Variable pricing for the dead

From Hennessy:

The Union winter encampment in Stafford in early 1863 teemed with life, but produced death on a daily, rhythmic basis. And death attracted entrepreneurs, intent on serving and capitalizing upon the desires of both the living and the dead. At least two embalmers worked within the Army of the Potomac that winter. They provided a full range of “vertically integrated” services (as we would say today), from caskets to the “disinfection” of long-buried bodies prior to shipment, to embalming of the recently dead. While it’s easy to scoff or flinch at such services, the embalmers filled a demand newly possible: sending the dead home to families for proper burials in their hometowns.

embalming shack Fredericksburg LOC

The improvised embalming shed of Doctor William J. Bunnell, “near Fredericksburg,” though precisely where is not known (certainly in Stafford County).  Note the canvas intended apparently intended to turn a porch into a work space. The note on the back of this stereo card images says, “Here the bodies of the dead that were to be sent North to their friends were embalmed. More than a hundred bodies were sometimes brought here in one day. During the first battle of Fredericksburg…several hundred bodies were here at one time to be embalmed.” The latter claim seems highly exaggerated, as a small percentage of the dead from Fredericksburg were recovered, and a still smaller percentage of those were transported home for burial.

I recently came across a letter written by a member of the 35th New York infantry on March 10, 1863 that touched on the subject.

Each train carries away from here one or more dead bodies. Any of these have been disinterred from localities where they were placed after the great fight; and after being put through what is called the “disinfecting process,” they are transportable. Many of those who die from day to day are embalmed soon after death, and are thus rendered suitable for examination and burial at home, perhaps a thousand miles away. Dr. Burr, one of the chief embalmers for the army, is a very pleasant gentleman, and always takes pleasure in explaining his process. The force pipe, in his process, is introduced to the heart of the subject, and a powerful pump injects the preserving fluid through all the arteries. In cold weather there is no trouble in beautifully preserving the subject, but in warm season the failures are about one in ten. His price for privates is $50, including coffin, and for officers $100.*

Burr embalming

Dr. Richard Burr, the embalmer mentioned in the New Yorker’s letter, demonstrating his method of embalming by injecting chemicals through the heart. In 1864, Burr was accused of embalming a soldier without permission, then refusing to release the body until the family paid the required fee.

Embalming involved the use of toxic chemicals that would prompt evacuations and the activation of HAZMAT units today.  I’m not sure what the process of “disinfection” of long-buried bodies entailed (perhaps some of you do), but I suspect it’s a wash of the same chemicals used for embalming. Additional thoughts are welcome.

*The letter appeared in the March 17, 1869 issue of the [Watertown] Northern New York Journal.

Remembrance Walk–Reflections in the National Cemetery (final words)

From Hennessy:  On this, the day after the anniversary of the the burials on the Bloody Plain at Fredericksburg, we give you the last of six stops on the Remembrance Walk.  If you wish to read the entire series, you can start here.  I presented these words on one of the lower terraces, not far from the entrance to the cemetery.

* * * * * * *

We have walked from the Bloody Plain to this place, this hill, unattainable to Union soldiers in December 1862, but later the resting place of hundreds of them.

The brutality and harshness of what took place on the bloody plain is vividly demonstrated here:  Of the nearly 1,000 bodies of Union soldiers recovered from the Bloody Plain after the war and reburied here, only TWO could be identified and re-interred in a marked grave.  Only two.  At Fredericksburg, the soldier’s nightmare of being buried and unknown on a plot of land far away was far too often a reality.

Fredericksburg National Cemetery.2238This National Cemetery, with its tidy rows, terraces, and beautiful landscape, is the nation’s attempt to remedy the horror and chaos of the battlefield and instead to accord dignity to those who fell.  It’s a reflection of a nation’s effort to soothe its battered, even disbelieving soul in the aftermath of a carnage few would have imagined years before.

