A Soldier’s Burial

A Field Burial – How, When, Where, and the costs for shipment home

The word ” buried ” may mean much or little, and the variation is largely governed by circumstances. It may mean a hastily-dug and shallow excavation, the dumping into it of a comrade’s body, a rapid movement to push back the earth that had been removed, and the disappearance from the spot of the living. That only, and nothing more, happened thousands of times under varying conditions.

Recovery by a Burial Party

“We found the grave of one of our pickets (Private John Saupp, Co. K, Fifty-fifth Pennsylvania), who had been shot on his post by the rebels and also buried by them. But such a burial! He was buried on the ground and not in it. The earth was heaped upon the body, only partially covering it, his feet, hands and hair being visible.  At the foot of the grave ( ?) was a rude board, with the inscription, ” Yankey Soldier,” cut by a rebel jack-knife, propelled by an unholy hand, if the carver and undertaker were the same person.  This body was the next day removed inside our lines and given decent burial and awarded military honors.”  - 3rd NH Infantry Regimental History

A Singular Burial - The ordinary burial in an established camp

(photo: remains left behind after the Battle of Bull Run)

When a regiment or company was encamped for any considerable time in one place, a suitable burial spot was selected nearby and the dead buried in it, and almost always with ceremony. Generally the departed’s company—those not otherwise on duty—fell in and followed the remains, preceded by fife and drum, to the last resting place. The fife played a dirge and the drum accompanied, usually to the extent only of keeping the time. A common, white, pine coffin was used; and as the survivors marched to the solemn notes of the dirge, many an eye was moistened with the tear of sympathy. The coffin having been placed where it was to lie, a volley was fired over the grave by a detail of say a dozen, blank cartridges being used. The chaplain then prayed, and all was over. The procession reformed and marched back to quick time; the firing detail marched with arms reversed; and the fife and drum playing a lively tune, such as “The girl I left behind me.”

When the conveniences permitted, a wooden headboard was placed at the head of each grave, distinctly marked. After the burial it devolved on the captain to write to the family and express as well as he might the sorrow of himself and surviving comrades, the particulars of the death, of the sickness perhaps, and the final ceremony. The duty of writing such a letter was a painful one, and in many cases the circumstances were such that one could hardly do justice to the subject in hand.  The following is an example of such a letter home-

1stRegiment New Hampshire Volunteers

ST. HELENA ISLAND, S. C. 1 July 1863.

Mrs. —

Dear Madame: it becomes my painful duty to inform you of the loss of one of our number, your husband  ______. He was taken sick nine or ten days ago, and complained of pain in his limbs, head and back. I furnished him with ice to keep his head cool, and had the surgeon come to see him, and in the evening had him taken into the hospital. His disease was typhoid fever; and for a week he had everything done for him that a sick man could wish.  As the first the surgeon felt as though he could not recover, and several regimental surgeons were called in from time to time to advise upon his case.  

As the days advanced it became painfully evident that he could not recover, and that we should soon be called upon to mourn the loss of another comrade.  He spoke in whispers, and thus rendered it very difficult to hear many of his thoughts. It will be gratifying to you to know that when he spoke of his family it was always with the deepest solicitude and keenest anxiety. He failed gradually, and at five minutes past twelve yesterday noon, 30thof June, he ceased to live.

He died very calmly and peacefully, as though falling asleep, and seemed to suffer no pain. He expressed a wish before he died that his remains might be sent home; but at present his friends cannot hope for the accomplishment of that request on account of the hot weather. This morning we paid the last honors to our departed comrade. Enveloped in the folds of that flag for which he has sacrificed his life, we carried him to his last resting place, on the banks of a small stream; and the mocking birds build their nests and sing their songs in the oak branches which wave over his head. Our tenderest sympathies, dear madam, are enlisted in your behalf; and we hope you may rind consolation in the thought that your husband died doing his duty, in defense of the honor of his native land.  A few clays before his death, all of his effects were turned over to _______, together with $541.50 in treasury notes, which we will forward to you as soon as possible. I enclose a statement of his words to you previous to his death, as furnished by the hospital department. I have the honor to be, madam, etc.,

Captain Cs. —, Third New Hampshire Volunteer

P. S.       When cooler weather arrives, if we are still in this department, I should be happy to aid you in recovering the remains of your husband, if such should be your desire. In a zinc coffin it would cost from $12.00 to 815.00 to New York; from thence would be the express charge. In a metallic coffin, it would cost from 583.00 to 590.00 to get it to Manchester. The pay due him (two months) can be obtained on application at Washington; and in my opinion you are entitled to a pension.[1]


