Civilians and the Work of Mourning

“more trying than to face the battle’s rage”


War victimized civilians as well as soldiers, and uncounted numbers of noncombatants perished as a direct result of the conflict. The war’s circumstances created a variety of ways for ordinary Americans to die: from violence that extended beyond soldiers and battles, from diseases that spread beyond military camps, from hardships and shortages that enveloped a broad swath of the American—and especially the southern—population. It was, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, a “people’s contest,” and the people suffered its cruelties.1

Civil War engagements respected no rigid delineation between home and battlefront but raged across farms and settlements, into Gettysburg’s peach orchard and Sharpsburg’s cornfield, as well as into countless churches and dwellings. At First Bull Run, Judith Henry, a bedridden eighty-five-year-old widow, was killed by an artillery shell. Twenty-year-old Jenny Wade of Gettysburg died from a rifle bullet that passed through her front door as she worked dough to make bread for wounded soldiers. Young Alvah Shuford, who lived near Antietam, died while playing with a shell he found on the field; another boy perished the same way after Gettysburg. An estimated twenty women were killed by artillery fire during the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, but one observer noted that citizens actually suffered much more from “scarcity of provisions than from the abundance of shells.” Civilians died when Union gunboats fired on Natchez and Baton Rouge, when Union troops besieged Petersburg, when Yankees and Confederates struggled over the Shenandoah Valley—even in hand-to-hand combat in the streets of Martinsburg. In Richmond more than forty women working in an ordnance factory were killed in an explosion in 1863, and another fifteen died in similar circumstances in Jackson, Mississippi. Sherman’s March targeted property rather than persons, but civilians died nonetheless, like the eighty-year-old man driving his mule who was shot when he refused to stop at a Union colonel’s order. “That was one of the accidents of the war,” a Yankee soldier nonchalantly reported. Noncombatants were caught up in almost every military action—collateral damage, as they might be designated today. Yet no one then or since has tried to make a systematic compilation or enumeration of such deaths. In an era when military record keeping was itself flawed and incomplete, no one thought to account for civilians. Their losses remain the stuff of anecdote and even legend—largely unacknowledged casualties of a war even more devastating than its official statistics imply.2

Disease as well as violence threatened civilians, who perished from the same illnesses that produced the preponderance of military deaths. The Civil War generated significant movements of peoples that served as deadly disease vectors. Contagions and epidemics that flourished in army camps spread to surrounding populations. Citizens of Danville, Virginia, for example, were certain that their debilitating “fevers” originated in the prisoner-of-war hospital located there. Philadelphia reported a smallpox epidemic that seemed closely connected to the numbers of soldiers stationed in the city who had succumbed to the disease. In the fall of 1862 nearly five hundred cases of yellow fever and malaria appeared in Wilmington, North Carolina, in part, local physicians believed, because the construction of army breastworks had increased the number of stagnant ponds around the city. After Antietam, Maryland families paid a price for their generosity in caring for the wounded. As a result of maintaining a hospital in his parlor throughout the fall of 1862, Adam Michael reported, “the disease…has afflicted three of our family…Mother died with this disease on the 25th day of November.”3

African Americans in search of freedom frequently succumbed to illness as they fled northward. The Union army established what came to be known as “contraband camps” to help provide for the tens of thousands of slaves escaping into northern lines. Largely populated by women, children, and the elderly—often the families of black men who entered Union military service—these camps had extraordinarily high levels of mortality, due in considerable part to the conditions in which their residents were compelled to live. A Sanitary Commission observer described the camps as sites of “extreme destitution and suffering.” At one camp near Nashville in 1864, 25 percent of the residents died in a single three-month period. Many who escaped to freedom never lived to enjoy it.4

Across the South white civilians remarked upon apparent increases in illness and mortality, due in part to the economic hardships mounting within the struggling Confederacy. “I never have heard of so many dying,” a Virginia woman reported, as she sent news from home to her husband at the front. An 1864 appeal on behalf of refugee women and children near Nashville noted that “last spring the mortality among children was fearful,” and expressed worries about a significant “decrease in the population of women and children.” A petition to Jefferson Davis from forty-six citizens of Randolph County, Alabama, confirmed that by 1864 “deaths from starvation have absolutely occurred.” Southerners acknowledged that both the physical and emotional pressures of war had taken their toll. A Virginia doctor, trying to give some measure of objective reality to his sense of sharply increased morbidity and mortality, estimated that “the average of deaths is 30 per ct greater among the non-combatant population than before the war.” As a South Carolina woman remarked, “it is not strange that the body sometimes gives way when so much rests upon the mind.”5

Even the most privileged and famous could not protect themselves from the reach of war-borne disease. William Tecumseh Sherman’s nine-year-old son died of typhoid fever contracted on a visit to his father in camp; Confederate general James Longstreet lost both his young children when they moved to Richmond to join him and came down with scarlet fever soon after they arrived in the crowded wartime capital. Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln died in 1862 from typhoid fever, the consequence, in all likelihood, of Washington’s water supply, contaminated by the army camps stationed along the banks of the Potomac River.6

