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"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 profession.

The 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 full size

Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900)

Dr. 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.


In 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.

A 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.


The 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 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 body.


This 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.


Mr. Lincoln was the first President of the United States to be embalmed.  It was at the request of Mrs. Lincoln, remembering her son Willie and Colonel Ellsworth, that the President was embalmed. 

President Lincoln's Funeral Train left Washington, D.C., on April 21, 1865.  The "Lincoln Special" stopped at the following cities.  There was public viewing at most of the stops with a public Memorial Service at some.  {Baltimore, MD; Harrisburg, PA; Philadelphia, PA; New York City, NY; Albany, NY; Buffalo, NY; Cleveland, OH; Columbus, OH; Indianapolis, IN; Michigan City, IN; Chicago, IL, and arriving in Springfield, IL the morning of Wednesday, May 3, 1865.}  This is a Currier & Ives Print from 1865, of the Funeral Procession of the President in New York City . 


The historical information has been edited from the research of
the Late Dr. Edward N. Johnson and other sources.




This page last modified on October 12, 2005