“The Significant Word Unknown”

Men thrown by the hundreds into burial trenches; soldiers stripped of every identifying object before being abandoned on the field; bloated corpses hurried into hastily dug graves; nameless victims of dysentery or typhoid interred beside military hospitals; men blown to pieces by artillery shells; bodies hidden by woods or ravines, left to the depredations of hogs or wolves or time: the disposition of the Civil War dead made an accurate accounting of the fallen impossible. In the absence of arrangements for interring and recording overwhelming numbers, hundreds of thousands of men—more than 40 percent of deceased Yankees and a far greater proportion of Confederates—perished without names, identified only, as Walt Whitman put it, “by the significant word Unknown.”1

To a twenty-first-century American, this seems unimaginable. The United States expends more than $100 million each year in the effort to find and identify the approximately 88,000 individuals still missing from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The obligation of the state to account for and return—either dead or alive—every soldier in its service is unquestioned. But these assumptions are of quite recent origin. There have been many revolutions in warfare in the last century and a half. Although perhaps less dramatic than transformations of military technology and organization, changing attitudes toward the dead and missing have profoundly altered the practices and experience of war—for soldiers and civilians alike. Only with the Korean War did the United States establish a policy of identifying and repatriating the remains of every dead soldier. Only with World War I did soldiers begin to wear official badges of identity—what came to be known as dog tags. Only with the Civil War did the United States create its system of national cemeteries and officially involve itself with honoring the military dead. It was the Civil War, as Walt Whitman observed, that made the designation “UNKNOWN” become “significant.”2

The dead of the Mexican War received no official attention until 1850, two years after the conflict ended, when the federal government found and reinterred 750 soldiers in an American cemetery in Mexico City. These bodies represented only about 6 percent of the soldiers who had died, and not one body was identified. But with the Civil War, private and public belief and behavior gradually shifted. This was a war of mass citizens’ armies, not of professional, regular forces; it was a war in which the obligation of the citizen to the nation was expressed as a willingness to risk life itself. In its assault upon chattel slavery, the conflict fundamentally redefined the relationship between the individual and the nation. This affirmation of the right to selfhood and identity reflected beliefs about human worth that bore other implications, for the dead as well as the living.3

Central to the changes that have occurred since the 1860s is the acknowledgment of the importance of information: of knowing whether a soldier is dead or alive, of being able to furnish news or provide the bereaved with the consoling certainty represented by an actual body. But in 1861, neither the Union nor the Confederate government recognized this as a responsibility. With the outbreak of war both North and South established measures for maintaining records of deceased soldiers, requiring forms to be filled out at army hospitals and sent in multiple copies to Washington or Richmond. Significantly, however, not one of these copies, nor any other sort of official communication, was designated for the family of the dead. And the obstacles to fulfilling even this plan seemed daunting. Samuel P. Moore, surgeon general of the Confederate army, felt compelled in 1862 to issue a circular deploring the “indifference” of his medical officers to record keeping. But his exhortations apparently had little effect. When a January 1864 article in theCharleston Mercury summarized the preceding year’s casualties, the newspaper concluded, “These returns show a great deal of negligence by Captains and Surgeons in reporting the deaths of soldiers.” In the North field commanders interpreted reporting requirements to apply only to rear areas, so in April 1862 the War Department issued General Orders no. 33 to include the combat zone in its efforts to provide for the identification of the dead. But as we have seen, this measure employed language—“as far as possible…when practicable”—that made it more an aspiration than an order, and commanders treated it as such. General Orders no. 33 made no provision for implementing its goals and designated no special troops for graves registration duties. And like earlier measures, it assumed no responsibility for reporting deaths to those who waited at home.4

In both North and South those on the home front struggled to fill the void of official intelligence. In the days after a major engagement Union and Confederate newspapers covered their pages with eagerly awaited reports. Sarah Palmer of South Carolina reflected the agonies of northerners and southerners alike when she wrote after Second Bull Run, “I do feel too anxious to see the papers and get the list of casualties from Co. K and yet I dread to see it.” Although civilians crowded news offices and railroad junctions waiting for information, the lists were notoriously inaccurate and incomplete.5

The sources of intelligence for these published lists varied. Sometimes the newspaper report of a regiment’s dead and wounded was preceded by a statement from a chaplain indicating he had collected the information. Indeed, in some commands, this was officially the chaplain’s duty, although that did not necessarily mean he carried it out. One infuriated nurse at a Nashville hospital complained that instead of performing this obligation, the chaplain there spent his time “pitching quoits.” Many regiments—more than half in the Confederate and two-fifths in the Union army—did not have chaplains at all.6


Searching the casualty lists. Detail from “News of the War.” Drawn by Winslow Homer. Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862.

Often an officer introduced the list. In some instances civilians representing charitable organizations assembled the data, recognizing that military officials were too occupied with the concerns of the living to make this a priority. W. P. Price, who represented a South Carolina relief agency, tried to establish a formal system and reported from Atlanta in June 1864 that he had made arrangements for colonels of Carolina regiments to furnish him with regular reports, “by which means I hope to be enabled to furnish correct lists.” But, he continued, his plan seemed imperiled because “I regret to state that several important letters [with information] sent from the field…have miscarried.”7

Lists frequently included statements acknowledging the inadequacy of their information. As a Confederate newspaper stated in 1863, “Of Company I, 38 men were lost in action. 31 of these are accounted for as prisoners. The remaining seven,” the article conjectured, “must have been killed.” Sons or brothers listed as “slightly wounded” often turned out to be dead, and husbands reported as “killed in action” later appeared unharmed. “I have known so many instances where families have been held in agonised suspense for days by the report of relatives being dangerously wounded when they were not,” one Confederate wrote to an anxious mother in South Carolina. Mathew Jack Davis of the 19th Mississippi kept his family in suspense for four years. “I had been reported killed on the day I was captured,” he related. “I read my own obituary.” Joseph Willett of New York hastened to reassure his sister after the Battle of the Wilderness, “You may have heard before you read this that I was killed or wounded but allow me to contradict the report.” Journalist Henry Raymond, founder of the New York Times, rushed to Virginia in 1863 in response to news of his brother’s death. He engaged an embalmer but could not locate the body, so he went to army headquarters to inquire. Instead of answering his query, an aide produced his brother, quite alive and well. Yankee private Henry Struble was not only listed as a casualty after Antietam but assigned a grave after his canteen was found in the hands of a dead man he had stopped to help. After the war ended, Struble sent flowers every Memorial Day to decorate his own grave, to honor the unknown soldier it sheltered and perhaps to acknowledge that there but for God’s grace he might lie. Recipients of bad news repeated and cherished such narratives, hoping that a different story with a happier ending might emerge, and denying as long as possible the reality and finality of death.8