Hospitals were especially dangerous places, and nurses, matrons, and other medical workers often contracted illnesses from the patients they attended or from the polluted water supply they all shared. Union general Francis Barlow’s wife, Arabella, died of typhus as a result of her service in the hospitals of the Army of the Potomac. In both North and South nurses—Louisa May Alcott prominent among them—regularly fell victim to typhoid, smallpox, and even heart failure brought on by the conditions and demands of their employment. When Wilmington, North Carolina, was taken by Union forces, prisoners released from Andersonville and Florence crowded its hospitals, spreading new waves of epidemic disease. Of five “lady nurses” from the North, three sickened and two died, along with a chaplain and other medical attendants. Residents of the long-suffering town cannot but have been affected as well. No statistics or systematic records document the impact of war-engendered disease on noncombatant populations, but citizens, especially in the South, had few doubts about its effects.7

The enormous battles—engagements like Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness—that constituted the central theater and focus of war often overshadow the widespread and persistent small-scale encounters, guerrilla actions, and civic unrest that inevitably involved and threatened civilians. One set of such hostilities grew naturally out of the causes of the conflict. On farms and plantations across the South, the disruptions of war encouraged slaves to challenge their subordination as they witnessed erosions of white control and anticipated the possibility of freedom. Some masters died at the hands of slaves seeking vengeance or asserting a new sense of empowerment. Mary Chesnut described the horror that swept through the highest circles of South Carolina society when the elderly Betsey Witherspoon was smothered by her slaves. In Virginia a sixteen-year-old slave girl, determined not to be whipped, killed her mistress by hitting her with a fence rail and then choking her to death. As they struggled to maintain control, masters, in turn, killed slaves. Near Natchez anxious whites hanged thirty slaves suspected of using war’s disruptions to plan an uprising against their owners. A northern woman working in the Nashville hospitals learned of a “negro boy of about nine years old who died from blows received from his mistress.” She was beating him because of her “anger that his mother had run away in search of freedom.” More commonly masters exacted retribution upon wives left behind by male slaves who had fled to join the Union army. Slaves suspected of helping the Yankees became particular targets of white southerners’ wrath. A young slave girl in Darlington, South Carolina, was hanged for yelling, “Bless the Lord the Yankees have come!” when Sherman’s troops arrived in town. Across the South slaves and masters battled over the future of the peculiar institution in a warfare, both overt and hidden, that yielded its own unacknowledged list of casualties.8

Racial violence was not confined to the South. Northern resentment at the human and financial cost of the war disturbed the public peace, most dramatically in the New York City riots that followed the introduction of a draft lottery in July 1863. White citizens were angry that the recently enacted federal conscription law would lead them off to battle in a war now explicitly committed to emancipation, and they expressed their fury in vicious attacks that were directed at first against government buildings but soon focused upon African American residents of the city. Five days of violence resulted in the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum, the lynching of eleven black men, and more than one hundred deaths.9

Violence invaded everyday life in other parts of the nation as well, especially in locations where political loyalties divided the civilian population. East Tennessee, western North Carolina, southwest Virginia, and the Missouri borderlands were among the areas that experienced guerrilla conflict that made few distinctions between combatants and noncombatants. In East Tennessee a Primitive Baptist minister of northern sympathies was killed in his house by secessionists; Unionists claimed that Confederates hanged several women who had refused to reveal the whereabouts of their loyal husbands. In Shelton Laurel, North Carolina, Confederates shot fifteen male citizens, including boys as young as thirteen. Confederate sympathizers burned the town of Lawrence, Kansas, and the Union commander retaliated by ordering houses in four counties vacated and destroyed. In Missouri partisan rangers terrorized civilians and provided Jesse James with a training ground for his violent postwar career.10


“View of the Darlington Court-House and the Sycamore Tree Where Amy Spain, the Negro Slave, Was Hung.” Harper’s Weekly, September 30, 1865.

But for most civilians war’s wounds proved less direct than they were for a Judith Henry or a Jenny Wade or a victim of guerrilla violence or even epidemic disease. Most noncombatants felt war’s cruelest impact not in their own illness or death but through the sufferings of the soldiers who were dear to them. The blow that killed a soldier on the field not only destroyed that man but also sent waves of misery and desolation into a world of relatives and friends, who themselves became war’s casualties. In a poem, “Killed at the Ford,” that represented a widely shared understanding of war’s losses, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dissolved the boundary between home and battlefront, between combatants and noncombatants, between war’s physical and emotional wounds. The ball that killed the Yankee soldier in the South continued its trajectory of death:

That fatal bullet went speeding forth

Till it reached a town in the distant North

Till it reached a house in a sunny street

Till it reached a heart that ceased to beat

Without a murmur, without a cry


And the neighbors wondered that she should die.11

Some grieving survivors did indeed literally perish. Told that her husband had been killed, one Iowa woman declared she wished to see her mother and then die, and she proceeded to do just that. In South Carolina the parents of eighteen-year-old Oliver Middleton, killed in 1864, were perceived by their acquaintances to be unalterably transformed by the blow, and Oliver’s despairing mother followed him in death in a little more than a year.12

But Longfellow’s poem suggests the possibility of metaphorical death in his rendering of the unspecified—and thus generalized—wife, mother, or sister. Even without the actual demise of the body, the bereaved might suffer a living death of spirit, heart, and hope. Civil War fatalities belonged ultimately to the survivors; it was they who had to undertake the work not just of burial but also of consolation and mourning. This would be, as Louisiana soldier Reuben Allen Pierson wrote from the field in 1862, “more trying than to face the battle’s rage.”13

The notion of the Good Death, so often embodied in the condolence letter that bore “Aufaul knuse” from battle to home front, represented an initial collaboration between the dying and the living in managing death’s terrors. The letter and the act of dying that it described affirmed a set of assumptions about death’s meaning that established the foundations for the mourning to follow. A soldier’s actual death comprised but a moment—“sudden and swift” like the subject of Longfellow’s poem, even if it was preceded by lengthy struggle and agony. But for his survivors, his death was literally endless. His work was over, but theirs had just begun.

