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).Image

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).



As difficult as it was to deal with death during this time, the loss was amplified by the dehumanization of death. During battles of uncountable deaths, there was no way to effectively identify and bury every soldier. Bodies were heaped into trenches and left to rot with the horses and mules (Faust). Surviving troops stayed after battle to bury their comrades on the battlefield, often without proper burial tools and having to use their bare hands. One surgeon described a battlefield as “the dead being almost wholly unburied, and the stench arising from it was such as to breed a pestilence.” (Faust).

However, as the war went on people began to take note of the amplitude of lives lost and bodies destroyed. So in 1862 Congress allowed Lincoln to purchase protected land that he dedicated to the building of national cemeteries in Chattanooga, Stones River, Knoxville, Antietam, and Gettysburg (Faust). As the war began to subside, a reburial program began. These reburials were able to give proper funerals and identifications to 303,536 soldiers in national cemeteries (Faust). However, these national cemeteries were reserved only for Union soldiers, so Clara Barton establish an Office of Missing Men. She received 68,000 letters from families questioning the status of a missing family member, and she was able to retrieve information on 22,000 of those soldiers (Faust).

African Americans faced death in much the same way as whites, if not more violently and spitefully. They were captured, murdered, and beaten. However, the Union allowed the African Americans to serve as cooks, guards, and spies and 179,000 served, but over 75% of them were killed.

Death was a gruesome and vivid thing for every American during the Civil War. Not one house went untouched, and to this day it is the bloodiest war America has seen. Death was so astronomical that it became underrated and insignificant. However, the death of the soldiers has become honored and respected in memorials and statues, with the first memorial being erected in Connecticut in 1863 called the Berlin’s Soldier Monument (Gagnon).

Works Cited

Dunkelman, Mark H. “With a Trembling Hand and an Aching Heart” Letters of Notification of Death and Condolence 2013.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served. Death and Dying 02/2013.

Gagnon, Amy. Death and Mourning in the Civil War Era 2013

Nelson, Scott Reynolds. People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, 1854-1877. : Oxford University Press, USA, .p. 244-281


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