More reliable and certainly more consoling than casualty lists were the personal letters that custom required a dead soldier’s closest friends and immediate military superiors to write to his relatives. But months often passed before soldiers in the field found time, circumstance, or strength to write. These communications were, moreover, dependent upon the vicissitudes of the postal service, which, in the Confederacy, grew increasingly unreliable. Southerners complained that by 1864 so many of the postal clerks in Richmond had been conscripted into the army that the mail between the Virginia theater and the home front had entirely broken down.9

Voluntary organizations worked to fill the void left by the failure of military and governmental officials to provide information to families. In the North both the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission, the two most significant Union-wide charitable efforts to grow out of the war, came to regard communication with families as central to their efforts. The Christian Commission proclaimed its commitment in words printed at the top of each page of the stationery it distributed to soldiers at the front: “The U.S. Christian Commission send this sheet as a messenger between the soldier and his home. Let it hasten to those who wait for tidings.” In just three months during the spring of 1864 the commission reported that it had supplied 24,000 quires of paper and envelopes to the Army of the Potomac, and in the days after large battles it transported hundreds of letters from military hospitals and camps to nearby post offices. After Sherman’s army reached Savannah in December 1864, the commission delegates who had been following his troops rented rooms and installed fifty writing desks, where soldiers produced three hundred letters a day.10

In cases of soldiers’ grave illness or death, commission delegates—the unpaid volunteers upon whom the work of the organization rested—wrote in their behalf, composing letters “for soldiers still lingering” or “to carry ‘last words.’” It was one of the fundamental responsibilities of its five thousand delegates, as the commission described it, “to spare no pains to give immediate and accurate information of the wounded and dead to those who waited” at home, and the commission estimated they had written more than 92,000 letters for soldiers by the end of the war. General field agents, regional supervisors of the commission, reported the active effort that delegates undertook to identify the dead in order to be able to send news to loved ones. After the Battle of Chattanooga, one agent related with satisfaction, “We were able to fill out many home letters, by the memoranda gathered during the night from the lips of the dying and from the letters and diaries found on the dead. Ordinarily, unless the body had been robbed, in the inside breast pocket of the blouse there would be a letter from friends, a photograph, a Christian Commission Testament, or a hymn-book, with the name and regiment and home address.”11


“The United States Christian Commission Office at 8th and H Streets, Washington, D.C., 1865.” Library of Congress.

In 1864 the commission organized the Individual Relief Department, designed to respond to inquiries about the fate of individual soldiers. “To answer these letters often involved a long and difficult search, first at the regiment, then at the field hospital, then in the post hospital or camp,” Reverend Lemuel Moss, home secretary of the commission, remembered in 1868. But often the information could indeed be found. Anna H., “a little girl,” wrote the commission seeking her father because her mother was “almost crazy” with the anxiety of having heard nothing for four weeks. “This is the third letter we have sent off,” she reported, as she begged “for any one to send us back an answer whether my dear father is dead or alive…If we cannot pay you, the Lord will. Do please be so kind, and answer this letter.” The commission sadly informed her that her father was already buried.12

As part of its effort to collect information more systematically, the commission distributed printed notebooks to enable delegates in the field to keep records of the soldiers whom they assisted, information that could easily be passed along to the central Relief Department. A Christian Commission Death Register from Virginia in 1864 provided columns for names, units, dates of death, and “particulars” and “remarks” that usually included an assessment of the deceased’s religious state, as well as details about the disposition of his body. Part of the impetus for the commission’s desire to communicate with families was to provide, where possible, the reassurance that many of these soldiers had indeed died Good Deaths, with the commission delegate often having served as evangelist as well as surrogate kin and record keeper. S. B. Smith appeared in the register as “a chris[tian] and ready to die,” but Samuel Green’s religious condition was “unknown” and George Ewing was decidedly “not a Christian.” One soldier’s family would not be notified because “address of relatives not discoverable” the dying man could only “shake or nod in negative or affirmative response to a question.” Joseph Kramer’s “friends [were] unknown,” so in his case as well there was “no letter written.” George Besse “seemed like a good boy, spoke tenderly of his friends, expressed some religious feeling and seemed to welcome the offer to pray with him and in several instances he joined with apparent fervor…He had by his pillow the likeness of mother and sister.” The commission delegate recorded with evident gratification this example of dying well. Marcus Flambury affirmed “In God I trust” after a half hour conversing with a commission delegate, who surely reported this encouraging indication of salvation to Flambury’s family. But another soldier, troubled and deeply troubling, was past all help—in this world and the next: he appeared in the register as “Self suicide” after he shot himself. Early entries in the register listed gravesites in a hospital cemetery by row and number; later entries became more schematic, as they began to report battlefield rather than hospital deaths and to describe interments with far less specificity.13

In the closing year of the war Christian Commission representatives became increasingly involved not just in providing information to families but in working to ensure the preservation of the identities of the dead. The night after the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, the general field agent for the Army of the Cumberland described commission delegates searching the field to “gather up the dead, identify them through their comrades, if possible, and mark them by a card.” The delegates had assumed the role of a volunteer graves registration service. After Appomattox the following spring, Christian Commission representatives would search battlefields and burying grounds around Petersburg and Richmond, locating, recording, and protecting soldiers’ graves. Ultimately the commission published this list of interments together with the records of the dead in several Confederate prisons, a total of eight thousand names, “for gratuitous distribution among the friends of the lost.” In the course of the war the Christian Commission had come to recognize that its pastoral duties, its concerns for “spiritual consolation,” and its commitment to Christian souls also involved a commitment to Christian bodies and to the individual identity of the immortal self. This was a service they performed both to comfort the survivors and to demonstrate appropriate respect for the dead, each one of whom was a candidate for divine salvation.14