Mass Burial -

The burial of the dead after a battle is, another matter.   Generally, by mutual consent, the opposing parties – Union and Confederate act upon honor, without the formality of a flag of truce, and each proceeds to bury its dead. Sometimes the bodies of the two armies are intermixed. This is particularly true when the victory has hung in the balance, and the two lines swayed backward and forward, traversing twice and perhaps thrice the same ground. In such cases a line of division is generally agreed upon, and each burying all found on his particular side of this line, friend and foe alike, though a dead rebel can no more be properly called a foe than can a dead Yankee.[2]

The burial is entirely devoid of ceremony. A long trench is dug as near the spot as convenient and is proper for such purpose, and into it are placed, lengthwise, the bodies of the unfortunate dead. Buried as found clothing, accoutrements, and sometimes the trusty gun goes into this long and narrow trench. The bodies having been put in, the earth is shoveled back, and all is over. This constitutes a burial after a battle. Hundreds buried together, intermingling men of different regiments, companies, colors and nations, all, all in their coats of blue.  One of the particular phases of such burials is the remarkable absence of conversation between the men engaged in the work.  The silence is almost painful.  Each is tilled with a solemnity not easily described, each struggling with his own thought, each endeavoring to keep hack the tears.

There were burials at sea; but the Third New Hampshire was spared that, though it came very near having such an experience. Niles of Company G died on shipboard (the Atkotie) in November, 1811, while we lay off Port Royal, and was buried on shore.  After we had established our little cemetery at Hilton Head near our camp, we removed the remains to the enclosure, and the grave was properly marked. This case is of especial interest inasmuch as the remains were again removed (by the Government) to the National cemetery at Beaufort, S. C., where the largest number of the regiment were buried. [3]

 The War Department did issue General Order 307, which directed the Quartermaster to furnish coffins and other reasonable and proper facilities for burial of officers who died in hospitals, upon requisition of the medical officer in charge.  (There was no mention of the enlisted dead.)

(photo: Antietam— Alexander Gardner took 70 photographs of the Antietam battlefield within two days of the historic battle. This one depicts a soldier looking upon a Union soldier’s grave with the body of a Confederate soldier seemingly tossed aside.)

 If the Union forces controlled the field after a fight, for example, the dead were often buried without ceremony somewhere on or near the site, either individually in separate graves or collectively in common graves. In many cases, those assigned to burial duty—often African Americans, who performed a variety of noxious duties for the Union army—left the dead in their uniforms or placed a blanket around them before interment. If such resources as pine coffins or burial containers were available, and time permitted, soldiers would be placed in them before being put in the ground, a procedure that rarely occurred in the early years of the war. Many soldiers on both sides expressed a great deal of fear that their bodies would be left to the enemy, which was understood as a fate worse than death.

Escape from the Valley of the Shadow Death

“On the afternoon of June 15th, following our defeat at Secessionville, under a flag of truce, a burial party was sent out to bury the dead in front of and around the rebel fort.  A Confederate soldier laying upon the ground, apparently dead. Some of the boys took the body and placed it in a hole in the ground, but before it could be buried, much to the consternation of the burying party the eyes opened. When of course he was taken out and a drink from one of the canteens was offered him. With a great deal of difficulty he spoke, and said to the man offering him water. ‘You drink first,” explaining later when he had revived, that he had been told the Yanks would poison him sure, if he was wounded and fell into their hands. He was sent to the rear with the wounded, and his fate I never knew.” —3rd NH Infantry Regimental History

Not to die Nameless

The federal government and Union soldiers themselves tried to ensure that bodies were identified with at least a name, a desire that led some soldiers to go into battle with their names and positions pinned onto their uniform (foreshadowing the popular use of dog tags in subsequent wars).  Again, when time allowed and when burial units were available, Union forces made an effort to avoid anonymous burial, identify graves, and keep records of who died during a battle, an effort that grew increasingly more sophisticated as the war dragged on.

In contrast to the lack of ceremony surrounding the disposition of the dead on or near fields of battle, conditions in Union camps and hospitals allowed for more conventional burial practices that maintained older traditions. Many more soldiers died of disease, and logistical plans were drawn to take care of these matters. Many also had space singled out for use as cemeteries, which provided a readily available and organized location for disposal.