The orderliness of the place allows us to contemplate those who fell as people, not casualties.

Of all our public spaces, none is more personal than a cemetery. In 1892, the sister of Major William C. Morgan, killed at North Anna, traveled from Maine to visit her brother’s grave here (grave #3615, on the right, seven rows beyond the Humphreys Monument).  She wrote to her sister that night.

 ….  my heart beat so I could hardly speak at the thought that I was so near the spot where the remains of my darling brother was buried…  …..   I wish my dear sister, that you could see it,   it is one of the most beautiful spots I ever saw,   at the head of the grave there is a beautiful Japonica tree which shades it,   I was pretty well overcome, and the tears dropped fast  I felt and know that he was beside me,  I knelt down on the grave and sobbed.

Because of the distances involved and the expense of travelling in the decades after the Civil War, most families could not visit–and indeed most graves here have likely never been visited by family, or indeed anyone.  That fact adds significance to your presence today. You are doing what so many mothers and wives and sisters and sons and daughters could not do. You have come here to remember.  The soldiers buried here asked nothing more than to be remembered.

Fredericksburg National Cemetery entrance.3084But this place is more than simply the collection of individual stories; it is more than the sum total of our personal musings over the tragic fates of fathers, sons, husbands, and families (every one of them was a tragedy).

This place is a testimony to the immensity of this war of ours. And it inevitably begs the question, why?  Why were these men willing to give their lives to seize or defend a ridge top or river crossing?  For what cause did they pay this immense cost—to suffer in what was unquestionably America’s most costly human tragedy?

I have spent most of my life reading the letters and diaries of these men and men like them.  I cannot escape the conclusion: the soldiers of this war had a deep understanding of the evolving nature and purpose of the war.  They understood well why they fought. And most of them committed to the effort with their whole being.  As evidence: Charles Engle of the 137th New York.

In June 1863 Charles Engle received a letter from his wife Charlotte.  Continue reading

Remembrance Walk, Stop 5: Civilians and War

From Hennessy:  [For stops 1-4, click here, here, here, and here.]

As we walked the Sunken Road last weekend, we stopped in front of the Innis house–a home that bears as many visible scars from battle as any house in America.  Becca Jameson shared the following.

* * * * * * * *

Here, in front of this battle-ravaged house, scarred inside and out, and near a house once famous, now gone, we remember….

….the civilians, their town, their world, and how war changed them all.

Home is our great refuge—a place of safety, of comfort.

Capricious, unpredictable war threatens both.

Refugees return to their shattered home.1253

A family in their shattered Fredericksburg home.

No town in American suffered longer or more variously than did Fredericksburg.  For two years, the town or surrounding landscape were successively occupied, bombarded, looted, marched through, and fought upon.

Few buildings were spared in the bombardment of December 11, 1862—155 years ago tomorrow and the battle that followed.  Some, like the Innis house, still bear the scars.

Many civilians fled, but perhaps 800 or so remained behind, huddled in basements, watching with a mixture of fear and curiosity.  Most of those who fled would stay away for years.  Even in the spring of 1865, fewer than half the white population of Fredericksburg was in their homes.

We know certainly that two civilians died during the bombardment on December 11. We know too that during the chaos of that day one baby was born, in a grocer’s house on Prince Edward Street. He would ever-after be known as “Shell-Baby.”

fighting-in-fredericksburg streets harpers weekly

Street fighting on Caroline Street

The bombardment and street fighting ushered the Union army into the town—eventually 30,000 men in the streets. They quickly found their way into empty houses and homes, and a quest for food and warmth soon turned to evil frolic, as Union soldiers looted.  Soldiers turned households inside out like old socks, filling streets and sidewalks with everything from pianos and featherbeds to dresses and children’s toys.

The victimized residents soon became famous as the “Fredericksburg sufferers.”  Outrage at the fate of Fredericksburg’s residents prompted probably the biggest relief effort in the nation’s history up to that time.  From across the South and from within Lee’s army came donations as recompense—eventually as much as $250,000 (the equivalent of about $4.5 million today).