The Sanitary Commission approached the work of naming the dead rather differently, in keeping with the more general contrasts that distinguished the two agencies. While the Christian Commission was motivated by humanitarian sympathy and religious benevolence, the Sanitarians regarded such an approach as unduly sentimental, lacking the hard-headed realism and the order and discipline necessary to a modern age and a modern war. Working through a system of paid agents, the Sanitary Commission derided the amateurishness inherent in the volunteer efforts of the Christian Commission. The United States Sanitary Commission sought to bring dispassionate principles of science and efficiency to bear on the national crisis; relief efforts, while necessary, seemed less important than the establishment of rules of military organization that would maximize prevention of disease and effective management of wounds. Its Bureau of Vital Statistics, its inspections of camps and of soldiers, represented important manifestations of the effort to use the war as a kind of natural scientific experiment. “The vast proportions of our national Armies,” wrote Charles Stillé in his official report of commission activities during the war, “…afforded facilities not likely to occur again…and it would have been most unfortunate had the opportunities thus afforded for the study of large numbers of men in their hygienic and physiological relations, been suffered to pass unimproved.” Led by well-connected members of a wealthy elite, the Sanitary Commission attained a size and financial strength, as well as a public influence and reach, that far exceeded that of the Christian Commission.15

But just as the Christian Commission was compelled by the demands of war to redirect its focus to this world from the next, so the Sanitarians—especially agents amid the misery of the battlefields—found themselves inevitably caught up in the pressing human needs of the moment. In the problem of handling the unidentified dead and wounded, issues of order and humanitarianism converged. Recognizing that before the desired revolution of science and prevention could be effected, “a vast amount of suffering would ensue” requiring “methodical and large measures of relief,” the commission had established early in the war a Special Relief Service, which undertook such activities as distributing extra clothing, procuring special foods for the sick, helping discharged soldiers to find their way home, distributing reading matter, and answering inquiries about missing soldiers. Like the Christian Commission, the Sanitary Commission came to regard itself as a “great medium of intercommunication between the people and the Army,” and it was soon overwhelmed with requests for information.16

Dedicated to order and system, the Sanitarians created a bureaucracy to meet the growing demand. Late in 1862 the commission established a Hospital Directory through which it hoped to “supply a greatly needed want” by centralizing information on the name and condition of every soldier admitted to a Union military hospital. On the third floor of the commission’s office in downtown Washington, D.C., three full-time clerks copied data from the daily reports of dozens of hospitals into large ledgers. The directory began to advertise in order to announce its new services to the public. “Having seen your notice in the paper of your establishment of information of missing sogers,” John Herrick of Michigan declared, “I now write to find out what has become of my brother which I hav not heard from since august last.” Herrick thought he might have been “wounded at the battle of bullrun or antietam,” and he urged the directory to investigate.17

By March 1863 three additional bureaus had been established in Philadelphia, New York, and Louisville to divide responsibility for all 233 army general hospitals. Commission officers did not simply wait for patients to arrive in hospitals; “as soon as the roar of the battle had ceased,” Sanitary agents accompanied relief workers onto the field in order to make lists of the dead and wounded. “While bodily suffering was relieved by one class of agents, every effort was made by the other to cheer and encourage the sufferer by an assurance that his friends at home should know, at once, his exact condition.”18

During the directory’s first year, some 13,000 specific inquiries were submitted and 9,203 answered. By early 1865 more than a million names had been recorded in office ledgers. Gathering information about all these men was no small feat. On July 4, 1863, for example, John Bowne of the Washington directory office left for Gettysburg to procure names of casualties from what he already knew had been a momentous battle. But five days later he complained that “the returns are coming provokingly and sadly slow.” Survivors were more concerned with caring for the wounded and burying the dead than with reporting on their fate. Bowne had found “by experience it is only when in a state of rest that the officers notice my communications.” Nearly two weeks after the battle Bowne had eight thousand names of Gettysburg’s fallen entered into his ledgers, but he observed that the directory’s records had never been “so confused…and so unsatisfactory from their want of fullness.” Reports from field hospitals were riddled with errors and omissions, often lacked dates, and were frequently illegible, “written with the faintest lead pencil.” Directory officials hired extra help and even “encroached on the Lord’s Day” to accomplish their task, for it seemed a permissible “work of mercy.” But the scale of death at Gettysburg challenged the fledgling directory’s capacity, and six weeks after the battle, the register of dead and wounded remained woefully incomplete.19

Many requests for information went unanswered, with the two words “not found” marked on the letter of inquiry. But sometimes the directory was able to transmit wonderfully comforting news. Richard Deering responded himself when his regiment was asked to provide information about him, and he jovially reported that he was “alive and kicking.” Often, however, directory officials relieved “harrowing suspense” with replies that were devastating in their “painful certainty.” The superintendent of the Washington office described the daily scene of applicants arriving in person for news: “A mother has not heard anything of her son since the last battle; she hopes he is safe, but would like to be assured—there is no escape—she must be told that he has fallen upon the ‘federal altar’ an agony of tears bursts forth which seem as if it would never cease…A father…with pale face and tremulous voice, anxious to know, yet dreading to hear, is told that his boy is in the hospital a short distance off;…while tears run down his cheeks, and without uttering another word [he] leaves the room.”20

After the bloody battles in Virginia in the spring of 1864, when Grant’s army suffered 65,000 casualties in about seven weeks, the Washington directory office was almost overwhelmed with families and friends in search of news. “Never before,” a June 1864 report declared, “has the throng of inquirers been so urgent and anxious…Frequently as early as 6 o clk in the morning have the visitors besieged our rooms and not until eleven at night was it safe to close the doors to obtain the much needed rest before again entering upon the daily routine of relief and consolation.” Three days of slaughter at Gettysburg the year before paled in comparison with the relentless pressure of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor: battles that followed one another without respite as Grant strove to inflict a mortal blow on his outnumbered enemy.21


“Nurses and Officers of the United States Sanitary Commission at Fredericksburg, Virginia, During the Wilderness Campaign, 1864.” Library of Congress.

