Last month it was time to change the display again in the Command Building at Ft. Detrick. I received the request to feature a product or process that changed or developed during the Civil War. I had a few options, but since the display was going to be installed just before Halloween, it seemed appropriate to highlight embalming!
Although the practice of embalming dates back to ancient Egypt, the procedure was not widely practiced in the United States until the Civil War. Since so many soldiers died far from their homes and their families usually wanted them buried at home, there was a need to preserve their bodies for the journey.
Another factor in making embalming known to the general public was the death of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth. Col. Ellsworth was a friend of President Lincoln, and was also the first officer to be a military casualty of the Civil War. On May 24, 1861, he was shot while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of a hotel in Virginia. Dr. Thomas Holmes, who is known as the father of modern embalming and who had recently opened an embalming office in Washington D.C., offered his services for free. No doubt he saw an opportunity to acquaint the public with his craft! Col. Ellsworth’s body was embalmed and displayed to the public at his funeral, and people were impressed with his “lifelike” look. After the President’s assassination, Mrs. Lincoln even requested the same procedure for him.
|A Harper’s Weekly newspaper from June 15, 1861 depicts the killing of Colonel Ellsworth.|
Embalmers of the time used a variety of different solutions for embalming. It was common to find various combinations of arsenic, creosote, mercury, turpentine, and alcohol in these solutions. Though effective for embalming, these solutions could be hazardous to the embalmers. They can also still be hazardous to the curators and collection managers who handle some of the embalming artifacts!
As the Civil War progressed, the demand for embalming services increased, and more people saw the opportunity to make some money by becoming embalmers. Embalming fees varied and usually were based on the soldier’s rank, or the supposed ability of his family to pay. Some embalmers would hang around the camps and promote their services – which was not great for morale! Others would search the battlefields for the highest ranking dead officers, hoping to make money by contacting their family and offering their services. Some sources claim that our Dr. Burr was not the most honest embalmer. He seems to be fairly well known for price gouging as well as for reselling the same grave markers for locally buried soldiers. There are even some stories which claim he robbed dead and dying soldiers as he searched the battlefields. He was not the only one, by any means. It was enough of a problem that in March 1865 the War Department issued General Order Number 39, "Order Concerning Embalmers." This order required, “…all who embalm or remove bodies of deceased officers or soldiers to obtain a special license...” It also set the prices which embalmers could charge. Unfortunately, this order came late enough in the war that it had very little effect.
|A closer look at General Orders No. 39, the Order Concerning Embalmers.|
Artifact photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.