General hospitals in larger towns seemed to be settings where more formal funeral observances could be carried out, especially for the Union. In addition to the presence of hospital nurses in these locations, members of the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission made burial of the dead more humane, respectful, and ritually satisfying. According to some firsthand accounts of Union hospitals in Virginia and elsewhere, the dead were given proper burials, which included religious services, the use of a coffin, a military escort from the hospital, the firing of arms, and an individual headboard with information about the deceased.

Regimental hospitals much closer to battlefields, on the other hand, could not offer the kind of attention that larger hospitals provided the dead. Descriptions of death and dying in these locations can be found in a number of soldiers’ letters and diaries. The presence of corpses, as well as other reminders of human mortality like piles of amputated limbs, did not evoke images of order and solemnity. Instead, death and burial had many of the same characteristics as found on fields of battle, though a rudimentary graveyard next to these hospitals allowed for a slightly more organized space for disposing of remains.

POW Burials

In addition to hospitals and battlefields, another location where Civil War dead could be buried included prisons. According to one account of prison burials by a Union soldier incarcerated in Georgia’s Andersonville Prison, treatment of the dead followed a fairly regimented set of procedures. These procedures included pinning the name of the deceased on his shirt, transportation to the prison “dead-house,” placement on a wagon with twenty to thirty other bodies, and then transferal to the cemetery, where a superintendent overseeing the burial ground would assume responsibilities for ensuring as adequate a burial as possible. Dead prisoners were placed in trenches, usually without any covering, and buried under prison dirt. The location of each body was then marked with a stake at the head identifying the soldier and the date of death.


Embalming and the Evolving Funeral Industry —

For family members and friends in the North, the prospect of loved ones dying far away from home, and being interred in what most considered to be profane Southern soil, led to a great deal of anguish.  Many Northerners were deeply disturbed by this prospect because it upset the norm —when a family experienced a death. In normal times, death occurred in the home, people had a chance to view the body before it disappeared forever, and burial took place in a familiar space, which usually included previously deceased family members and neighbors. These were not normal times, so some families, particularly the more affluent families in the North, would do whatever they could to bring the body home — either by making the trip south on their own, or paying someone to locate, retrieve, and ship the body north.

(photo: hearse marufacturing encreased production at the end of the Civil War) 

As a result of the desire to maintain familial control over the final resting place and, if possible, to have one last look before the body vanished, a new form of treating the dead appeared on the social scene, and paved the way for the birth of an entirely modern funeral industry. Undertakers who contracted with Northern families began to experiment with innovative means to preserve bodies that had to be shipped long distances on train cars, often during the hot summer months. The revolutionary practice that emerged in this context, embalming, provided both the military and Northern communities with a scientific, sanitary, and sensible way to move bodies across the land.

Making Sense of Death in Wartime

In the Civil War, two conflicting visions of American national life came into sharp relief against the backdrop of fields of bloodied bodies and widespread social anguish over the loss of sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands fighting for God and country.  Both Northerners and the Southerners believed God was on their side, and the nation envisioned by each a fulfillment of distinctive Christian commitments and values.  Although certain dead heroic figures had been intimately linked to the destiny of the nation from the Revolutionary War to the attack on Fort Sumter, the Civil War dramatically altered that linkage, and established a context for making sense of death in American culture.

The New National Cemeteries

The creation of military cemeteries, a new form of sacred space,  gave material expression to religious sensibilities tied to both Christianity and nationalism. First established during the war by the federal government, military cemeteries gave order to death by placing bodies of fallen soldiers in a tidy, permanent, and sacrosanct space that glorified both the war effort and the Christian virtues associated with it. In the midst of the war and in the immediate aftermath these cemeteries made profoundly political statements about Northern power, resources, and determination.

After Congress approved the purchase of land by the government in 1862, twelve new cemeteries located on or near major battlefields, Union camps and hospitals, and other military sites were authorized.  Most of them, including Robert E. Lee’s estate near the Potomac, were on Southern soil, thereby enhancing the political and sacral weight of each.

President Abraham Lincoln articulated the essential meanings of these cemeteries during his dedication speech at Gettysburg.  He transformed the bloodied ground and buried lifeless bodies into the rich symbolic soil nourishing Union ideology and American traditions. In the brief speech, Lincoln successfully integrated the fallen soldiers into American mythology, giving them a permanent, holy spot in the physical landscape and assigning them a pivotal, transcendent role in the unfolding of American history. He also gave voice to the incalculable national debt living American citizens owed to the dead.