Most inquiries to directory offices came not through personal visits but in the mail, in letters that survive to provide a window into the heartrending specificity of war’s cost. In March 1863 Peter Williams inquired from Michigan: “It is with the greates Ancitey that I pen a few lines to you to know the ware abouts…of my brother Arthur Williams…I have not heard from him for five month…he may have died sconce pleas answer as soon as you get this.” Susannah Hampton from New York wrote to the Philadelphia directory two months after Gettysburg in search of her son:

will you please to inform me at your earliest convenience whether my son Joseph H. Hampton a member of company A 72 regiment N.Y. State vols Excelsior is alive or dead if alive and wounded please be so kind as to state what his wounds are and where he lies and if cared for and if Dead Oh pray let me know it and relieve my anxiety…I have heard all kinds of rumors about him and his miseries until they have left me in a state bordering on phrensy.22

Amid all these compelling stories, John Bowne found himself especially engaged by the tribulations of a young woman who feared she had been deserted rather than bereaved but had no intention of quietly enduring the injustice she believed she had suffered. “Mrs Biddy Higgins alias Hayes,” a domestic working for a respectable Philadelphia family, wrote in search of her husband, Peter Hayes, alias Higgins—“the latter being his real name”—a member of a New York Artillery regiment:

I was married to him by the name of Higgins by the Priest of the Cathedral, 18th and Logan Square Philadelphia about nine months ago. He was 15 months in the U.S. General Hospital West Philadelphia and was sent away to his Regiment last July, I think, butI never heard from him afterwards at all He never wrote to me, although he knows perfectly well my address, having been here scores of times. This makes me a little suspicious that he might possibly perhaps have been married previously to somebody else, as he acted lovingly towards me and we never had a difference or even angry word at any time, so it is too bad of him to desert me. Now as you are organization to help the poor, I hope you will be kind enough to find out for me 1st Where Peter Hayes comes fromand who are his family and friends where he formerly lived before entering the Army, so I may write to them to enquire about him. Perhaps you could ask him this 1st before you ask him 2nd what reason he has for never writing to me or even letting me know where he was, or ever sending me any money at all, although I have been very ill and I do not think he could have been a very steady young man in his morals, and I have always been modest and of excellent character beyond any doubt, never running after the men, but he came for a year before I was married to him to the family where I had been a servant for many years and who will give me the best of characters.

Please reply soon as I am so much worried in my mind “Mrs Biddy Higgins alias Hayes”23

Bowne determined he would “try to do what I can for Mrs Biddy Higgins as I think she has been hard dealt by.” But within a week of her letter, she appeared in person at the directory office to report that she had received a letter from her husband with money and a daguerreotype and that she expected him home on furlough in a few days. “So Biddy is all right,” a directory official scribbled on her file. She was among the lucky ones.24

Ultimately the commission estimated it successfully answered 70 percent of requests for information. Although its war-end report acknowledged that this service had differed “essentially” from anything the commission had originally expected to do, it “was the work, perhaps of all others, the…most gratifying of any undertaken by the Commission.” Even as they amassed their dispassionate statistics and implemented comforting bureaucratic order and discipline in their efforts to name the dead, the Sanitarians became humanitarians and sentimentalists in spite of themselves.25

The Confederacy, lagging behind the North in both men and matériel, also faced greater shortages of information. The South had not experienced the same explosion of voluntary associations that had characterized the North in the prewar years and never developed centralized wartime charitable organizations like the Sanitary and Christian commissions. But Confederates also sought means to systematize the collection of information about casualties and ways to make that intelligence available to kin. The Louisiana Soldiers’ Relief Association, for example, promised to provide information to “friends at home” about any Louisiana recruit serving in Virginia, and the Central Association and the South Carolina Relief Depot endeavored to gather information for South Carolinians. Southern religious newspapers often printed “Soldiers’ Guides,” gathered from hospital censuses, listing news and location of the killed and wounded.26

Less philanthropically inclined individuals also sought to meet the demand for information. Across Virginia a number of southerners worked the battlegrounds offering themselves as paid agents to Confederate families in search of information. In the spring of 1864 the eighteen-year-old son of South Carolina’s prominent Middleton family disappeared in Virginia. His father, Oliver, procured the services of a representative who scoured camps and hospitals in search of information about the missing soldier. Oliver Jr. had fallen at Cold Harbor, but a survey of all field hospitals, an inquiry to the Confederate commissioner of prisons, a query to the Union prison at Camp Lookout, and interviews with men from his company all proved fruitless. “I will still endeavor to learn the exact fate of your son,” P. Hunter promised. At last, through a friend, the father learned of his son’s death in a farmhouse close to the field and secured details about the location of his grave under a nearby apple tree. The boy’s consoling last words were “tell my father I died like a Middleton.” Oliver Sr. immediately began to make arrangements to bring the body home.27

In northern cities entrepreneurs also established themselves as agents who would seek missing soldiers for a fee. An enterprise on Bleecker Street in New York City, for example, called itself the “U.S. Army Agency” and advertised in Harper’s Weekly in 1864 for “legal heirs seeking information as to whereabouts of Soldiers killed or wounded in Battle.” In return for their efforts in locating men, they would claim a share of the deceased’s back pay or the widow’s pension—thus the appeal to “legal heirs.”28

