In World War I, the American public fought plans to bury fallen soldiers abroad, giving rise to a tradition that is now sacred
THE GENERAL WEPT when he heard the news. About 3 a.m. on November 3, 1917, German troops overran an isolated Allied outpost near Verdun, killing three men from the 16th Infantry who had slipped into the trenches for their combat debut only hours before. These were the first of Jack Pershing’s men to die in the Great War. One was shot between the eyes; another had his skull smashed. The third was found face down, his throat cut. All three were buried near where they had died, amid the beautiful rolling hills of northeastern France. This was as it should be, General Pershing believed. There was no time to bring fallen soldiers back to the States, he said, nor any space on ships crossing the Atlantic. And he couldn’t bear to think of mothers opening caskets to see their boys ravaged by the fearsome new weapons of the industrial era. Within days, however, the War Department discovered that the families and friends of the dead thought differently. Letters and telegrams arrived in Washington asking when the soldiers’ remains would be shipped home. Grand funerals were planned. No matter that the men had died an ocean away or that the war was still going on. Bring them home. This was a refrain Pershing and the military establishment would hear for the rest of the war, indeed, for years afterward. History had given the American people definite ideas about what to do with the war dead. And they weren’t to be denied.
PERHAPS THE EARLIEST ACCOUNT of a country bringing home its fallen soldiers comes from the Greek historian Thucydides. He wrote about an Athenian ceremony to honor those killed in the early battles of the Peloponnesian War, the decades-long clash between Athenians and Spartans in the fifth century BC. Although the dead had been cremated at the battlefield, their bones were brought back to the city and laid out in tents. Friends and relatives brought flowers and ornaments in tribute. On the fourth day, the remains were placed in cypress coffins and buried in lush gardens.
Pericles, the great Athenian general, statesman, and advocate of democracy, delivered a funeral oration with themes that echoed hundreds of years later in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The fallen deserved the highest glory because they had been citizen-soldiers fighting to preserve a great nation, Pericles told his countrymen. Athens at the time was a fledgling democracy. As such, Pericles said, it would become “only what the heroism of these and their like have made her.”
Few countries, if any, accorded such honor to the common soldier over the next couple thousand years. Battlefield victories were often secured by mercenaries and credited to kings, generals, and deities who were then glorified in temples and monuments built in their names. A warrior who fought on the front lines, meanwhile, was cast into a hastily dug trench or pit, awarded not even his own grave. As late as the American Revolution, the fallen soldier was largely abandoned in the field.
The devastation of the American Civil War forced a change in outlook. Like the Athenians, the men on both sides of the conflict were citizen-soldiers who sacrificed their lives for ideals. Collectively, that sacrifice was astounding. At least 750,000 men died, more than the country has lost in any war before or since. Americans had never confronted losses of this magnitude; only 13,000 had died in the most recent conflict, the Mexican-American War. Now, death seemed to touch everyone.
Battlefields presented the most gruesome carnage. After Shiloh in 1862, one of the deadliest battles of the war, Major General Ulysses S. Grant wrote of a field “so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” But war’s ravages reached hundreds of miles behind the lines as well. In Washington, where many of the wounded were brought to hospitals, the air held the stench of death. Thanks to the advent of photojournalism, people opened their newspapers to see images of battlefield corpses for the first time. When Mathew Brady exhibited photos of the dead from Antietam in his Manhattan gallery, the New York Times wrote, “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
No one was prepared for death on such a scale, says Drew Gilpin Faust in her fascinating 2008 book, This Republic of Suffering. What to do with so many bodies? One week after Antietam, with the dead still unburied, a Union doctor described a line of “at least a thousand blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.” Gettysburg, meanwhile, yielded an estimated six million pounds of flesh, both human and animal.
Battlefield burials were often improvised affairs. To fit the bodies into graves, men stomped on arms and legs stiff with rigor mortis. One observer of mass burials said that bodies were “covered over much the same as farmers cover potatoes and roots to preserve them from the frost of winter; with this exception, however: the vegetables really get more tender care.”
Such an ignominious end to life troubled many. Faust notes that Americans of the mid-19th century fervently believed in some variant of the Protestant notion of a Good Death: Men should die with dignity and grace, facing the end resolutely and surrounded by family. Yet the typical death of a soldier in the Civil War was nothing like that. Men at the front saw the treatment of the dead and begged for a burial at home should they die. “It is dreadful,” wrote one, “to contemplate being killed on the field of battle without a kind hand to hide one’s remains from the eye of the world or the gnawing of animals or buzzards.”
A year into the war, the bodies could no longer be ignored. On July 17, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law authorizing the creation of new national cemeteries to bury the war dead. Famously, one of these was sited on Robert E. Lee’s Virginia estate near Washington, now Arlington National Cemetery.
The choice of Lee’s former home for a graveyard was a bit of revenge orchestrated by Montgomery C. Meigs, the Union’s quartermaster general. But Meigs took his job as guardian of the fallen soldier seriously. After the war, collecting from Union commanders whatever burial records were available, he sent teams of soldiers throughout the South and into Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the West to collect the dead from their battlefield gravesites, identify the bodies, then give each a proper burial in a spot of honor. (The few efforts to recover the Confederate dead were largely organized by women volunteers.)
The work was not easy. Foliage had grown over graves, and rains had washed away markings. Bones of Confederate and Union soldiers were hopelessly mingled. But Meigs’s men persisted for five years. Ultimately, they recovered all but 26,000 of the Union’s 342,000 fatalities, laying thousands to rest in one of 74 new national cemeteries. It was an unprecedented effort. “Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment, the world has never witnessed,” said Edmund Whitman, one of the Union officers leading recovering efforts.