 After the war, the victorious federal government began to ensure that as many Union soldiers as possible were identified and interred in the sacred space of national cemeteries. One of the first postwar national cemeteries was established on the grounds of Andersonville, a site that held profound symbolic meaning for Northerners who, by the end of the war, were outraged by the treatment of federal soldiers there. More than sixty cemeteries owned and operated by the government appeared across the North and South, and within the next decade nearly 300,000 bodies were reinterred. Trumpeting republican values and Christian morality, these cemeteries provided American citizens with an accessible space—in time, many became popular tourist destinations— that imposed a victorious national identity and promoted collective revitalization.

Both Northerners and Southerners kept certain deaths in mind and used them as a symbolic and inspirational resource throughout the fighting. For the Confederacy, one of the critical figures in the pantheon of heroic leaders was Stonewall Jackson. A paragon of Christian virtue and piety, Southern honor and pride, Jackson died after being accidentally wounded by one of his own men at the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. The example of his death, with a chaplain close at hand, his wife singing hymns, and a calm, peaceful demeanor during his last hours, aroused many downhearted Confederates and, in time, attained mythological standing in Southern culture.  

The Civil War conveyed a belief in the regenerative powers of violent death, and that redemption of both the individual and society followed in the wake of mass sacrifices by young men, some of whom grew hardened to the savagery and suffering taking place on American soil. For some soldiers who witnessed fighting firsthand, the meaning of death had nothing to do with religious notions like regeneration or redemption.  Soldiers on the battlefield, military and political leaders guiding the troops, and citizens back home reading eyewitness accounts or seeing visual depictions of the fighting assumed a more pragmatic, disengaged posture, and became indifferent to scenes of human carnage and the deaths of individual men. The question first raised by these attitudes—Does overexposure to death and violence lead to desensitization?—continues to plague twenty-first-century American society.[4]


The First Memorial Day

The words “Memorial Day” were first used in 1882, although Memorial Day was not officially declared in federal law until 1967.

The first Memorial Day was marked by former slaves who created proper, individual graves for fallen Union soldiers who had been buried en masse near a Confederate prison camp. On May 1, 1865, 10,000 former slaves gathered at the cemetery site they had rebuilt and elaborately decorated in Charleston, South Carolina. Their courage is inspiring, because they were making a large-scale public demonstration of their respect for fallen Union soldiers—within weeks of the end of the war. Their brave actions easily could have brought their families into harm’s way from white neighbors who still strongly supported the defeated Confederacy.

(photo: shows the land where a former Confederate prison camp stood (also the site of a pre-Civil War race course). The photo shows work beginning on raising the remains in April 1865 in preparation for the new cemetery that eventually would include a wall, an archway entrance and properly buried remains.)

According to research done by Yale historian David W. Blight Blight — preparing for that first Memorial Day was an expensive, back-breaking effort in which a proper cemetery actually was built from the ground up by African-American volunteers prior to May 1. On a spiritual level, these freed slaves were intent on starting their new lives by literally digging up and reshaping a key part of their past. The site of this first Memorial Day, once a local race course, had been a Confederate prison camp where Union soldiers’ bodies were heaped in a mass grave. Volunteers prepared for May 1, 1865, by digging up the discarded remains, burying them properly, adding a wall around the cemetery, plus a proper arched entryway for visitors. The site, today, is Hampton Park. If you know Charleston, you’ll realize there is no Civil War cemetery there now. Eventually, these remains were moved again to a new U.S. national cemetery in Georgia.

 For most of the 20th century, however, the “first” Decoration or Memorial Day was credited to Waterloo, New York, mainly because the freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina, didn’t have the connective clout enjoyed by the men promoting Waterloo’s ceremonies. News of the Charleston effort never spread across the U.S. and eventually vanished from our national memory. Of course, the Waterloo effort was noble, too, but its claim as our “first” now must be qualified as perhaps a “first in the North.”

Here is the Daily Courier coverage of that first Memorial Day, May 1, 1865 …


CHARLESTON, South Carolina—The ceremonies of the dedication of the ground where are buried two hundred and fifty-seven Union soldiers, took place in the presence of an immense gathering yesterday. Fully ten thousand persons were present, mostly of the colored population.


[1,2,3] The Third New Hampshire and All About It, by D. Eldredge, Captain 3rdNH Volunteer Infantry, Boston, Mass. Press of E.B. Stillings and Company,1893

“Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory” David W. Blight.(at Amazon.com)


Reminiscences of the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865, by Col. Elbridge J. Copp„ Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua NH  1911.

 [4] Civil War, U.S. - rituals, world, burial, body, funeral, life, history, cause, rate, time http://www.deathreference.com/Ce-Da/Civil-War-U-S.html#b#ixzz26NUKjtiZ

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