For many bereaved, even assimilating the fact of a loved one’s death was difficult. Civil War letter and diary writers confronting news of loss repeatedly proclaimed their inability to “realize” a death—using the word with now antiquated precision to mean to render it real in their own minds. This word choice encompasses an important aspect of the process of grief as it has been described by psychologists and indeed observers through the ages. Freud, for example, contrasted mourning, a grief that understands that a loved object no longer exists, to melancholia, in which an individual “cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost” and thus remains mired in “profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love.” Freud writes of “the work of mourning,” defined by the effort to come to grips with the reality of loss and then to withdraw emotional investment from the departed. Mourning is a process with an end; melancholia a state, and, in Freud’s terms, a pathology. The particular circumstances created by the Civil War often inhibited mourning, rendering it difficult, if not impossible, for many bereaved Americans to move through the stages of grief. In an environment where information about deaths was often wrong or entirely unavailable, survivors found themselves both literally and figuratively unable to “see clearly what…has been lost” and instead encouraged to deny it. In such conditions the temptation to distrust and resist bad news was all too alluring and the capacity for the genuine consolations of mourning severely compromised.14

Denial and numbness were, in fact, prominent means by which civilians—like soldiers—attempted to cope with war’s losses. Abbie Brooks of Georgia confessed that sufferings had “purified and petrified me. I care very little for anybody or anything, am neither sorry nor glad, but passive.” After her brother’s death, Kate Foster of Mississippi felt emotionally altered: “My heart became flint. I am almost afriad to love too dearly anyone now.” Kate Stone, who spent much of the war as a refugee from her Louisiana home, acknowledged that “death does not seem half so terrible as it did long ago. We have grown used to it.” Cornelia Hancock, nursing in Union hospitals, felt the same as the young Confederate: “One can get used to anything.” She had come to understand why hospital administrators so often failed to make the required list of fatalities: death had become too commonplace even to take note of. When she was told of the demise of a neighbor at home, Hancock confessed to her sister that a single death seemed not to mean “anything to me now.” The young wife of a Confederate officer reported that some bereaved southerners became almost paralyzed by their losses, “stunned and stupefied…forever, and a few there were who died of grief.” Mary Lee, living amid the constant battles over Winchester, agreed: “no one feels anything now.” Such denial represented its own kind of loss, an abandonment of emotion and sensibility that was a death in itself, another dimension of war’s dehumanization.15

Making a death real, feeling and accepting its certainty, required effort. After her brother James was killed at Second Bull Run, Sarah Palmer wrote in anguish to her sister Harriet, “I can’t realize that I am never to see that dear boy again…it is too hard to realize.” Death itself seemed impossible to understand, much less to connect with their vibrant young brother: “We have never known what death was before.” Their mother, Esther, turned to fantasies of denial, trying to reject rather than embrace the reality of his loss, which she found unbearable. “I sometimes think he is not dead, it might have been a mistake,” she wrote several weeks after he was killed. “I cannot begin to realize the death of my beloved brother,” wrote another sister, Elizabeth. “I find myself continually thinking of him as alive.” Five months later Harriet still struggled to accept the fact of his loss. “It is very hard to believe that dear Jim is dead. Were it not for the cessation of those letters we used to hail with so much gladness…I could not realize it.” Death seemed ineffable, a void that she could understand best through the physicality of the letters that came no more.16

Survivors sought material evidence that could convince their often “rebellious hearts” of the unfathomable and intolerable news that confronted them. Just two years after James’s death another Palmer son and brother was killed. When bits of his clothing were forwarded to his family, his young widow, Alice, greeted them with relief: “The last lingering hopes have all been crushed. None of us could mistake those pieces of cloth. I thank God that he had on clothes that we knew. Otherwise we never would have felt sure that they were his precious remains.”17

Alice Palmer was among the fortunate. Hundreds of thousands of wives, parents, children, and siblings of unidentified and missing men would never have what she called the “melancholy satisfaction” of irrefutable evidence to serve as a foundation for emotional acceptance of loss. The intensity with which Civil War Americans sought to retrieve the bodies of their slain kin arose in no small part from this need to make loss real by rendering it visible and tangible. A Union nurse described a young wife after Antietam “whose frantic grief I can never forget.” Told that her husband had been buried two days before she arrived in search of him, she was “unwilling to believe the fact” and “insisted upon seeing him.” His comrades kindly agreed to disinter the body. One glance quieted her frenzy as she sank beneath “the stern reality of this crushing sorrow” and made plans to take the body back to Philadelphia. The “stern reality” represented by a body succeeded in establishing “the fact” of death in her mind, and the new widow began to move from resistance to acceptance of her cruel fate and her new identity.18


John Saunders Palmer Jr. with his wife of less than a year, Alice Ann Gaillard Palmer. South Caroliniana Library.

