Share This Article

Almost overnight, the Civil War turned Washington, D.C., into a frenzy, with thousands of soldiers, camps, supply dumps,horses, artillery parks and new government offices vying for space in the capital city.

Riding down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol, a visitor found himself in the middle of constant activity, sharing the dusty road with soldiers and street vendors. In one shop a lady could buy a pair of satin slippers, while next door a load of hay was for sale.

Nearby, John Ford had just opened a new theater. Free concerts were given at the White House, and anyone could step up to the president and shake his hand, or watch him work at his desk. But always and everywhere, there was the shadow of war.

Washington was one of the worst pestholes. Well water was often contaminated by nearby latrines; Constitution Avenue was an open sewer filled with dead animals; and the Potomac River was already so polluted that President Abraham Lincoln had become ill from eating its fish. Garbage was eaten by pigs rooting openly in the streets. Hospitals had overflowing bedpans in the wards, and there were piles of trash on the grounds outside–no wonder that typhoid, dysentery and malaria spread everywhere.

Of all the people affected by the Civil War, little has been written about the one person without whose help the war would have been an even greater horror than it was–the Civil War undertaker.

Until the outbreak of the Civil War, methods to delay body decomposition consisted mainly of ice-cooling or encasing bodies in air-tight receptacles. Thomas Holmes, known as the father of embalming, conducted considerable research on embalming fluids to preserve cadavers for the few medical schools around the country. Holmes was registered in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York and had graduated as a medical surgeon.

Holmes criticized the use of poisonous compounds in the embalming fluids common at the time, since they caused many deaths and injuries to medical students during routine dissection at medical schools. His service as a New York City coroner in the late 1850s provided added opportunities for Holmes to pursue his own investigations and experiments into embalming fluids. By the outbreak of the Civil War, he had developed a safe embalming fluid, without poisons, and it was sold to many surgeons, anatomists and undertakers throughout the country.

Holmes’ reputation as an undertaker skyrocketed with his embalming of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, a former clerk in Lincoln’s Springfield law office who had also organized Zouave regiments in Chicago and New York.

On the morning of May 24, 1861, Ellsworth was shot and killed in Alexandria, Va., by a Southern-leaning innkeeper while attempting to remove the man’s Confederate flag. Lincoln, distraught, invited the Zouaves to take the body to the White House for the funeral service. It was Holmes’ good fortune, through the intercession of Secretary of State William Seward, to receive permission to embalm the body.

The embalming took place at the Washington Navy Yard and was quite successful. Cabinet members, senators and distinguished citizens in large numbers came to pay their respects. When Mrs. Lincoln viewed the body, she found Ellsworth’s face as natural as if he were merely enjoying a brief and pleasant sleep.

Washington newspapers published a glowing account of Ellsworth’s funeral, and Holmes’ reputation as a successful embalmer and undertaker was established in the nation’s capital. As the war progressed and casualties mounted, Holmes’ services were all too greatly in demand.

Through his own efforts and those of other undertakers and aspiring embalming surgeons he had trained, Holmes’ day-to-day operations reached substantial proportions. Most of the undertakers of the day were trained to use his embalming instruments and to purchase his embalming fluid at $3 per gallon.

Most of the Federal soldiers who were killed in battle were quickly buried and, if time permitted, their burial places were marked with crude headboards. Due to the lack of identification, however, and with the enemy removing all valuables and clothing from the dead soldiers, it was often impossible to identify the remains.

As a result, almost half of all Federal dead soldiers were placed in graves marked ‘unknown.’ The government sent no coffins to the front, although coffins were furnished at large assembly points and at the general hospitals. All of the coffins were made of wood; the metal coffin did not come into existence until the early 1870s.

Most undertakers had another full-time occupation, commonly that of either a cabinetmaker or furniture-maker. In this way, the embalmer could also make his own coffins, which typically sold from $4 to $7 each. Embalmers did a thriving business during the war, and their often ghastly advertisements met the eye of visitors in Washington and other large centers as well as at the front.

Where there were no family members to claim a body, the undertaker sometimes embalmed and dressed it in a new suit of clothes and placed it in one of his finer coffins for display in the front window for all to see. Understandably, such displays had a certain demoralizing influence on the Army and the public at large. After several complaints, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler ordered undertakers to cease this method of self-advertisement, at least around large military centers.

In the early part of the war, the cost of embalming was $50 for an officer and $25 for an enlisted man. Later, the price was increased to $80 and $30, respectively. One firm attempted to get a bill passed that would have given the firm exclusive rights to embalm the Federal dead. Another bill was introduced to Congress to authorize the creation of a corps of military undertakers for each division, but it failed to pass.

Embalmed bodies were placed in long wooden boxes, sometimes lined with zinc. On the lid was written the full name of the deceased and the address of the parents. Inside the box, along with the remains, were placed papers and other personal effects.

On the Confederate side, freelance undertakers and embalming surgeons were given safe passage between the lines, thus allowing them to ply their trade in Richmond as well as Washington.

Because of the lack of federal regulations governing undertakers, there were several cases of fraud and attempted extortion, so many that in March 1865 the War Department issued General Order Number 39, entitled ‘Order Concerning Embalmers.’ In part it read: ‘Hereafter no persons will be permitted to embalm or remove the bodies of deceased officers or soldiers, unless acting under the special license of the Provost Marshal of the Army, Department, or District in which the bodies may be. Provost Marshals will restrict disinterments to seasons when they can be made without endangering the health of the troops. Also license will be granted to those who can furnish proof of skill and ability as embalmers, and a scale of prices will be governed.’

The war ended a month after the order was issued, and it had little effect on embalming services for battlefield casualties. However, the order did represent the first major effort in the United States, and perhaps the world, to attempt to define professional requirements for undertakers and end the chaos of an unregulated work field. It would take the individual states an additional 30 years or more to duplicate the farsighted regulations.

Abraham Lincoln was shot on the evening of April 14, 1865. He died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. His body was entrusted to the firm of Brown and Alexander, Surgeons and Embalmers, in Washington. Henry P. Cattell was the stepson of Dr. Charles Brown’s brother and had embalmed Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, in February 1862. Now, three years later, he embalmed the president.

Whatever embalming had been done prior to the Civil War seems to have taken place within the context of medical pathology, and was based primarily on sanitation, specimen preservation, and other needs in connection with medical studies of the human body.

At the start of the Civil War, chemical embalming by injection was performed by men with medical training, since only they were familiar with the process. Undertakers had to perform the various tasks of removing, transporting and preparing the dead for funerals, and medical embalmers associated themselves with the undertakers and offered their special embalming techniques professionally for a fee.

The decade following the war found the surgeon-embalmer playing a less important role. As medical practitioners retreated from the field, undertakers advanced into it, and the period became one of great opportunity in which they experimented with new practices and ideas and improved the advancements gained during the war.

No longer unknown and untried, embalming had gained professional status and its new practitioners were widely seen as men who had done their part, in President Lincoln’s words, ‘to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.’


This article was written by James C. Lee and originally appeared in the November 1996 issue of America’s Civil War.

For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!