* * * * * * *

Dramatic though the bombardment and looting were, they caused damage that could be repaired, losses that could be recovered.

By far the most dramatic effect of the Civil War on this community came in human form: the end of slavery.


A slave family within Union lines, likely in Stafford County

Fully half the population of the Fredericksburg region endured slavery.  Continue reading

Remembrance Walk, Stop 4: the Bloody Plain–fear and courage

From Hennessy:  [For earlier stops on the walk, see here, here, and here.]

We continue to present the words from the Fredericksburg Remembrance Walk on Sunday, December 10.  The walk included six stops, where visitors had the chance to place a flower and staff presented some thoughts on the site.  Frank O’Reilly delivered these words in front of the stone wall, on the Bloody Plain–on a part of the field not reached by Union troops on December 13, 1862.

* * * * * * *

Fredericksburg as seen from Marye's Heights.1499

Marye’s Heights in the foreground, the Bloody Plain beyond. This image was taken from what is now the National Cemetery.

Here, on the edge of the Bloody Plain that witnessed the advance of more than 20,000 Union soldiers, we remember both fear and courage, deeply intermingled.

The soldiers of the Union army who entered what was then a vast open plain west of Fredericksburg had a good idea of what confronted them. And they disliked their chances.  But still they came.

A soldier wrote on December 12:

Tomorrow we anticipate a dreadful engagement; of the result we are not too hopeful, for we are aware of the almost impregnability of the enemy’s position, his great force and desperate condition.  We have confidence in Burnside, faith in the justice of our cause, and believe, with the slightest shadow of doubt, that victory will crown our arms.  With this hope we will rest.

Just before the advance, a Union soldier approached his company commander in town.

“I can’t go, Captain.”

 “Why not?  Are you sick?”

 “No.  But I can’t go.  I have a family at home, and I must support them.  If I go over there I will be killed.”

 And, wrote a witness, the strong man commenced to cry….

This was a landscape whose horror would lodge in the American consciousness.  500 yards of open field, broken only the remnant fences of the town’s fairgrounds and a single house, owned by wheelwright Allen Stratton.  This would be the defining landscape of Fredericksburg.

The thousands of soldiers who dared to enter the bloody plain struggled with the great dilemma that confronts every soldier—the competing forces of fear and duty. Narratives of the Civil War—be they modern studies or eyewitness accounts—invariably discuss courage at length and fear very little. Not at Fredericksburg.


Union troops after the Battle of Fredericksburg

Fear was omnipresent among Union soldiers on this field, and they freely admitted it.  Continue reading

Remembrance Walk, Part 3–The original stone wall and its defenders

Confederates in the Sunken Road.1234From Hennessy:  Here is stop 3 on Saturday’s Remembrance Walk, at the original stone wall.  Greg Mertz delivered this text.  For parts 1 and 2 click here and here.

Here we remember….the Sunken Road, the stone wall, and the men who defended it.  Before you is the only surviving section of the original stone wall that bordered the Sunken Road.

No physical feature on any battlefield of the war had a greater impact on the magnitude of victory than this one. While more than 1,000 Southern men fell killed or wounded in this road (let’s not forget that that number by itself is horrific and unimaginable), more than seven times that many Union soldiers fell in the uncluttered fields in front of the stone wall.

Sunken Road--original wall--cropped

The original stone wall, with the Innis House in the background

For thousands of young men from Georgia and the Carolinas, this wall was salvation.  For some, like Richard Kirkland, the wall offered only temporary reprieve—he would die at Chickamauga in September 1863.  But for hundreds, perhaps thousands of others, this wall helped ensure a journey home at war’s end, rather than an unmarked or forgotten grave far from family and community.

Fredericksburg was a battle of panoramas—broad, sweeping vistas that, in the moment, stirred the spirits of any Confederate watching it.

