from Baltimore, who took his things. (I have not seen them, only heard of them visiting Frank.) I will write you a few lines—as a casual friend that sat by his death-bed. 

Your son, corporal Frank H. Irwin, was wounded near fort Fisher, Virginia, March 25th, 1865—the wound was in the left knee, pretty bad. He was sent up to Washington, was receiv’d in ward C, Armory-square hospital, March 28th—the wound became worse, and on the 4th of April the leg was amputated a little above the knee—the operation was perform’d by Dr. Bliss, one of the best surgeons in the army—he did the whole operation himself—there was a good deal of bad matter gather’d—the bullet was found in the knee. 

For a couple of weeks afterwards he was doing pretty well. I visited and sat by him frequently, as he was fond of having me. The last ten or twelve days of April I saw that his case was critical. He previously had some fever, with cold spells. The last week in April he was much of the time flighty—but always mild and gentle. 

He died first of May. The actual cause of death was pyæmia, (the absorption of the matter in the system instead of its discharge.) Frank, as far as I saw, had everything requisite in surgical treatment, nursing, &c. He had watches much of the time. He was so good and well-behaved and affectionate, I myself liked him very much.

Lincoln's Ellsworth Letter.

I was in the habit of coming in afternoons and sitting by him, and soothing him, and he liked to have me—liked to put his arm out and lay his hand on my knee—would keep it so a long while. Toward the last he was more restless and flighty at night—often fancied himself with his regiment—by his talk sometimes seem’d as if his feelings were hurt by being blamed by his officers for something he was entirely innocent of—said, “I never in my life was thought capable of such a thing, and never was.” 

At other times he would fancy himself talking as it seem’d to children or such like, his relatives I suppose, and giving them good advice; would talk to them a long while. All the time he was out of his head not one single bad word or idea escaped him. It was remark’d that many a man’s conversation in his senses was not half as good as Frank’s delirium. 

He seem’d quite willing to die—he had become very weak and had suffer’d a good deal, and was perfectly resign’d, poor boy. I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must have been good. At any rate what I saw of him here, under the most trying circumstances, with a painful wound, and among strangers, I can say that he behaved so brave, so composed, and so sweet and affectionate, it could not be surpass’d. 

And now like many other noble and good men, after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up his young life at the very outset in her service. Such things are gloomy—yet there is a text, “God doeth all things well”—the meaning of which, after due time, appears to the soul. 

I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be worth while—for I loved the young man, though I but saw him immediately to lose him. I am merely a friend visiting the hospitals occasionally to cheer the wounded and sick.  W. W.

President Abraham Lincoln was famous for his elegant words in speeches and letters, and there are several examples of condolence letters written in his hand.  His letter of condolence to Colonel Elmer Ellsworth’s parents is perhaps his most famous personal letter.  It was written the day after Ellsworth’s funeral in the East Room, on May 24, 1861, just a day after his murder in Alexandria, Virginia.

Ellsworth Envelope.

According to David Homer Bates, who had given Lincoln the telegram announcing Ellsworth’s death, Lincoln had laid it on the top of his desk, where it remained for several days.  It is easy to picture the still-distraught President sitting at that desk, the telegraph to his left and ink bottles in front of him, writing this letter:

Washington. D.C.

May 25, 1861

To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:

My dear Sir and Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own.  So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.  In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great.  This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste so altogether military, constituted in him, as it seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew.  And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse.  My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit.  To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word.  What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents.  The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. 

Sincerely your friend in a common affliction,

 A. Lincoln

In death, may we be so lucky as to have someone write equally tender words on our behalf.

Recommended Reading:

“Recounting the Dead,” by J. David Hacker, Opinionator, September 20, 2011, New York Times.

http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/whitmanblog/ “Death of a Pennsylvania Soldier,” August 9, 2010.

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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