Due to untreatable diseases, poor nutrition, and general ignorance of how to foster health, death was a constant companion of the Victorian. Because death was so common (and as a way of creating the illusion of some control over death), the Victorians developed a protocol on how to die.
As noted by Drew Gilpin Faust (1), This concept of dying properly or “the good death” was severely challenged by the mass carnage of the Civil War (2). The Victorians responded by attempting to accommodate their notion of the good death with the changed conditions. We will summarize this process with CAPITALS INDICATING ELEMENTS OF “THE GOOD DEATH,” CL refers to condolence letters, which were often used to try to bridge the gap between the ideal death and the one the soldier actually experienced. Condolence letters sometimes had ulterior motives, such as soliciting sympathy from the home folk for what the soldiers had to endure.
IN WARTIME, CERTAIN RULES SHOULD BE FOLLOWED. Yet sharpshooters and bushwackers picked off soldiers unaware, and prisoners were sometimes killed. Sharpshooters were accepted grudgingly as a necessary evil; while those violating the rules of war were subject to summary execution.
PEOPLE DIED SINGLY, AMONG FAMILY AND FRIENDS. Yet battle deaths were en masse; scarcely a family left untouched. The company became a surrogate family, with CL often claiming the deceased was well-liked, and even loved, by his comrades.
DEATH WAS PREPARED FOR, AS SHOWN BY LAST WORDS. Yet soldiers often died suddenly and unexpectedly. To show preparedness for death, CL might note premonitions or prior professions in God.
DYING SAVED. But many soldiers died infidels. If he soldier died after professing faith, CL would say so. If he died infidel, CL would not say so, but emphasize other virtues of the deceased.
DEATH FACED BRAVELY. Yet soldiers sometimes died in a delirium. CL might state he died facing the foe, or faced death from wounds or disease bravely.
DEATH WITHOUT SUFFERING. But soldiers often died in pain. If there was no suffering, CL would say so and/or note the peaceful look on the deceased’s face. If there was suffering, CL a) would not mention, or b) say he stood it bravely or stoically.
DEATH WAS NOT IN VAIN, AS THE ELDERLY HAD LIVED A FULL LIFE, WHILE INFANTS WERE SPARED LIFE’S TRAVAILS. Yet soldier deaths hit mainly those in the flower of youth (which seems especially pointless) and the good and evil randomly. CL would mention importance of the deceased’s sacrifice to preserve and sanctify the nation. If the evil died, it was punishment for a wicked life. If the good died, it was a rescue from an evil world to a better one. When inexplicable, death was chalked up to the inscrutable purposes of God/ Providence.
THE FAMILY KNEW WHETHER ONE WAS DEAD. But a soldier might turn up missing with no word of his fate. Commanding officer or comrades would write CL, telling what they knew of the soldier’s fate. Some wrote letters to be sent in case of their own death, or made pacts with comrades to notify each other’s relatives. Some took comfort (?) in hoping that a missing soldier might turn up alive.
BODIES WERE TREATED WITH RESPECT. Yet soldier bodies were often looted, sometimes trampled by horses, and in a few cases abused (e.g., using skulls as footballs). Looting was rationalized: the dead have no use for the property, and if I don’t take it, someone else will. Abusers of the dead were branded as low-lifes.
THE BODY WAS EMBALMED FOR THE DAY OF RESURRECTION. Some soldier bodies were destroyed & lost, others left to molder. Bodies were embalmed when they could; in other cases CL would cite the unimportance to God of preservation of the physical body, and that a new body would be provided at the Resurrection.
FUNERALS WERE ELABORATE. But soldiers were often buried without ceremony. The elaborate military funerals held when possible (as in winter camp) had to serve as surrogates for all who died.
THE DEAD WERE BURIED, AND IN COFFINS. Yet some dead soldiers were left to rot where they lay, or buried so shallowly they emerged. Coffins were reserved for transported bodies. The side left in possession of the battlefield usually made an effort to find and bury all bodies after the battle. Indeed, during lulls in the fighting truces were sometimes called for that purpose.
GRAVES WERE MARKED. Whereas soldiers were often buried anonymously, sometimes in mass graves. At war’s beginning, comrades who knew the deceased would see that the grave was marked, and note its location. The U.S. Christian Commission and the U.S. Sanitary Commission also recorded deaths and burial places. As early as 1864, the Federal government (only) undertook to identify and mark all graves. If (as was more often the case) a deceased was buried as an unknown, CL might say that God would be able to find his own.
BURIAL WAS AT HOME. But only a few soldiers could be shipped home. The home folk might go to the battlefield to try to recover a loved one’s body, or erect a memorial stone over a vacant grave at home. The body may molder, but the stone remains.
THE DEAD WERE REMEMBERED. But soldiers had no time to dwell on lost comrades. During the war, memorial poems were occasionally published in newspapers. After the war, “Memorial Day” was invented to prevent the dead from being forgotten.