Missing information about soldiers’ deaths often had practical as well as emotional significance. In the South claims for back pay, as well as for the Confederate funeral allowance—$45 for an officer and $10 for an enlisted man—had to be accompanied by proof of death. Military record keeping was so imperfect that, as the superintendent of claims for Alabama put it, “frequently the fact and date of death cannot be ascertained” because “repeated orders of the Adjutant and Inspector General have not been fully appreciated and complied with.” Most often a “final statement” procured from the company commander of the deceased soldier had to substitute for absent documentation. In the North, passage of an 1862 act providing pensions for widows as well as dependent sisters and mothers of dead soldiers made similar evidence necessary for those wishing to claim these benefits. Securing required documentation was no easy task, and families with the means often turned to agents who proffered themselves as experts in negotiating the Union or Confederate army bureaucracies.29

Even when information was accurate and available—through newspaper casualty lists or the offices of a charitable organization or from a paid agent—it was often not delivered until long after the event. Weeks or months of waiting were common. In South Carolina, for example, the first casualty lists from the Wilderness appeared in the newspapers ten days after the battle. No wonder a Confederate officer took advantage of rank and privilege—and the fortuitous residence of his family near a telegraph line—to send a telegram home after every engagement reporting simply, “I am well.”30


“I am well.” Telegram from William Drayton Rutherford to Sallie Fair Rutherford, July 6, 1862. South Caroliniana Library.

His decision to take the matter of providing information into his own hands typified the behavior of many Civil War participants, who devised a variety of means to ensure that their fate would be reported. Although no official identification badges were issued by either army, soldiers, aided in some cases by enterprising civilians, devised their own precursors to the dog tag. A Union burial party working late on the night of July 4, 1863, to inter the Gettysburg dead came across the body of a boy of about nineteen. In his pocket they found “a small silver shield with his name, company, and regiment engraved upon it.” They copied the information onto a wooden headboard for his grave and forwarded the shield to his father. Soldiers in the Union army could purchase badges from sutlers in the field or from a variety of establishments on the home front that advertised regularly in the press. The badges seem to have been far less commercially available in the South, but Confederate soldiers invented their own substitutes. A pocket Bible inscribed with name and address and even instructions about notification of kin served quite effectively. Many Union soldiers adopted such informal methods as well. Josiah Murphey of Nantucket made sure always to have a used envelope addressed to him “somewhere about me so that if killed in battle my friends might know what became of me.”31


Advertisement for soldiers’ identification badges. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 10, 1864.

Stories have become legendary of soldiers scribbling their names on bits of paper and pinning them to their uniforms before engagements they expected to be especially bloody—such as Meade’s planned attack on Lee’s field fortifications at Mine Run in 1863 or Grant’s suicidal assault at Cold Harbor the next year. After Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was shot at Antietam and taken to a field hospital in a nearby house, he was afraid he would faint or die and be left nameless, so he wrote on a slip of paper, “I am Capt. O. W. Holmes 20th Mass. V Son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, M.D. Boston.” Holmes recovered and kept the paper for the rest of his life. These soldiers’ terror that their identities would be obliterated expressed itself with a grim and almost dispassionate practicality. They confronted the enormity of death with ingenious attempts to control at least one of its particulars. If a soldier could not save his life, he hoped at least to preserve his name.32


“I am Capt O W Holmes, 20th Mass V, Son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, MD, Boston.” “I wrote the above when I was lying in a little house on the field of Antietam which was for a while within the enemy’s lines, as I thought I might faint & so be unable to tell who I was.” Note written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Harvard Law School Library.

Soldiers had many allies among the civilian population in their effort to maintain their identities and to provide for notification of kin. Katherine Wormeley, serving on a Union hospital ship during the Peninsula Campaign, used the same method as the fatalistic soldiers. “So many nameless men come down to us, speechless and dying,” she wrote, “that now we write the names and regiments of the bad cases and fasten them to their clothing, so that if they are speechless when they reach other hands, they may not die like dogs.” To die without an identity seemed to Wormeley equivalent to surrendering one’s humanity, becoming no more than an animal. Nursing pioneer Clara Barton kept a series of small—one imagines pocket—notebooks into which she entered information about the families of dying soldiers so that when time permitted she could write to the survivors. The diary of T. J. Weatherly, a South Carolina physician who attended Confederate troops in Virginia, served a similar purpose. “Columbus Stephenson, Bethany Church, Iredell County, NoCa,” he noted on a torn and undated page, “to be written to about the death &c of Lt. Thomas W. Stephens[on].”


Receiving what one soldier called “Aufaul knuse.” Detail from “News of the War.” Drawn by Winslow Homer. Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862.

It is not hard to envision Dr. Weatherly asking Thomas Stephenson for his father’s name and address as he consoled him in his last moments. “AA Hewlett, Summerville Ala for Capt Hewlett; Mrs. S Watkins Wadesboro NC for S J Watkins 14th NC,” Weatherly’s list continued.33

Walt Whitman may have been the most famous of those who wrote from hospitals to notify kin of soldiers’ deaths. In 1862 the poet traveled to Virginia in search of his brother George, reported wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg. George’s injuries proved superficial, but Whitman was deeply affected by his glimpse of war. Like many other Americans first encountering the aftermath of battle, Whitman was struck most forcefully by the sight in front of a Union field hospital of a “heap” of amputated “feet, legs, arms, hands, &c.,” pieces of humans who like the nation itself had been dismembered as a result of reasoned and would-be benevolent human intent. War’s ironies and man’s destructiveness both lay represented in that bloody pile. Whitman felt that any “cares and difficulties” he might have known seemed “trifling” in the face of such horrors: “Nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about.” The war and its suffering soldiers became his preoccupation. “Who are you…Who are you…?” he asked the dead, and concluded these soldiers represented “the majesty and reality of the American common people.” In these men lay the true meaning of the war. Whitman served, as literary critic M. Wynn Thomas has written, as “a surrogate mourner of the dead—one who took it on himself to do what the relatives could not do: to remember the dead man in the very presence of the corpse.”34