To embody—quite literally—death was one way to make it real. But the effort to render death palpable included as well the creation of visible symbols of grief that could be used to rehearse and enact the new roles the bereaved now occupied. In the mid-nineteenth century respectable Americans, or those who aspired to be considered among their ranks, customarily observed a formal period of bereavement after the death of a spouse or relative. The first ladies of both North and South spent much of the war garbed in mourning, for each endured the loss of a young child, Mary Lincoln’s Willie and Varina Davis’s Joseph, who fell from the porch of the executive mansion in Richmond. Mary Lincoln remained in deep mourning for more than a year after Willie’s death, dressing in black veils, black crape “without the gloss,” and black jewelry. By 1863 she had progressed to half mourning and appeared in lavender, gray, and some purples, with a little white trim visible at the wrist. But after her husband’s assassination, she returned to full mourning for the rest of her life. Men, too, wore tokens of mourning, armbands for lost kin, badges and rosettes, like those displayed by Virginia Military Institute cadets and officers for a month after Stonewall Jackson’s death.19


Half-mourning dress of Varina Howell Davis. The Museum of the Confederacy.

By convention, a mother mourned for a child for a year, a child for a parent the same, a sister six months for a brother. A widow mourned for two and a half years, moving through prescribed stages and accoutrements of heavy, full, and half mourning, with gradually loosening requirements of dress and deportment. A widower, by contrast, was expected to mourn only for three months, simply by displaying black crape on his hat or armband. The work of mourning was largely allocated to women. The exigencies of war and, in the South, shortages of clothing and money undermined the rigidity of these expectations. But war’s changed circumstances prompted desire to replace necessity. Even as expectations loosened, women sought the solace they hoped the costumes and customs of mourning could provide. Many women struggled to find the garments that would enable them to participate in this rite of passage and display of respect. Formal observance of mourning created a sense of process, encouraging the bereaved to believe they could move through their despair, which might evolve through stages of grief represented by their changing clothing: from the flat black silks, veils, and crape of heavy mourning, to the white trim and collars acceptable in full mourning, to the grays and lavenders that half mourning introduced, until at last they returned fully to the world and their customary attire.20

In the South, where 18 percent of white males of military age perished in the war, death was omnipresent, and fabrics and fashions were scarce. As the Daily South Carolinian asked in 1864, “Who has not lost a friend during the war? We are literally a land of mourning.” Confederate women, especially in cities and towns, seem to have done all they could to overcome obstacles to securing appropriate mourning dress, which promised the consolation of visibly shared misery. The southern death toll produced a uniformed sorority of grief. As Lucy Breckinridge of Virginia remarked, “There were so many ladies here, all dressed in deep mourning, that we felt as if we were at a convent and formed a sisterhood.” When the Yankees entered Richmond in April 1865, a New York newspaperman observed, “the women are nearly all dressed in mourning.”21

Teenaged Nannie Haskins of Tennessee was outraged when a visitor told her how well she looked in black after her brother’s death. “Becomes me fiddlestick,” she wrote. “What do I care whether it becomes me or not? I don’t wear black because it becomes me…I wear mourning because it corresponds with my feelings.” Mourning garb was, to paraphrase language that Saint Augustine used to describe the Christian sacraments, an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible state.22


“Women in Mourning, Cemetery in New Orleans.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1863.

Susan Caldwell of Warrenton, Virginia, was eager to wear mourning after the death of her child in the fall of 1864. But her husband, Lycurgus, wrote from the army to forbid it. “You have too many things already to remind you of your bereavement and oppress your spirits—and our pecuniary circumstances will not permit it.” Susan was not worried about being reminded of her grief; she was not likely to forget it, and she longed for a way to express her sorrow. She sadly but dutifully replied, “My dress at present corresponds but little with my mournful aching heart but I am willing to do as you wish me.”23

Acquiring mourning apparel in the Civil War South required effort, even ingenuity, and often considerable expenditure. After receiving news of the death of her son Romulus in 1862, Margaret Gwyn of Georgia bought some “mourning goods” at the local store and began to sew a black dress. A woman of modest circumstances, she dyed other of her clothes to make them a suitable expression of her grief. As she worked, “my eyes was often filled with tears which is a relief to the troubled mind.” A woman near Fredericksburg could not decide whether to don mourning in 1863, for she was “not willing to leave off col[ors], unless she can procure a handsome outfit in black, and that cannot be had though she is perfectly regardless of expense.” Merchants in southern cities and towns announced successful acquisition of fabric and fashions in newspaper advertisements with a triumphant tone that reflected the scarcity of such goods. The Daily South Carolinian regularly carried notices when shipments arrived, often smuggled through the blockade. In “News for Ladies” the paper whetted appetites by describing in detail the elaborate mourning attire in fashion across the Atlantic.24


“View of the ‘Burnt District,’ Richmond, Va.” Library of Congress.

In the North, where the rate of death of men of military age was one-third that in the Confederacy, mourning was less universal, and the goods that made it possible proved more readily available.25 Advertisements in northern papers announced far greater variety and availability of wares both in specialty stores and in more general establishments like New York’s Lord & Taylor, which opened its own mourning department in April 1863. At Besson & Son, Mourning Store, at 918 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, one could find in July 1863—just in time for Gettysburg—a veritable taxonomy of mourning fabrics all but unrecognizable by twenty-first-century Americans:

