Civil War and Death

Like any other war, death was an inevitable occurrence during the Civil War. However, rather than just being unavoidable,  it had come to be expected. Not one family, soldier, or home went unaffected. In fact, death became such a universal happening that the state of living and geographical landmarks became personified by death. The South itself had been described as dead, and being “in a heap of ashes and bricks” (Nelson, p.232). Homes carried an impending aura of death, and not just people’s bodies, but their souls, were killed.

In sheer numbers, an estimated 750,000 soldiers were killed-some by combat according to Drew Faust, but twice as many died of disease. By count, the Union suffered a greater loss, with numbers around 400,000 while the Confederate mourned the deaths of about 300,000. However, proportionally the lives lost in the South exceeded those of the North, with the ratio being 3 Southerners dead for every Union soldier (Faust). The soldiers were not the only lives lost, with civilians numbering an estimated 50,000 deaths among women, children, and men at home. These deaths were caused by starvation, disease, and accidents in the workforce (Faust). There were over 30 explosions in factories that resulted in the death of many women and children (Nelson, 243).


The unfair image of death is one that brought distress to many families. Historian Amy Gagnon describes a “good death”, a death experienced with family by your side and a final religious cleansing with God. Because of a high infant mortality rate, the deaths of babies were better coped with, and because of age, the death of older citizens was expected. However, to sacrifice the life of a healthy, fit, nineteen year old boy was unjust and not a “good death”.

As far as notifying families of the deaths of their loved ones, there was no formal method or structure to follow. Normally a comrade of the soldier that had witnessed the death, or one that may have had personal friendship with the soldier, would write a letter to the family (Dunkleman). Typically they would address the letter with sympathy first, then delve into money matters and pensions, then describe how the soldier died. Otherwise, families relied on newspapers and obituaries to notify them if their soldier was dead or alive. For example, Connecticut published a newspaper that had “Rolls of the Missing Men” to identify dead or missing soldiers. Identification of soldiers was a problem that often hindered the notification to the family. Soldiers did not have military issued badges, and neither the Union nor the Confederacy had a grave registration (Faust).

Another issue posed was the consistent inability to return the bodies of soldiers home. Around this time, new methods of embalming were being experimented with, but many failed and soldiers whose bodies were returned were decomposed and rotten, as opposed to being preserved for a burial (Gagnon). Sometimes families were even horrified to discover that the bodies returned home to them were the wrong bodies. They had trains that were specifically run to transport the dead bodies, and to retrieve the bodies from the train station was an expensive endeavor, costing up to $2,000 in today’s currency, not including actual funeral and burial expenses. Some families were so distraught and desperate enough to go to the battlefields in search of the bodies in hops of filling a “dread void of uncertainty” (Faust).

Aforementioned, death came to be expected. Nelson quotes a white woman from Mississippi saying that it was a “shell expectant life,” (p. 264). And although death had come to be expected, when it hit home it was never easily coped with. Some families were lucky enough to have the bodies returned and be able to have a funeral service. The funeral and coffin industry increased during this time, with new styles of coffins and constant funerals to support the industry. In 1937, a new cemetery style emerged, but it wasn’t until the Civil War that this rural cemetery expanded significantly. Originally cemeteries were fenced off in church yards, very impersonal and not allowing grave visitations or the like. With this new emergence, cemeteries developed a park-like scene, with pathways and benches, and places for people to approach the graves and pay their respects (Gagnon).


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