The Aftermath of The Aftermath of Battle
I was not the original choice to write The Aftermath of Battle, but I am so pleased that I was the final choice. I am not sure of the exact events that led to my being asked to take over the project. But, ultimately, they don’t matter. My masters’ thesis concerned changes Dr. Jonathan Letterman made to the U.S. Army medical effort and their far-reaching effects. Maybe that was it.
However, the sad truth is that every battle’s aftermath is pretty much the same: dead folks, dead animals, stench, quick burial, move out. No matter the chosen Civil War engagement, that was the aftermath. I could write a monograph on burial practices or maybe on decomposition, but the scope of each seemed limited. I kept thinking there had to be a way to get a book-sized offering out of all this. It was not until I expanded the “aftermath” box that I got inspired. Many, many things happened after battles–songs were sung, horses were mourned, parents were notified–when I looked at the topic from this new perspective, I began to see endless possibilities.
I also began to see the organizational arc of the book. I would start with Col. Elmer Ellsworth, the first officer killed in the Civil War. Then I could work my way through the war itself, pulling events and outcomes as I went. Finally, I would end with the death of the last Civil War veteran. I could cover deaths on land and at sea and weave both eastern and western theaters of war together, using death as the warp. I utilized an underused resource, With the 11th New York Fire Zouaves in Camp, Battle, and Prison by Pat Schroeder and Brian Pohanka, to introduce the gripping story of what happened to the remains of Major Sullivan Ballou after First Bull Run. Next, I told the modern detective story of Bill Martin and Jon Curtis, high school students in 2001, who discovered the source of the mysterious “Angel’s Glow” seen in corpses after the battle of Shiloh. Finally, General Dan Butterfield’s haunting “Taps” was part of the otherwise disastrous aftermath of the Seven Days/Peninsula Campaign. This music has continued to be the final aftermath of most soldier burials then and now.
Aftermath contains chapters on the psychological effect Andrew Gardner’s compelling images of Antietam had when shown to New York City at Mathew Brady’s studio. Of course, Dr. Letterman also got his fair share of pages. Battlefield triage, field hospitals, ambulances: all were innovations this brilliant surgeon brought to the military. Soldiers lost limbs, and the science of prosthetics made incredible innovations. So did the relatively new science of embalming. Those men who didn’t make it home had cemeteries explicitly created for military use, often on the site of the battles themselves. President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address made the connections between soldiers and cemeteries abundantly clear. Additionally, I honored the many horses and mules who were casualties of the war. They had no choice as to which side–North or South–they served. They died for both equally.
By using the story arc I had chosen, I was able to include deaths at sea. The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley is a story not yet ended. The modern Hunley scientists and forensics teams have made many new discoveries about the men who drove the little sub. Several times a year, their work is made public. Thanks to DNA and forensic artistry, the day when all are identified is coming soon.
Speaking on unknowns, the gripping tale of Dorrance Atwater and Clara Barton reminds readers that Andersonville was also an “aftermath.” Both Atwater and Barton worked tirelessly to identify as many men as possible in the vast Georgia graveyard. Clara Barton ran the Missing Soldiers Office in Washington for several years after the war, hoping to give closure to families of the missing. Both were heroes in their own right.
Finally, Albert Woolson closes out the book with his long life and war participation when he was only a teenager. Just as Colonel Ellsworth was the first officer killed in the Civil War, Woolson was the last veteran to die. He lived until 1956, and President Eisenhower gave his eulogy.
Even the number of dead has had to be reconfigured, and the story of how that happened is included in the Epilogue. Additionally, there are appendices by Chris Kolakowski (“Colonel Hazen’s Monument”), Ashley Webb (“The Confederate Dead at Franklin”), Chris Mackowski (“The Dead of Hellmira”), Betsy Dinger and Edward Alexander (“Poplar Grove”), and Matt Atkinson (“Return Visit to Vicksburg”).
Working with the folks at Emerging Civil War was a pleasure. Chris Mackowski understood the overall story I was trying to tell and supported every effort. Savas Beatie is a publisher par excellence. I would not want another book of mine to be handled by anyone else. The next book for this series is tentatively titled Walt Whitman’s War of Attempted Secession. It will concern poet Whitman’s involvement in the war and how it affected the rest of his life. Whitman was no different than the rest of the “war generation.” He, too, was defined by the Civil War. Savas Beatie is also publishing a stand-alone biography of the aforementioned Colonel Elmer Ellsworth–First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero. It should be out very soon.
After rereading The Aftermath of Battle before I wrote this blog post, I must say that it holds up well. Of course, I couldn’t cover everything, but the things I did include, in many cases, seem even more relevant now than they did in 2015 when the book was published. Writing is what writers do–we are compelled, I guess. I am proud of my efforts in The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead.
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Editor’s Note (from Chris):
This book sprang directly from one of the most common questions visitors ask as they’re wrapping up a battlefield tour: After the battle, what did they do with all the bodies?
It’s a question most asked by people who aren’t die-hard Civil War buffs. As they come to a battlefield, perhaps for a first time, and begin to hear about and visualize the scope of the violence, it’s only natural to think about the dead.
For the armies at the time, the dead were an immediate and pressing question. Figuring out what to do about them, and with them, presented immense challenges.
It’s easy to look at casualties as statistics. I really wanted this book to avoid that approach, which can be sanitary and efficient but which can also avoid the personal tragedy of war. I wanted this book to stay in touch with the humanity of the question. I didn’t want it to be antiseptic. I knew Meg would be the perfect person to tell a compelling story from that human angle while remaining respectful and avoiding melodrama or sensationalism.
I think she hit it out of the park—and readers seem to agree. It remains our best-selling book in the series.
The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead
by Meg Groeling
Savas Beatie, 2015
Click here to read more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and an author bio.
Click here for the audiobook, read by Joshua Saxon.