Black Crape Grenadines

Black Balzerines

Black Baryadere Bareges

Black Bareges

Black Barege Hernani, Silk Grenadines, Challies,

Summer Bombazines, Mousseline de Laines,

Tamises, Mourning Silks, Lawns, Chintzes, Alpacas,

Barege Shawls, Grenadine Veils, English Crapes and

Veils, Collars, Sleeves &c, &c26

Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular American women’s periodical and the nation’s most important arbiter of fashion, regularly presented drawings of bonnets, collars, sleeves—even breakfast caps—suitable for half or full mourning, as well as illustrations of a variety of mourning dresses for all occasions. Mourning clearly did not dictate seclusion; the fashionable—and wealthy—bereaved woman sought appropriate attire for a wide range of social activities. In 1865 the magazine portrayed a “Promenade Suit for Second Mourning, From the celebrated establishment of Messrs. A T. Stewart & Co. of New York.” The elaborate dress and shawl were of white organdy, dotted in black and violet and bordered in slightly different shades of the same. Each issue of Godey’s featured a full-page hand-tinted portrait of a group of ladies, usually five, modeling a variety of the latest fashions—a “walking costume,” a dinner dress, an evening dress, a “visiting dress,” a “bridal toilet,” or perhaps a “reception dress.” One of these ladies was always dressed in mourning. In June 1862, for example, the figure at the far left of the illustration wore a black silk and French grenadine “costume for a watering-place, and suitable for half mourning,” together with a Leghorn hat, trimmed with black velvet and black plume, as she stood beside her companions in dinner dress, walking costume, and riding habit; May 1864 brought an evening dress for second mourning complemented by a coiffure adorned in black velvet and lavender daisies.27


Lady on far left fashionably dressed in half mourning. “Godey’s Fashions for June 1862.” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, June 1862.

Like the formal mourning period, the funeral provided the opportunity for survivors to enact—and thus in some measure assuage—their grief, as well as to honor the deceased. A community of friends and relatives shared this ritual affirmation of loss and marked the new status of each mourner, now deprived of husband, father, brother, or son. Many Civil War funerals were also occasions for displays of patriotism, especially during the early months of the conflict when soldiers’ deaths were novel and often marked with elaborate public ceremony. In May 1861, Boston greeted three Massachusetts soldiers killed in secessionist rioting in Baltimore with a procession to the Common, accompanied by a band and crowds of weeping citizens, men and women alike. When Charleston’s dead were returned after First Bull Run in July 1861, business was suspended throughout the city, and three cavalry companies escorted the bodies from the railroad station to City Hall, where they lay in state until more than a thousand soldiers accompanied them first to St. Paul’s Church for divine services and then to Magnolia Cemetery.28


“Women in Mourning at Stonewall Jackson’s Grave, circa 1866.” Virginia Military Institute Archives.

Deaths soon became too numerous to warrant such public demonstrations for any but the most prominent figures. Stonewall Jackson’s death in 1863, however, provided the occasion for an outpouring of grief across the Confederacy, for the combination of his legendary piety with his military successes rendered him the ideal embodiment of the Christian Soldier. Lee would indeed have reason to mourn his loss in the campaigns to come, but in marking his death the Confederate nation also asserted its claims to religious superiority. Such a man as Jackson, the observances underlined, would fight only for a cause that had God on its side. Jackson had died in Guiney’s Station, Virginia, on Sunday, May 10, 1863, from pneumonia contracted after the amputation of his arm, injured by accidental fire from his own men a week before. Virginia’s governor dispatched a railroad car to bring Jackson’s remains to Richmond, forty-five miles away. Crowds gathered along the route, and all business in the Confederate capital was suspended. Black crape hung throughout the city; black even decorated the mastheads of the local newspapers; church bells tolled; and thousands assembled to accompany the coffin in a hearse pulled by two white horses to the governor’s mansion. Jefferson Davis and other dignitaries paid their respects, though Lee dared not leave his post at the front. Later that night Jackson’s body was embalmed and a death mask made of his face. The next day soldiers, Confederate statesmen and cabinet officials, judges, and additional crowds formed a funeral cortege that paraded two and a half miles through central Richmond before depositing Jackson’s metal coffin in the Confederate House of Representatives, where twenty thousand filed past well into the night.

The next morning the trip to Jackson’s home and burial site in Lexington, Virginia, began. Through two train trips and a final leg on a packet boat, the general’s remains were greeted by artillery salutes, the tolling of church bells, garlands of spring flowers, and throngs of grieving admirers. Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson had taught before the war, was ready to receive its son, placing him to lie in state in his old lecture room, then honoring him with a parade of VMI cadets and faculty, local officials, recovering soldiers from a nearby hospital, religious worthies, and a squadron of Confederate cavalry who happened to be passing through town.

By this time, the ceremonies marking his death had gone on for so long that his imperfectly embalmed body began to show signs of deterioration, suggesting that a prompt end to the observances might be in order. The VMI cadet who served as officer of the day later remembered, “His body was said to be embalmed, but of no avail. Decomposition had already taken place, in consequence of which his face was not exposed to view as the features were said not to be natural.” Brief funeral services were performed at the Presbyterian church where Jackson had been a deacon. His pastor, William White, offered a Bible reading and a sermon based on Corinthians 1:15: “O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?” The congregation sang “How Blest the Righteous When He Dies.” For this Christian soldier, death was cast as his greatest triumph.29