THERE WAS A GRIEVING PROTOCOL FOR ALL EQUALLY: MOURNING CLOTHES, MOURNING BAND. Yet such niceties were rarely observed for dead soldiers, and then only for higher-ups. Mourning for higher-ups had to serve as proxies for all. Thus, mourning bands that sprang up when Lincoln was shot were as much for all Union dead as for Abe.
CHANGES WROUGHT BY THE WAR
There were a few changes wrought by the war:
1. Embalming became common.
2. Cemeteries became matters of public concern.
3. Belief that one’s actual body would be resurrected waned.
4. The military regularized casualty reporting, interments and graves registry.
5. Some individuals became cynical atheists (Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes).
Nevertheless, rather than having their attitudes changed by the war, most Victorians reverted to their prewar attitudes and behavior toward death,
a) “rehumanizing” the dead that had been treated like so much dead meat during the war.
b) emphasizing in memorial speeches that the deaths were not meaningless, but rather served to purify and strengthen the American Republic.
SAMPLE CONDOLENCE LETTERS
HOW TO DO IT
The following letter hits many of the points mentioned above.
Although we have never met, I trust that the importance of this missive will excuse the informality.
It pains me to inform you that your beloved husband Homer is no more. On the Third instant we were assaulting the enemy’s position, with Private Smith in the forefront, when a piece of shell entered his side. We were able to bear him off the field to the surgeon’s tent. He was aware that the wound was mortal, but bore the pain manly and expressed no fear, only regret that he would have to leave you for a time until you both can be reunited in heaven. Then he slipped peacefully away.
Your husband’s mortal remains were interred in the presence of comrades who revered him. Should you desire to retrieve his body, it lies on the west side of F. Booker’s barn, the latter located about a mile south of town on the main road leading out of town. His is the third grave from the southernmost, and is marked with a substantial board stating his name and regiment. But whether his bones lie there or at home makes no difference, as his spirit resides in a better place, untroubled by the trials and tribulations of us below.
Your husband was an exemplary soldier, who always did his duty cheerfully and never quailed in battle.
I enclose the contents of your husband’s pockets, including his diary, wedding ring, and a lock of his hair. Despite your understandable sorrow at not meeting him again in this world, you may take pride in the part he played, and the sacrifice you have made, to crush this foul rebellion. He died so that our Republic, the last best hope of freedom on earth, should live. Neither the nation nor I personally will ever forget that sacrifice.
Should I survive this unnatural war to return home, I will be glad to provide any further particulars you may desire.
I remain, Madame,
Your humble servant,
Lt. Herbert Marquardt,
HOW NOT TO DO IT
Deer Widder Smith,
Yore late husbin tole me al ubout yoo (in grafic deetail) so i dont feel forwerd in ritin yoo this leter.
Tho Homer war unwilin too go intoo battel the file closers proded him intoo line on the Therd instent and we went forwerd intoo the charje. A shel iksploded neer us. I war releeved not too git a skratch but it tore a gaipin hole in yore hubbys side. I improvd the opertunity too git myself out of harms wai by helpin Homer of the feeld him screemin and cryin like a stuk pig al the wile. At the feeld horspitel the surjin sed wy did yoo waist yore time haulin this doomd man heer? and set him aside too dye. He war out of his mind and raivin in aguny the hole time cursin this and that. Then with a shuder he peged out.
At that pint the enimy maid thair apeerence rekwirin us too vamoos the ranch. Consikwently i dont knoe wair he is baried (if atal, as menny air left as food fer the hogs). Ifn he is baried his graiv wud not be markt as his pokits war emty (i chekt) and sojers dont waist wud on hedbords wen thay want firewud.
The charje we war in war a failyur and the batel ended in a dog fal. So i rekon this wil meen more yeers of fitin until only wun sojer is left astandin. Then he ken diklair viktry and that al the ded didnt dye in vain.
Altho most in the co wil be glad too see Homer go i wil miss his compny as him and mee ust too hav fun raisin the old nik in camp blakgardin the pius and helpin areselfs too watever we cud cramp. I also likt that he war a eesy mark at yooker wich iksplains wy he never had enny pay too send hoam. I gess hes bin yookered fer the las time.
Ifn the rebs dont sarv mee in the saim way thay did yore Homer, I may yet git hoam. Ifn I doo, I wil look yoo up, as Homer sed yoo war a snug bilt pees of kaliker.
(The lutes bro, wich is
prolly the only reesin
I aint poundin stun)
in the penitenchry)
1. This Republic of Suffering (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2008)
2. Reasons the war was so lethal:
a) It brought masses vulnerable to communicable disease together in one place.
b) It lasted four years.
c) Killing technology (cannon, rifles) had improved.
d) Increased logistical sophistication enabled armies to spend more time on campaign, exposing the troops to more lethal hardship and fighting.
-By John A. Braden