Posted by: The staff | October 30, 2012

The Quick and the Undead? A Secret Sharer Outbound? (and an Aquia Steamboat in Color)


from: Harrison

On May 23, 1863, in the wake of defeat at Chancellorsville, Washington’s Daily National Republican conveyed some brief but vivid and mysterious tidings from the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. The tale, to the extent it was known, opened amidst the sprawling Federal camps and logistical facilities in Stafford County:

Day before yesterday morning the body of a soldier, exhumed for the purpose of being sent to Washington for embalment, was placed on board the John Brooks at Aquia Creek.

Drawing of Union depot at Aquia Landing. Courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, http://www.mfa.org; included above at same magnification made available online, and in accordance with the Museum’s posted policy on fair-use of materials in educational, non-profit venues.


A party of four men, the newspaper added, had carried the soldier’s coffin “with averted faces to avoid the unwholesome odor which arose from the decomposed remains.”

Edward Lamson Henry watercolor of the transport steamer John Brooks, “on the Potomac below Washington,” November 1864. Courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, http://www.mfa.org, included above at same magnification made available online, and in accordance with the Museum’s posted policy on fair-use of materials in educational, non-profit venues.


[I]n due time the box arrived at Sixth street wharf in this city. But when the agents of Drs. Brown and Alexander stepped on board to seize the sacred deposit, lo! the cage was found empty—the bird had flown. Subsequent investigation led to the belief that one of Uncle Sam’s soldiers had run away from his regiment in a coffin!

Besides providing some of the setting for this Halloweenish mystery, the John Brooks would at other times during the Civil War carry unambiguously alive personnel from a number of Federal regiments and batteries–the First Maine Heavy Artillery, and the Second Rhode Island, Third Michigan, Ninth and 13th Massachsetts, and 21st New York Infantry among them–whose stories became closely intertwined with the campaigns around Fredericksburg.

After the war the Brooks operated as a packet steamer between Boston and Portland. She was eventually purchased by scrap dealers, who burned her in Boston in 1899 to more easily remove the iron.

Noel G. Harrison

Museum of Fine Arts link for the Aquia drawing online is here; that for the John Brooks watercolor is here (although misspelled “Brooke” in the catalog). The Museum’s policy on fair-use is here.

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Responses

  1. Creative way of leaving the army. Obviously other people were in on it. Great story.

  2. Did he have help? Maybe not. What if the crafty fellow had an opportunity between the disinterment of the coffin and the loading onto the steamer to dispose of the body and climb in? I suspect the smell would have remained with the coffin long enough to be unpleasant. Perhaps the coffin sat on a remote area of the dock for some time until loaded? The crew would have certainly delayed this cargo until the last possible moment. A single body found down-river some time later during a time of war probably would not have raised too many questions.

    • Theron and Russ, Thank you for the close reads. And of course we always wonder how much the newspaper omitted, rearranged, or embellished. Theron, The reusing of an already odiferous coffin is a great theory… with your Marie Roget-ish vision of floating bodies bringing even more of an E.A. Poe cast to the story. Russ, Yes maybe another example of the informal network of soldiers or civilians who helped Federal deserters out of sympathy, or for pay. Incidentally, there are also some interesting parallels here with Henry “Box” Brown’s antebellum journey to freedom via this same Aquia Landing. Noel


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