Two springs later another outpouring of grief gripped a segment of Americans quite different from the white southerners who had mourned Jackson. Once again religion and patriotism united in the ritual observance of the passing of one who embodied popular hopes and sacrifices. Lincoln died on Good Friday, less than a week after Lee’s surrender, just as the war’s killing promised to end. His death was the ultimate death—and became in many ways emblematic of all the losses of the war. A national outpouring of grief represented an aggregation of the war’s woe. It was, in the words of one popular song sheet, the “National Funeral.” Lincoln’s death was at once each soldier’s death and all soldiers’ deaths, but it also served purposes beyond catharsis. The parallels between Lincoln and Christ were powerful and unavoidable, reinforcing belief in the war’s divine purpose, realized through the sacrifice of the one for the many. When Congregational clergyman Leonard Swain proclaimed in an Easter Sunday sermon in Providence that “one man has died for the people, in order that the whole nation might not perish,” he invoked the Christian narrative of redemption as well as the very words of Lincoln himself, uttered two years earlier at Gettysburg. Lincoln’s death had both broadly transcendent and specifically national significance, tying American purposes to those of God.30

Funeral observances for the president acknowledged and intensified his connection with the American people. Twenty-five thousand men and women filed by his open casket as it lay in state in the East Room of the White House. The service itself, by invitation only, was attended by six hundred, not including Mary Lincoln, who was too distraught to appear. A funeral procession of soldiers and dignitaries accompanied Lincoln’s hearse, drawn by six gray horses, to the Capitol, where the president lay in state as lines of mourners passed. Across the nation a variety of observances marked the funeral day: a procession of twenty thousand in Memphis, a large gathering in San Francisco, an address by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Massachusetts, and throughout the northern states, as theNew York Herald reported, “universal suspension of ordinary avocations and a closing of places of business.”31

From the Capitol, Lincoln’s body was taken to the railroad station to begin the seventeen-hundred-mile journey to Springfield, Illinois, and his grave. At each stop—Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Chicago—mourners paid homage to the slain president. In Philadelphia his coffin lay in Independence Hall, while a column of people three miles long waited to view his remains. In New York the Herald estimated that 75,000 marched with his cortege while ten times that number watched from sidewalks and rooftops. Everywhere black Americans seemed to manifest particular sorrow—weeping along the routes of his cortege, marching in proud units of U.S. Colored Troops in processions that accompanied his hearse, writing poems and essays in the African American press, and proclaiming from the pulpit. “We, as a people,” declared the pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Troy, New York, “feel more than all others that we are bereaved. We had learned to love Mr. Lincoln…We looked up to him as our saviour, our deliverer.”32

By the time Lincoln reached Springfield on May 3, the shortcomings of contemporary embalming technology had become apparent, and his face took on a distorted, almost grotesque appearance. But the pageantry did not abate until May 4, when he was laid to rest in Oak Ridge Cemetery on the outskirts of the town he had left for Washington just a little more than four years earlier. A hymn composed for this final ceremony implored:

Grant that the cause, for which he died,

May live forever more.


“President Lincoln’s Funeral—Citizens Viewing the Body at the City Hall, New York.” Harper’s Weekly, May 6, 1865.

Lincoln’s death contained the redemptive promise of national immortality. But like Jackson’s death, Lincoln’s passing was marked by an irony that underscored the limitation and even futility of human powers. Jackson died close to the high-water mark of the Confederacy; Lincoln was assassinated just as victory proved firmly in Union grasp.

In the weeks after Lincoln’s assassination, Walt Whitman composed three poems of mourning, meditations on the nation’s grief. In “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day,” written the very day of Lincoln’s funeral, Whitman speaks as one of the people, leading the soldiers in mourning and urging the common men to whom he is so devoted to join him in tribute to “our dear commander.”

Sing of the love we bore him—because you, dwellers in camps, know it truly.

As they invault the coffin there,


For the heavy hearts of soldiers.33

“O Captain! My Captain,” composed several months later during the summer of 1865, again invokes popular grief. It is, as literary scholar Helen Vendler explains, “a designedly democratic and populist poem,” with a meter and refrain designed for public tastes. The regular rhythm and rhyme are uncharacteristic of Whitman’s work, and “O Captain!” is probably the easiest of his poems to memorize and recite. In the voice of a young sailor, Whitman composed an elegy in “democratic style,” speaking this time not for the collectivity of soldiers or for generalized sorrow but for the searing grief of a single man, in a representation of the individual pain of which the cumulative loss is constituted.34

Here Captain! Dear father

The arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.35

In the third of these 1865 poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman speaks as himself, of his own efforts to grapple with Lincoln’s loss. The president’s assassination is not explicitly mentioned; it is as if there is no need to specify the tragedy that occurred when lilacs last bloomed, for it is both known and common to all. The experiences of mourning have been shared as the coffin has journeyed “night and day” across the land. Like a series of photographs, the poem captures this experience, rendering the seventeen-hundred-mile funeral procession in scenes of lingering visual power.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,

Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,


With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,

With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,

With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the somber faces,

With the dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn…36

The poem invokes no consoling Christian doctrines of immortality, and Whitman makes no reference to the pervasive contemporary imagery of Good Friday and the crucifixion. “Lilacs” suggests no promise of an afterlife beyond that of nature’s own renewal. For Whitman, immortality rested, as he wrote in another poem, in mother earth’s absorption of bodies and blood rendered “in unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence.” Dissenting from the comforting Christian redefinition of death into life, “Lilacs” embraces, in Vendler’s words, “the value of acceptance, rather than denial, of the full stop of death.” Yet for those who remain alive to mourn, death provides no full stop.