“How beautifully they came on!” remembered one Confederate.  “Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel.”

But those panoramas quickly narrowed to the faces of men struggling for life.

This wall gave the Confederates an advantage that translated into death and suffering for their enemies in front.  A Georgian remembered:

Killing ground cropped

The Killing Ground, by Mark Churms.  The Innis house and stone wall are at the bottom.

“We waited until they got within about 200 yards of us & rose to our feet & poured volley after volley into their ranks which told a most deadening effect.  They soon began to waver & at last broke from the rear, but the shouts of our brave soldiers had scarcely died away when we saw coming another column more powerful and seemingly more determined than the first (if possible) …..I have been in many engagements before but I never saw in my life such a slaughter.”  [William Montgomery, Phillips Legion of Georgia] Continue reading

Remembrance Walk, Part 2: Remembering those who defied war’s horrors to help

From Hennessy:  To see Part 1, click here.

This constituted our second stop on Sunday’s Remembrance walk.  This passage was read by Beth Parnicza at the Kirkland Memorial

* * * * * * * *

We should be repelled by war and warfare.  They are an exercise in pain, aiming to inflict enough harm and anguish to compel an opposing army to collapse or a society to give up.  In that, Fredericksburg is a case study.

The battle here in December 1862 very nearly brought the Union army to its knees. At the same time, what happened here made clear that civilians and their homes would not always be spared.  The fortitude and commitment of white Southerners to all that the Confederacy represented to them would be challenged again and again. Until Appomattox.

But despite all the suffering and struggle entailed by war, we are compelled to look.  We are attracted by it.  Why?

One powerful reason: the immense challenges and even inhumanity of war almost always inspires people to great and selfless acts of humanity.  We are awed by such acts, which often entail immense courage. We often wonder of ourselves:  could we, would we have done the same?

And so here we remember….Richard Kirkland and those like him who, amidst crushing inhumanity, endeavored to help those in peril or pain.

Kirkland2Richard Kirkland was only 19 at Fredericksburg, with only ten months to live. He and his fellow South Carolinians joined the fight in the Sunken Road late that winter afternoon.  Like his fellow Confederates, he endured the cold of the night after, and the sounds of the wounded left on the Bloody Plain.

The next day, he could endure the sounds no more. He went to his brigade commander, Joseph Kershaw, in the Stevens house.  “General, I can’t stand this,” Kirkland said. Kirkland request permission to cross the wall to help the wounded.

General Kershaw at first said no, warning Kirkland that he would be killed.  Kirkland insisted, and finally Kershaw conceded. He gave permission, and Richard Kirkland THANKED him–THANKED his commander for permitting him to risk his life to help others.

And so Kirkland crossed the wall, armed only with canteens.

Richard Kirkland succors the wounded.1693The distant Union troops—about 150 yards away—quickly saw Kirkland’s intent. No bullets whizzed his way.  For 90 minutes, Kirkland moved about the field among the Union wounded, giving water, placing knapsacks as pillows—caring for chilled men lying in bloody muck.  For 90 minutes, Kirkland did his work, then returned to the Sunken Road and its protective wall, unharmed.

Men on both sides performed acts of kindness, here and elsewhere.  Three weeks after the battle, a train bearing the body of Confederate Captain Edward P. Lawton arrived at Falmouth station, in the midst of the Union camps in Stafford.  Lawton had been wounded on the south end of the field December 13, captured, and had died in a hospital in Alexandria. Continue reading

Fredericksburg Remembrance Walk–The Children (A Different Approach to the Fredericksburg Anniversary)

From Hennessy:  This year, we decided to take a different approach to the Fredericksburg Battle Anniversary. For the last two decades we have held a rather static event, always in front of the Kirkland monument, always with re-enactors providing color and presence, an emcee, and a keynote speaker.

