The Quick and the Undead; or, A Secret Sharer Outbound

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 Army of the Potomac. The story, 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.

Union depot at Aquia Landing. Courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,

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,

[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, 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 Massachusetts, and 21st New York Infantry among them–whose stories became intertwined with those of the campaigns around Fredericksburg.

John Brooks operated as a packet steamer between Boston and Portland after the war. Around 1899, scrappers purchased and burned the vessel to remove its 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. Both images appear 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.

4 thoughts on “The Quick and the Undead; or, A Secret Sharer Outbound

  1. 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

  2. Reminds me of a tale, I believe by Mark Twain, about a body to be transported by rail during a freezing winter, (1890’s) The body was mistakenly left at the depot, while a large wooden crate of Limburger cheese was shipped in it’s place. The crate was placed in the baggage car along with the assigned male chaperon. While the trip progressed and the stove warmed the rail car. The conversation between the baggage handler and the decedent’s escort became more concentrated on the aroma coming from the “corpse”. The story is hilarious, they were doing anything they could do to get away from the stench! They didn’t know whether to hang onto a rail outside in the freezing wind or warm with the acrid company of the “body”.

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