I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war

They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,

The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,

And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,

And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.37

In his 1865 Lincoln poems Walt Whitman served, as he had throughout the war, as the poet not just of death but of survival, of the suffering of the not-dead. Whitman’s was the cultural work of mourning—on behalf of the nation and, in this instance, for its beloved leader. Yet he mourned, as he wrote in “Lilacs,” “not for you, for one alone.” He mourned for all the war’s slain—for the “ashes of all dead soldiers South or North,” for the “phantoms of countless lost” who “follow me ever—desert me not while I live.” Lost yet not lost, absent yet ever present, these dead, these immortal phantoms with their unrelenting demands on mourners and survivors, became in Whitman’s eyes the meaning and legacy of the war. Lincoln was but their finest exemplar.38

Perhaps the extravaganza of mourning that greeted the public commemorations of Jackson and Lincoln served in some way as a surrogate for all the funerals that citizens could not attend as their loved ones died unattended and far away. The many soldiers buried on the field received only the attention a chaplain and their harried comrades might afford, and as we have seen, tens of thousands of men were interred without either identities or ritual observances. Families fortunate enough to retrieve bodies and bring them home, however, honored their dead with services that varied according to status, circumstance, and religious affiliation. Mary Chesnut remarked that the sound of the funeral march seemed almost constant in South Carolina. Many small communities on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line found the same. In Dorset, Vermont, home of a quarry that provided thousands of tombstones for Gettysburg, 144 men volunteered and 28 died. Funerals in Dorset seemed never-ending and sometimes occurred in bunches when a unit with numbers of local men suffered heavy losses. In Worcester, Massachusetts, 4,227 men out of a total city population of 25,000 went to war, and 398 died. Nantucket received communications from the mainland only three times a week, when a steamer would arrive with its flag at half-mast if it brought news of casualties. Residents watching for the boat would be weeping before it even arrived at the dock. Seventy-three Nantucketers out of a population of about 6,000 died in the war, with 8 killed and 13 wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg alone. When Lieutenant Leander Alley’s body arrived home almost two weeks after the battle, “hundreds of people” called at his mother’s house to view the body, which one of his commanding officers had paid to have embalmed before its shipment north. Schools and stores closed in his honor, and family and neighbors gathered for “impressive funeral services” and a lengthy procession to the Unitarian cemetery.39

In the Confederacy, Clark Stewart, a Presbyterian clergyman, divided his time between Virginia hospitals and his South Carolina home, where he traveled about visiting bereaved families and presiding over funerals of soldiers returned from the battlefield. In his journal he noted the biblical verse he selected for each occasion. “Funeral sermon for Robt Hellams who fell at Fburg John 14:18,” his diary entry for January 18, 1863, read. “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you” was an especially appropriate text for this itinerant clergyman.40

The proffering of comfort was a key function of the sermons that served as the heart of almost every funeral service, however modest or extravagant. But the oration was intended to assist mourners in understanding as well as alleviating their grief. Funeral sermons usually attempted to define the meaning of the deceased’s life and death, an effort that almost inevitably involved speculating on the nature of death itself. In both North and South many of these wartime sermons, as well as funeral biographies and memorials that grew out of them, appeared in print, ranging in size from a pamphlet of a few pages to full-sized octavos designed to serve as monuments to the dead and exhortations to the living. Almost without exception they drew explicitly upon details in the condolence letters that had announced the soldier’s death in order to fashion a more formalized and self-conscious story of a life and its significance. In his funeral sermon for John W. Griffin, a young Confederate chaplain who died in 1864, for example, L. H. Blanton referred to reports of the deceased’s last words and offered the consoling judgment that Griffin’s “dying testimony was all that Christian friends or the Church of God could desire.”41

The Good Death was the foundation for the process of mourning carried on by survivors who used the last words and moments of the dead soldier as the basis for broader evaluation of his entire life. More considered, more polished than condolence letters written from the front, the published funeral sermon was intended for distribution to a wider audience than simply next of kin or even those who might be able to attend a funeral service. The lost life, the soldier’s death no longer belonged just to that individual and his family but was also to be understood and possessed by the community—even the nation—at large. The funeral sermon, like the ritual that surrounded it, was a memorial, not in granite, but in words; it sought, like the Good Death itself, to ensure that dying was not an end, not an isolated act, itself undertaken in isolation, but a foundation for both spiritual and social immortality—for eternal life and lasting memory.42

Dabney Carr Harrison of Virginia, shot through the lungs at Fort Donelson, reportedly murmured, “It is all right! I am perfectly willing to die.” For Reverend William James Hoge, composing a sketch of Dabney’s life, this phrase became the all-important message of Christian sacrifice, an emulation of the Savior himself: however bitter the cup of pain and grief put into his hands by his heavenly Father, he would still say as he drank, “It is all right.” The entire life that Hoge recounted became a prelude to this final defining moment. Born on the Sabbath, Harrison died on the Sabbath, “his life bounded on either hand by the Day of God.”43

Into the feelings of waste and futility represented by so many fore-shortened young lives, funeral sermons injected the consolation of narrative, of a story with a purposeful trajectory and an ending that showed death was never premature but always came at exactly the right time in accordance with God’s design. “The child of scarce unfolded piety, and the veteran Christian, alike yield up to God in death a mortality mysteriously compact,” a New York sermon proclaimed, “the work both had to do on earth being as completely done, as if each had been assigned the longest period known to man.” Reverend Philip Slaughter found in the life of Randolph Fairfax narrative continuities that might not have been evident before his heroic death. Slaughter noted that the dead Confederate always played fairly as a boy and obeyed his mother, had requested a Bible for his fourteenth birthday, and carried a New Testament in battle. When he was killed instantly by a shell at Fredericksburg, the testimony of his life served, in Slaughter’s view, to provide the certainty of salvation that Fairfax himself had been unable to articulate. As Reverend Robert Dabney explained in a memorial to Lieutenant Colonel John Thornton, “he being dead, yet speaketh,” through the “narrative of…[his] religious life.” The dead carried a message from God, and in some sense were themselves that message, as Dabney made clear in another sermon, this one to honor Stonewall Jackson: “Our dead hero is God’s sermon to us. His embodied admonition, His incorporate discourse.”44