Whitman became a tireless hospital visitor, spending seven or eight hours each day ministering to patients, chiefly in Washington, D.C., where almost fifty thousand men lay sick and wounded. His efforts were less medical than consolatory; he provided rice puddings, small amounts of spending money, stamped envelopes and stationery, peaches, apples, oranges, horseradish, undershirts, socks, soap, towels, oysters, jellies, horehound candy—and love, comfort, and “cheer.” And he himself wrote hundreds of letters—often, he reported, more than a dozen a day—for soldiers unable to do this for themselves. After suffering with his family the torments of uncertainty about George’s fate, Whitman understood well the importance of communication between battle and home front. “I do a good deal of this,” he wrote to the New York Times, “writing all kinds, including love letters…I always encourage the men to write, and promptly write for them.” He often wrote, too, to inform relatives of soldiers’ deaths. A revolutionary poet—Leaves of Grass has been said to represent “an absolute discontinuity with the traditions of English verse”—Whitman introduced no innovations to the genre of the condolence letter. Instead he provided families with the information they expected and needed:

Your son, Corporal Frank H. Irwin, was wounded near Fort Fisher, Virginia, March the 25, 1865…He died the first of May…Frank…had everything requisite in surgical treatment, nursing &c…He was so good and well-behaved…At…times he would fancy himself talking…to children or such like, his relatives I suppose, and giving them good advice…He was perfectly willing to die…and was perfectly resign’d…I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must have been good.

Irwin’s behavior in dying, Whitman concluded, “could not be surpass’d. And now like many other noble and good men, after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up his young life…in her service.” This was, Whitman assured the grieving mother, a prepared death, a willing death, a patriotic death—certainly a Good Death. And even though Whitman was himself not in any sense an orthodox Christian believer, he closed his letter by offering Frank Irwin’s family a carefully worded consolation of faith: “there is a text, ‘God doeth all things well’—the meaning of which, after due time, appears to the soul.”35


“Ward K at Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C.,” one of the hospitals Walt Whitman visited regularly. Library of Congress.

In his poem “Come Up from the Fields Father,” Whitman imagined the family that received a letter like those he wrote. In Ohio’s “vital and beautiful” fall, “all prospers well.” Apples and grapes ripen; the wheat is ready for cutting. But amid this harvest of life, news arrives of war’s harvest of death. A letter comes to the farm’s family, written not by their son Pete but in another’s hand. It reports his gunshot wound but does not yet communicate the more terrible truth that “he is dead already” by the time the letter arrives. It is a letter that will destroy the mother, as a rifle has already destroyed the son.36

John O’Neal, a Gettysburg physician, did not send letters to bereaved families, but he kept a record of the names and locations of Confederate graves he encountered as he traveled about the county visiting patients. These were men already dead, well past O’Neal’s medical ministrations, but he felt nevertheless a sense of obligation that led him to document their often hasty interments in hope of someday transmitting the information to family or friends. Into his journal, scribbled in a little bound volume entitled “The Physician’s Handbook of Practice,” he entered, alongside patients’ names and ailments, lists of dead Confederates, their companies, regiments, and gravesites: “2nd Corps Ground, Back of Schwartz Barn No 1 Crew J. Co. K 8 Fla No 2 Farmer N, Co G. 7 N.C. Died July 26.”37

Individuals did not just wait for letters or published casualty lists to obtain news about the dead and wounded; they also made use of the press to request information or to share information they had been able to acquire. In both North and South civilians took out personal advertisements to announce the condition of prisoners and the fate of the missing. These notices were used to communicate across the divide of Civil War—to provide southerners with news from the North and vice versa. In 1864, for example, a Richmond paper published a notice placed by Union general Benjamin Butler. Directed to the attention of a Confederate naval surgeon, Butler’s advertisement reported that his son and a friend were alive and had been taken prisoner at the end of June. “They are both well and at [the Union prisoner of war camp at] Point Lookout. I have taken leave to write this note to relieve your anxiety.” He had spoken to the young prisoner, he continued, “in a personal interview.” Butler and the Confederate surgeon had almost certainly been acquainted before the war, and ties of friendship and humanitarianism combined in this instance to yield information about two of the war’s missing. A personal advertisement in a Richmond paper announced to “Hon. R.W.B. of South Carolina—your son Nat is a prisoner at Point Lookout, unwounded, and in his usual health, and all his wants shall be supplied without delay.” This anonymous northern friend of the family of Robert Barnwell was offering not just the immediate solace of information but a promise to supplement the meager fare of Union prison camps for the duration of Nat’s incarceration.

The New York Daily News ran regular columns of original notices and copied others from Richmond papers. In February 1864 William Racer of Madison County, Virginia, sought information that would “relieve the suspense of…[a] distressed father” about his son, who had been reported wounded at Gettysburg seven months before. Southerner William Smith responded to an inquiry from a northern relative that a Mobile paper had copied from the New York Daily News. “We are all well. Brother Sam died in Vicksburg the 17th of July, of a wound and typhoid fever. My love to all.” Newspaper columns substituted for the personal letter that was unlikely to make its way through military lines. Ever hopeful, the “friends of Sergeant walter farnan, Jr., Company M. Fifteenth U.S. Infantry” sought an end to uncertainty by publishing a request to “the authorities At Richmond” to please confirm if he was indeed the W. Farnham reported to have died in a Virginia hospital two weeks before.38

Desperate families both North and South traveled by the hundreds to battlefields to search in person for missing kin. Observers described railroad junctions crowded with frantic relatives in pursuit of information about loved ones. When Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. rushed to Maryland fearing his son dead after Antietam, he described the combination of hope and terror that must have been shared by many who traveled to the front in search of kin. When in spite of his worst fears he found the young captain alive, the father characterized his shifting expectations as in some profound sense a shifting reality: “Our son and brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” The boundary between life and death seemed at once permeable and infinite.39