This year we experimented with something more dynamic, something that was not explicitly commemorative, but instead allowed visitors to make a gesture if they wished to, at the site of their choosing. This year, we walked the Sunken Road–the 28th Massachusetts and 47th Virginia leading the way–stopping at sites that help tell the story of the battle in different ways. We began with a stop that explored the experience of children. At the Kirkland monument, we spoke of those who defied the conventions of war and helped in notable ways. We stopped at the original stone wall and talked of those who defended Marye’s Heights, and at the Innis House, where we recalled the varied experiences of civilians.  We concluded stops on the Bloody Plain and in the National Cemetery, where we offered reflections the meaning and significance of the war, and why those who gave their lives ought to be remembered.

Along the way,  we invited visitors to leave a flower as a remembrance any of these sites they chose.  And we asked them to see the war through different lenses.

Of course the actual anniversary of the battle now upon us, and I thought over the coming days we would post each of the six stops we made, with the words presented and a few supplemental pictures.  We had a different member of the staff present at each stop.

Today we give you our first stop, at the Ebert Family house site–an overlooked place just north of the Kirkland monument. There we spoke of the children.

* * * * * * * * *

We gather here to remember an event that at its core was horrific—a deadly cascade of humanity across what were the open fields beyond us.  Battles are hard things.

War and battle imposed suffering and struggle, all punctuated by loss.

So why do we come to a place like this?

In the midst of the worst that humanity can produce, we wonder at the human qualities that are called forth to confront such an ordeal.  These qualities we seek to understand and sometimes come to admire an emulate.

War’s tendrils touched every fiber of this community.

Here, at this spot, in front of the site of the Ebert House:  we remember the children

Here in 1862 lived Anna Ebert 7, Dorothy Ebert 5, and their little brother Albert Ebert 2—all of them the children of Henry and Sophia, Prussian immigrants who in 1858 moved into the small, picturesque house that stood at the turn in this road.

ebert and sunken road from brent

The Ebert House at left, with the Sunken Road and Innis House. beyond. From the collection of Jerry Brent, courtesy Lou Brent

This, now famous as the Sunken Road, was in 1862 the Telegraph Road. Here it curved into Fredericksburg, following what is today Kirkland Street. Coming from the south, this was the main access into Fredericksburg—the I-95 of its day, carrying goods and passenger coaches, bearing the footfalls of farmers, the famous (including, probably, Abraham Lincoln), and the enslaved, doing their owner’s business.  In fact if you look closely you can see that on the west side of the road the stone wall in front of Brompton is bowed a little bit–an indentation. That was put there to allow for a wider turning radius for large wagons making the turn into town.

Ebert house.1949

The Ebert House not long before it was torn down in the 1950s. The Ebert family owned the house into the 1940s. The Telegraph Road is in the foreground. It was likely in this road that the Ebert Children piled into a wagon on December 11, and then fled to escape coming battle.

Soon after moving in, Henry Ebert opened a small grocery in this house on the turn of this road. Intermittently for most of the next 80 years, travelers and children alike stopped here for a gingerbread cookie or piece of candy.

In the predawn morning of December 11, 1862, the boom of two cannons echoed over this landscape, signaling that the Union attempt to cross the river had begun.  Union General Burnside’s decision to cross at Fredericksburg, and Robert E. Lee’s decision to contest that crossing, fated Fredericksburg itself to be a battlefield.

The Ebert’s middle child, Dorothy, later remembered the scurrying that followed the booms of those cannons that morning, soon swelling into a roar. Henry hitched his team and pulled the family wagon around. Mother and children piled in, and with shells bursting over Fredericksburg, the Ebert family headed along the Sunken Road into Spotsylvania County, to safety.

All over town families suffered even more harrowing ordeals that day. Young Samuel Beale and his family huddled in the basement of their house on Lewis street, literally praying for relief. A 12-pound cannonball struck the house, dislodging a brick that in turn struck Samuel.  Continue reading