ABOUT A QUARTER CENTURY after Meigs’s men recovered their last body, President William McKinley took America to war again, this time against the Spanish in Cuba and Puerto Rico. A Civil War veteran who at 19 fought at Antietam, McKinley had been greatly affected by the death he had seen. After the last shot was fired in the Spanish-American War, he quickly dispatched teams to recover fallen soldiers. The United States did the same after the 1901–1902 Philippine-American War.
The New York Times hailed these efforts as an “innovation in the world’s history of warfare.” It was fitting, the newspaper declared, that the bodies of soldiers who died abroad “should be gathered with tender care and restored to home and kindred.”
By the time World War I concluded in 1918, however, U.S. military leaders balked at a similar recovery effort. And no wonder. Initial estimates suggested that more than 70,000 men had been buried in temporary battlefield graves. Even the relatively small efforts to reclaim the few thousand dead from the previous foreign conflicts had been costly and difficult. David H. Rhodes, a former landscape gardener at Arlington cemetery, had supervised those operations, slogging hundreds of miles through jungles and over rugged, mountainous terrain amid threats from insurgents, monsoons, and disease. In a final report, Rhodes pointedly noted that the venture was “an extremely hazardous operation for the safety of the dead, as well as the living.”
U.S. allies, meanwhile, were horrified at the idea of Americans digging up their dead and shipping them home. The British government worried that its own people would demand the same for its more than 700,000 dead. French leaders, meanwhile, envisioned ghoulish trains packed with bodies crisscrossing their countryside. Arguing that France had to concentrate on rebuilding, they banned removal of bodies for three years.
Within the United States, powerful figures—including General Pershing and much of the military leadership—organized to argue that burying servicemen at the battlefield with their fallen comrades offered the greatest glory. Former president Theodore Roosevelt spoke to this when his son Quentin, an American pilot, was shot down over France in July 1918, then laid to rest with full military honors by German troops. Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, objected when told their son’s remains would be brought home.
“To us it is painful and harrowing long after death to move the poor body from which the soul has fled,” he wrote. “We greatly prefer that Quentin shall continue to lie on the spot where he fell in battle and where the foeman buried him.”
Standing against all this logic and power were thousands of Americans who demanded that the government bring home their dead. They contended that the government had to do what it had done in wars before. One mother from Brooklyn wrote: “My son sacrificed his life to America’s call, and now you must as a duty of yours bring my son back to me.”
Another begged for her son’s return in terms that illustrated the lasting power of the Good Death ideal: “Pleas send his body home to us as soon as you can and tell me…how bad he was hert and if he had a chance to say eny thing be for he died oh if I could of bin with him.”
Nearly a year after the armistice—two years after the first of Pershing’s troops had been killed—a compromise was forged. The War Department announced in October 1919 that it would survey each of the fallen soldiers’ next of kin. They could choose to bring home remains or have them buried in newly created American military cemeteries in Europe. Ballots were sent to nearly 80,000 families, and in kitchens and living rooms across the country, the bereaved sat down to decide how best to honor their loved ones.
IN LATE 1920, the French finally yielded to American pressure and lifted their ban on the return of bodies. The United States spent the next two years and more than $30 million—$400 million in today’s dollars—recovering its dead. The remains of 46,000 soldiers were returned to the States at their families’ request, while another 30,000—roughly 40 percent of the total—were laid to rest in military cemeteries in Europe.
The grisly exhumations horrified some witnesses. Author Owen Wister and diplomat Thomas Nelson Page wrote in the New York Times: “Out of these holes were being dragged—what? Boys whom their mothers would recognize? No! Things without shape, at which mothers would collapse.”
British writer Stephen Graham bitterly surveyed the caskets stacked on the docks of Calais waiting to be shipped to the States and wrote: “America feels that she is morally superior to Europe. American soil is God’s own country and the rest is comparatively unhallowed.”
But a sacred tradition had been born. After World War II, with 359,000 American dead scattered across both hemispheres, the military mounted a six-year recovery effort that yielded the remains of 281,000. (Nearly 80,000 were missing in action, most lost at sea.) In the Korean War, America redoubled its commitment to the dead. The fast-changing battle lines in that conflict left little time for soldiers to dig temporary graves, so the dead for the first time were carried from the front and shipped home even while hostilities continued. During the Vietnam War, soldiers’ remains often reached home within a week. Today, of course, the dead are whisked home in a matter of days.
Other countries have followed America’s lead. Britain, for one, committed to bringing its war dead home after the 1982 Falklands War.
Even Jack Pershing seemed to come to terms with the idea of returning the war dead to the States. On July 10, 1921, he was on the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, to greet the first transports bringing home American fatalities of World War I. Caskets with the remains of 7,264 men stretched out on the pier for a quarter mile, including those of the men recorded as the army’s first combat fatalities.
Pershing spoke at a ceremony honoring those three, the same men whose deaths had brought him to tears. With their caskets arranged before him, Pershing stood straight and tall as he delivered an emotional tribute to all the Americans who had died in the war. Sounding much like Pericles, he spoke of men who deserved great glory because they had fought for freedom. “They gave all,” he said, “and they have left us their example. It remains for us with fitting ceremonies, tenderly with our flowers and our tears, to lay them to rest on the American soil for which they died.”
Afterward, he laid wreaths on the coffins of the three men. Within days, each was returned to his hometown and buried with honor by friends and family.
Drew Lindsay is executive editor of MHQ.