Many of those who sought their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons did not enjoy Holmes’s happy outcome. Fanny Scott of Virginia began a search for her son Benjamin after more than three months of silence following the battle of Antietam in September 1862. She wrote to Robert E. Lee early in 1863. He forwarded her letter across the lines to Union general Joseph Hooker, who promised to have the U.S. surgeon general survey the hospital lists from Maryland. Lee enclosed Hooker’s letter in a reply to Mrs. Scott and expressed his hopes “that you may hear good news of your son.” But two months later Lee forwarded a letter sent him through a Flag of Truce that reported, “Diligent and careful inquiry has been made concerning the man referred to in the enclosure and no trace of him can be discovered in any hospital or among the records of the rebel prisoners.” Within days Fanny Scott submitted to Lee a request for a pass through Union lines to herself search for Benjamin. But evidently the effort proved fruitless, for at the end of the war she was still seeking information. Union general E. A. Hitchcock, responsible for war-end exchanges of prisoners, gently responded to Scott’s July 15, 1865, request: “From the length of time since the battle of Antietam and you not having heard from your son during all this time, I am very sorry to say that the presumption is that he fell a victim to that battle. If he were still living I cannot understand why he should not have found means of making the fact known to you.”40

The Scott incident illustrates several significant aspects of the problem of the missing of the Civil War. First, it demonstrates the possibility of an individual’s being entirely lost—a circumstance many civilians found difficult to fathom. As we have seen, the scale of the war presented unprecedented challenges of record keeping, so that undoubtedly many of those never identified were bodies that could not be connected with names. But another aspect of Civil War death contributed to the large numbers of unidentified—and would contribute even more dramatically to the nameless ranks of World War I dead. The Civil War sometimes obliterated not just names but entire bodies, often leaving nothing behind to identify or bury. A Union chaplain described in the aftermath of Gettysburg “little fragments so as hardly to be recognizable as any part of a man.” Another soldier wrote in horror of comrades literally “blown to atoms.” Many Civil War soldiers actually vanished, their bodies vaporized by the firepower of this first modern war. This may have been the fate of Benjamin Scott. Civilians found this outcome incomprehensible, but soldiers who had witnessed the destructiveness of battle understood all too well the reality of men instantly transformed into nothing. The implications of bodily disintegration for the immortality of both bodies and souls was troubling, and the disappearance of bodies rendered the search for names all the more important.41

Fanny Scott’s story demonstrates as well the unifying power of death even amid the divisive forces of war. General Lee was not above concerning himself with the fall of an individual sparrow—though one assumes that Scott was no ordinary soldier but one whose family had some larger claims of class and connection on Lee’s compassion. But the intimacy of this all-American war displays itself strikingly here, as Lee readily corresponded with his Yankee counterpart, who himself acted promptly and decisively to honor his enemy’s request. Even as they contemplated the spring campaign that would produce their bloody confrontation at Chancellorsville, Lee and Hooker found themselves on the same side as Mrs. Fanny Scott in her desperate pursuit of information about her son. Killing enemy soldiers was the goal of both generals and both armies, yet bereavement could unite them in common purpose.42

Fanny Scott’s 1865 request for information about a son who had by then been gone almost three years suggests the depth and tenacity of the need to secure accurate information about the fate of missing men. General Hitchcock’s letter to Scott seems to reflect a certain incredulity that she had not yet resigned herself to a grim conclusion that he regarded as both undeniable and unavoidable. Yet Fanny Scott’s story demonstrates not just the nationally unifying power of death but also the intensity and persistence of its hold upon the bereaved, especially in circumstances of continuing uncertainty. Nine years after the end of the war Mrs. R. L. Leach was still seeking information about what had happened to her son after he was sent to a hospital ship in Virginia. Unable to admit he must be dead, she confessed, “we think sometimes that he is in Some Insane Hospital.” Without further information she lived in “suspense,” even as she acknowledged “to know he was dead would be better.” Jane Mitchell had received a letter after the Battle of Gettysburg from a soldier who described burying a corpse he found rolled in a blanket with her son’s name pinned to it. But she never saw the body or found the grave and was never convinced it was really her son. “I would like to find that grave,” she wrote. “It was years before I gave up the hope that he would some day appear. I got it into my head that he had been taken prisoner and carried off a long distance but that he would make his way back one day—this I knew was very silly of me but the hope was there nevertheless.” The absence of identifiable bodies left these women with abiding uncertainty and fantastical hopes, illusions that for them made the world endurable.43

The power and longevity of hope manifested themselves dramatically in the responses that Union quartermaster general Montgomery Meigs received when he decided in 1868 to publish in northern magazines a drawing of a soldier who had died unidentified in a Washington military hospital in May 1864. The man had arrived too weak to give any information about himself and would have been quickly forgotten if he had not had in his possession the considerable sum of $360. The surgeon in charge of the hospital arranged to have him photographed after his death, and this likeness was copied by the press at the request of the War Department. The announcements seeking his identity also noted that the dead man had left an ambrotype of a child. Letters from women streamed into Meigs’s office. While some may indeed have been fortune hunters seeking to claim the money, the great majority displayed what seems like such poignant desperation that it is difficult to doubt the sincerity of the wrenching tales they told. Mrs. Jenny McConkey of Illinois appeared to recognize the futility of her hopes when she wrote suggesting the unidentified man might be her son, whom she had last heard from in 1862. The photograph of the little boy was hard to explain, for her son was childless. But, she rationalized, he might have carried the portrait in any case “as he was very fond of children.” A Pennsylvania woman whose husband had last been heard of in the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville described her life as “one constant daze of anxiety” because of her inability to get any information about his fate. Martha Dort wrote explaining that her husband had reportedly been shot while being transferred from one prison to another in 1863, “but that may not be true. Mistakes do often occur.” She was encouraged to hope by the report of the child’s photograph, for her husband had carried an ambrotype of their son, aged three or four, in plaid pants with his hands in his pockets. She enclosed fifty cents for a copy of the photograph. Meigs’s office returned the money, for the picture did not match her description.44


“An Unknown Soldier.” Copied from a deathbed photograph and published in an effort to locate his survivors. Harper’s Weekly, October 24, 1868.

