ECW’s own Meg Groeling recently sat down with the folks at Savas Beatie to talk about her Emerging Civil War Series title The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead. While most of the books in the series focus on a single event or story, the story in Meg’s book is a bit different. Battlefield visitors often ask, “After the battle, what did they do with all the bodies?” Meg’s book tells the story of how the armies—and the people on the homefront—learned to deal with that very real and logistically difficult question. It is a dramatic, multifaceted story, writ large.
We couldn’t very well let Meg off the hook without sharing that interview with our readers….
SB: Thanks for talking with us about your book today, Meg. Why did you decide to write your book on this topic?
MG: I am always looking for ways to bring the Civil War into today’s world, and so much of what was “aftermath” is still with us: The Veteran’s Administration, the National Cemeteries, battlefield preservation, even the arguments about statuary in cities and national parks—not to mention the forensic advances being made every day. Hopefully there will never again be any “unknowns.”
SB: What was difficult about writing the book?
MG: The time constraints—I work full time, am completing my masters in Military History, I just got married, that sort of thing. [Laughing.]
SB: What makes your book unique?
MG: All the other Emerging Civil War books are on one topic or event or person—mine is about many things. I had to learn so much about so many diverse topics, and then cull what I learned into readable chapters. I have a good editor in Chris Mackowski.
SB: Did anything surprise you when you wrote the book?
MG: I was both pleased and surprised to find out so much about the Hunley—the Confederate submarine recovered in Charleston Harbor. It contained skeletonized remains within it, and all the science you see on TV shows really came true in the reconstruction of the faces of the crewmembers. This is being done for the remains found on the Monitor as well. That and good DNA work might identify those men, and how wonderful would that be?
SB: What was difficult about burying the dead after battle?
MG: Burying the dead was usually the job of the winner of a battle because they held the ground. Of course they are going to bury their guys first and best. The enemy gets whatever is left over. Weather and time made burying Civil War casualties difficult. So did their sheer numbers, along with all the dead horses and mules. Gettysburg, for instance, was especially difficult to handle. The town itself was pretty much left to handle everything, as Lee left on the night of July 3, and Meade left the area ten days later. After that, it was the responsibility of the town, aided by the Federal government and many, many volunteers, to clean up the mess. Even by the time of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the job wasn’t finished.
SB: How did communities react to cleaning up the destruction?
MG: Poorly, generally. Seriously, there was little to clean up in the North—Gettysburg is the exception. In the South, towns such as Winchester did the best they could. Men were scooped into mass graves, Federal soldiers were sent to prisons, and there wasn’t much in place for the South to aquire help. The hospitals were poorly funded, medicine was scarce, and towns suffered greatly. There was no dependable infrastructure to help the South rebuild either during or after the war.
SB: How did families find their loved ones?
MG: This was terribly difficult. Prior to Dr. William Hammond’s reforms of the Medical Department in the North, both bodies and patients were rarely identified in any regular way. After that, paperwork went with patients and wooden headboards were created to identify graves. The weather wore these out. The Confederacy may have had similar methods in place, but much of the medical archives were burned immediately prior to the taking of Richmond in 1865. I know the South also used wooden headboards.
The dead of Andersonville—some of them, anyway—were identified by a list smuggled out of the prison by Dorence Atwater, a Union prisoner who worked in the makeshift prison morgue. He took the list to Clara Barton. She went down with him to see for herself. It is quite a story.
SB: How did you research this topic?
MG: Research is research, no matter what the topic. Luckily I write for the blog Emerging Civil War. This allowed me to talk to a lot of folks who could steer me in one direction or another. Facebook is helpful as well. No selfies, but a lot of good folks out there who want to tell people about their passions. After that, it is amassing sources, reading for months, and comparing results. Sometimes there is incontrovertible proof that is confirmed by everything, and sometimes things are hinted at, or even totally different scenarios are presented. There are differing points of view as well. I try to stick to writing with facts and primary source materials, but sometimes it gets foggy. That is when it is good to ask others to read what you have done or give an opinion or suggestion.
I like research, personally. I think it is fun. I think, however, it may be an acquired taste.
SB: Thank you for talking with us today, Meg. Best of luck with your book!
MG: You’re welcome.