"Rest on Embalmed and Sainted dead
Dear as the blood ye gave
The Herbage of your grave."
(Meig's Gate on Arlington Road,
Arlington National Cemetery)
Embalming Surgeons and Undertakers
During the early part of the Civil War it was the Embalming Surgeons that
performed the embalming procedure. Many of the men were military surgeons.
However, there were also a large number of civilian surgeons that took up
embalming and became embalming surgeons. They realized the monetary benefits
to the profession and saw this as a way to increase there fortunes. Most of
the embalming surgeons were honest men. There were many reports however, of
many unscrupulous embalming surgeons out to take advantage of soldier and
family alike. Toward the latter part of the War there were reports of a few
undertakers beginning to embalm both at home and on the field of battle. Of
the tens upon tens of embalming surgeons practicing during the War years, very
few are heard of following the War. It is then that the undertaker begins to
see the potential and the obvious extension of embalming into the undertaking
embalming surgeon was a Northern phenomenon. To date there seems to be no
documentation that there were Southern embalming surgeons. When one looks at
the circumstances surrounding the onset of this new trade, one can understand
why it was not until after the War that embalming moved into the South. Dr.
Thomas Holmes, the "Father of Modern Embalming", was from New York, his
protégées were all Northerners, the chemicals were developed, patented and
manufactured in the North. During the beginning of the War, Washington was the
center of all that happened with the military. The embalmers flocked to
Washington until they became such a nuisance that they were run out of the
city. From then on, those with the drive to either make money or help the
troops and their families, moved nearer the battlefields or field hospitals.
The South had neither the knowledge nor the resources to enter into this new
embalming trade. This is not to say that there may not have been an occasional
Confederate soldier or officer embalmed by a Northern embalmer and sent home,
but this was by no means a common occurrence.
Public Acceptance of Embalming
Even though the public was familiar with embalming, [soldiers being sent home
embalmed and President Lincoln and other notables having been embalmed], the
general public did not take to this new invasion of the body. There were many
bodies embalmed after the Civil War, but it was not until the beginning of the
Twentieth Century that embalming became an accepted practice. It was at first
performed in the home by the undertaker. By the early to mid 1920s the funeral
home as we know it was beginning to emerge.
Click Picture to see
Dr. Thomas Holmes
Holmes, was born in New York in 1817. He attended public schools and New York
University Medical College, though there are no records of him graduating.
However, in the 1850's he did practice medicine and was a coroner's physician
in New York. In the 1850's Dr. Holmes perfected what we know today as modern
embalming techniques. He is generally acknowledged as the "Father of Modern
Embalming". When the Civil War broke out he opened an embalming office in
Washington, DC. Colonel Ellsworth became his first prominent client. Dr.
Holmes was responsible for preparing about 4000 bodies to be sent home. During
his lifetime he was also awarded many patents for inventions related to
embalming. Following the War he returned to his home in Brooklyn, New York, but
did very little embalming after that. Oddly enough, before his death in 1900 he
requested that he not be embalmed.
DR. BURR AT HIS FIELD
the accompanying photo Dr. Richard Burr, an embalming surgeon, is performing the
embalming process on a soldier recovered from the battlefield. During the early
years of the American Civil War, a new profession began to emerge. Some short
time before the War was declared in 1861, Dr. Thomas Holmes, had developed a
process by which a liquid could be injected into the body to preserve it for an
extended period of time. The veins would be pumped full of this liquid to
arrest and prevent decay thus making it possible to ship the body home. As
officers and soldiers were killed in battle, more and more families wanted their
loved one returned home for a funeral service and burial. With the new
embalming process this became possible, expensive though it was. As families
were able to raise the money, or soldiers had items of value to prepay for their
own embalmment and shipment home, the undertaker would search the battlefields
and hospitals hoping to find the body for whom they had contracted.
DR's. C. B. CHAMBERLIN & Benjamin F. LYFORD
DEMONSTRATING THEIR EMBALMING TECHNIQUE
new profession emerged during the early years of the War called the "embalming
surgeon". These men were usually surgeons who had learned the embalming
procedure either from Dr. Holmes himself, or from one of his protégés. As time
passed the undertaker began to see the potential of the embalming procedure for
his profession. Thus many of them began learning the procedure. Slowly
embalming became an integral part of the undertaking business offering, although
it did take some years before it became commonplace. In the photo above Drs.
Chamberlin and Lyford appear to be demonstrating the embalming technique to two
Union officers. Note the two previously embalmed soldiers in the coffins on
either side of the tent. This may have merely been staged for the
photographer. The field setup pictured might be very typical of that found near
a battlefield or field hospital.
DR. WILLIAM J. BUNNELL'S
EMBALMING SHED NEAR THE BATTLEFIELD AT FREDERICKSBURG
accompanying photo shows one of Dr. Bunnell's (1823-1891) embalming sheds near
Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 1862. The embalmer would use any building or
shed available. In the absence of a permanent structure he would pitch a tent.
There were days when it was not uncommon for there to be more than 100 bodies
waiting to be embalmed. As the "embalming surgeon" or "undertaker" contracted
to prepare the body of the dead soldier, he would set up an embalming tent near
the battlefield or hospital. There would be times when there might be tens upon
tens of bodies waiting to be embalmed and prepared for shipment home. The cost
would vary with each embalmer. For many families the cost was a hardship.
However, having a Christian burial at home for their loved one was worth the
sacrifices that had to be made. Of course, when the body arrived home there
would be additional costs for the wake and service. It is well to remember that
because of horrific battle conditions and general confusion, it was very
difficult to located the remains of an officer and almost impossible to locate
the remains of a common soldier. But still, the hopes of the family persisted.
It became more and more common for the soldiers to pin cards to their sack coat
or shirt, or to wear a metal disk around the neck, upon which he would write his
name and hometown. If his body would be found the undertaker would know where
to send it.
COLONEL ELMER E.
Ellsworth was the first military casualty of the American Civil War. On May 24,
1861, along with his New York City Volunteer Regiment (made up mostly of New
York City Firemen) Colonel Ellsworth went to remove a large Confederate flag
from the roof of the Marshall House Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. It was there
that he was shot in the chest with a shotgun blast and killed. Upon the return
of his body to the Washington Navy Yard, Dr. Thomas Holmes visited President
Lincoln and offered to embalm the body free of charge. He was subsequently given
permission to do so. It is reported that Mrs. Lincoln was so impressed with
Colonel Ellsworth's appearance, that at the death of President and Mrs.
Lincoln's son, Willie, she requested that the same embalmer prepare their son's
THIS IS THE SCENE THAT
FACED THE EMBALMER AS HE SEARCHED THE BATTLEFIELD
photograph was taken on July 5th. 1863, by T. H. Sullivan on the field at
Gettysburg. Consider the number of casualties that were listed for each
battle. It was not the mere four seen in this photograph, but hundreds upon
hundreds more that would be lying on the field. Some would be crying out in
anguish. But nay, it would be among those who had given up their last breath
among which the undertaker would search in silence for the few he would embalm
and return home to their families for burial.