The mysterious soldier was never identified; the child in the ambrotype was never provided with the details of his father’s death or with his $360 inheritance. But the unknown man had proved the catalyst for an outpouring of despair from women who represented the many thousands of loved ones left not just without their husbands, brothers, or sons but bereft of the kind of information that might enable them to mourn. It is chilling to recognize the very limited expectations of the many women who wrote to Meigs: the man they all sought to claim as their husband was quite dead; they were no longer looking to find a living person; the most they dared hope was for relief from the incapacitating uncertainty that controlled their lives. A professor at Gettysburg College who aided many civilians searching for kin after the battle there perceptively described “aching hearts in which the dread void of uncertainty still remained unsatisfied by positive knowledge.” It was in some sense information as much as individuals that was “missing” in Civil War America. Those who had long since given up on reclaiming lost loved ones alive still sought eagerly for details of their lives, deaths, and burials.


Henry Clay Taylor. Photographed on his twenty-fifth birthday. Wisconsin Historical Society.

J. M. Taylor of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, was as assiduous and tenacious as Fanny Scott in search of information about his son, who was captured at Chickamauga in September 1863. Initially confined in Richmond’s Libby Prison, twenty-five-year-old Henry Taylor managed to communicate with his parents by concealing miniature letters in buttons smuggled to the North. Early hopes for his return dimmed, for prisoner exchanges had been suspended, and Henry was transferred south. Months of confinement and scanty prison fare took their toll, and he fell sick with diarrhea and consumption. By summer 1864 his parents learned he had entered a military hospital in Charleston. The irregular news they had received since his capture now almost ceased, until in October a fellow Union prisoner wrote from South Carolina that Henry could not recover. “I think it due you that you know the facts,” the soldier explained. Taylor received the letter through the lines nine days later. “It makes a child of me,” the father reported. He began a series of frantic inquiries, seeking to end the “painful suspense” with information from escaped and paroled prisoners and from military officials both North and South. In mid-November Taylor learned of two Union officers who were reported to have said they buried Henry. Now, assuming him dead, Taylor continued to write in pursuit of details: “Please bear in mind that the most trivial circumstances in regard to the last moments [and] death of our loved one will be of much interest to us.” On December 27 Taylor received a letter from another former prisoner confirming that Henry had died at Charleston on October 3. But this was not the kind of official notification that would satisfy Taylor’s longing to know everything possible about Henry’s last days. Nor would it enable Taylor to, as he put it “settle my son’s ac[counts] with the government.” He continued to write to secure such evidence and to locate Henry’s effects, “which will be preserved as relicks.” Taylor was particularly concerned about the return of a twenty-five-dollar gold piece he had sent Henry just before his death and about remuneration for Henry’s “servant…a negro by the name of Sam,” who, Henry had reported in 1863, “thinks as much of me as any dog does of his master.” As soon as Charleston fell into Union hands, Taylor began efforts to bring Henry’s body home.45


“Libby Prison, Richmond Virginia, April 1865.” Library of Congress.

Henry Taylor was one of the estimated 9 percent of Civil War dead who expired in prison camps. Like Henry, most of these men died in the years after the North’s suspension of regular prisoner exchanges in mid-1863 in response to Confederate mistreatment of captured black soldiers. The North’s numerical superiority made exchanges disadvantageous in what was fast evolving into a war of attrition, but Yankees and Confederates alike suffered in the harsh conditions that accompanied the rapid expansion of prison populations. Neither side had anticipated the need to hold so many men in captivity, and neither side had made adequate provision for supplying food, shelter, or medical care. In the course of the war 194,743 Union soldiers and 215,865 Confederates were held prisoner, and 30,218 northerners and 25,976 southerners died in captivity. Civil War prisons were indeed, as one inmate observed, “the closest existence to a hell on earth.”46

In April 1895 J. M. Taylor received an answer to a letter he had recently sent one of Henry’s old comrades. The veteran, who noted he was now gray-haired, confessed he could not recall enough about the layout of the Charleston hospital to answer Taylor’s very specific inquiry about the circumstances of Henry’s last days: “Maybe that some of the other boys may remember more about it.” Thirty years might have led the soldier to put the war out of his mind, but the father could not. The consoling “facts” were still missing.47

Four years of Civil War propelled a remarkable shift in attitudes and behavior toward accounting for the dead. Military procedures themselves began to reflect this transformation, and in July 1864 the U.S. Congress passed an act that established a new organizational principle for handling casualties. This measure for the first time designated a special graves registration unit rather than, as had heretofore been the case, assuming that soldiers could simply be detailed from the line to carry out burial duties. When Confederate general Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens near Washington, D.C., in 1864, this new unit, under Assistant Quartermaster James Moore, succeeded in identifying every Union body and recording every grave. But during the final operations of the war, men were not spared to serve in registration units, and the effort was abandoned. It represented nevertheless a new departure and, together with the establishment of the beginnings of the national cemetery system, marked a growing recognition of governmental responsibility for the remains—both bodies and names—of those who had perished in Civil War camps and battlefields.

The commitment to individual rights that emerged as such an important principle of the northern cause made attention to particular soldiers’ fates and identities inescapable; honoring the dead became inseparable from respecting the living. But the strongest impetus for these changes was the anguish of wives, parents, siblings, and children who found undocumented, unconfirmed, and unrecognized loss intolerable. The Civil War took place in a newly and self-consciously humanitarian age. “The world is more easily moved by the spectacle of human misery than it ever has been,” wrote a northern relief worker, explaining why “the Christian public either in this or any other country” would not allow soldiers to suffer as they had “in all previous wars.” This was an age in which family ties were celebrated and sentimentalized, an age that believed, moreover, that it possessed the agency and responsibility, as well as the scientific expertise, to mitigate suffering.48

But the dimensions of Civil War loss did not yield to small-scale, individual intervention or even to entrepreneurial improvisations, and Americans turned to the emerging philanthropic bureaucracies of the Sanitary and Christian commissions and ultimately to enhanced state power and responsibility. As Union victory became all but certain in the winter and early spring of 1864–65, the demands of the unnamed dead grew more pressing. At war’s end, the United States would embark on a program of identification and reburial that redefined the nation’s obligation to its fallen, as well as the meaning of both names and bodies as enduring repositories of the human self.

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