Soldiers remembered in published funeral sermons and biographies were usually individuals of considerable importance, with families of sufficient means to sponsor these memorials. Almost always they were officers. These soldiers were markedly less representative of the masses of Civil War armies than were the men whose deaths were reported in the stream of private condolence letters written by comrades to send news of particular deaths to loved ones at home. But the existence of these more polished and elaborated printed efforts to grapple with death and its meaning represent many more such sermons that never made their way into print. The cultural, emotional, spiritual, and ideological work that the privileged sought to accomplish with printed sermons was work that mourners from ordinary families would have needed to undertake as well—even if they lacked the resources to publish books and pamphlets that would be available to historians more than a century later. Beneath these countless historical silences, ordinary Americans were also struggling to come to terms with their losses.

How to mourn was often something that had to be learned, and the work of funeral sermons was to teach these lessons too. The orations of two clergymen, one northern, one southern, offer a primer in grief and consolation, articulating accepted understanding of what we today would call the psychology of loss, as well as the means of explaining and alleviating sorrow. At an upstate New York funeral service for Lieutenant Colonel James M. Green, whose body lay unidentified and unrecovered on Morris Island in South Carolina, Reverend Charles Seymour Robinson reminded the mourners that “time in a measure will help you.” God’s mercy had provided that “months and years” would lessen the “first violence of a sudden affliction.” The bereaved would always feel their loss, he acknowledged, and always remember the departed with affection. But “you will,” he assured them, “by and by be able to look calmly on these days of grief.” Robinson listed three specific sources of consolation. “Patriotism,” he declared, “will come in to aid in mitigating the sorrow. These times are historic.” In a few years, he assured his listeners, they would look back and proudly recount the sacrifices of their dead, giving their lives for their country. A second source of comfort would be the sympathy of others. Shared mourning, he affirmed, was easier mourning. Finally, and “above all, the sublime hopes of the gospel will be a solace to you.” The slain soldier, like Christ himself, would rise again. Robinson offered the distressed the healing forces of time, nation, community, and God.45

In the South, Joseph Cross of Tennessee chose to speak “On Grief” in his funeral oration for General Daniel Donelson. He began by assuring the mourners that sorrow was no sin. “There is no guilt in tears, if they are not tears of despair. It is no crime to feel our loss…Religion,” he explained, “does not destroy nature, but regulates it, does not remove sorrow, but sanctifies it.” Christian faith and human psychology were in his view deeply intertwined, and each supported and nourished the other. Cross enumerated biblical mourners—Abraham for Sarah, Joseph for Jacob, David for Jonathan—to establish the history and legitimacy of grief. Acceptance of sorrow, he recognized, was a critical part of realizing death. It was important to suffer in the face of loss, not to deny or suppress it. “He that is not sensible of the affliction,” Cross warned, “will continue secure in his sin.” Survivors must feel “the stroke.” Cross counseled the importance of what we of the twenty-first century would call catharsis: “Grief must have vent, or it will break the heart…It is cruel to deny one the relief of mourning when mourning is so often its own relief.” Like Robinson—and, indeed, like Freud—Cross understood mourning as a process and promised his congregation progress through grief to some measure of recovery. Like Robinson as well, Cross offered shared suffering as solace: “Sorrow calls for sympathy. Compassion is better than counsel…Sympathy divides the sorrow, and leaves but half the load.”

But Cross worried about “excess of sorrow” and asked, “Where, then, is the proper limit?” Sorrow, he posited, was “criminal” when it obscured awareness of “remaining mercies.” Things could always be worse. Grief was excessive when it made the mourner forget the afflictions of others or become “indifferent to the public welfare” or neglectful of responsibilities to others or to personal health. Grief was “excessive, and therefore criminal,” he repeated, when it ignored God’s purposes and consolations. Like Robinson, Cross noted that there was a contained “time for mourning,” with a finite end, even though the “inward sorrow…may last much longer than the outward show.” The bereaved must work to alleviate their grief, attending to the solaces of friendship and religion. Robinson offered sources of comfort and help; Cross included with his consolations a series of warnings; both promised a gradual end to the agony of loss to be achieved through the work of mourning.46

Some mourners reported quite explicitly their efforts to manage grief, demonstrating a keen and self-conscious awareness of the process both Robertson and Cross described. Henry Bowditch, father of Nathaniel, who was killed in Virginia in March 1863, kept a careful record of his experience of loss, from his physical reaction—“like a dagger in my heart”—to the news of his son’s injury, to the consolations that ultimately liberated him from a world of pain.47

Bowditch “broke fairly down” when he was told of Nathaniel’s death. But “almost immediately,” he reported, “the divine influences of such a loss began to strive for mastery…& I thought that never was there a nobler cause for which he could have died.” Henry Bowditch assured himself that Nat, described to him as “brave and conscious to the last,” had indeed experienced a Good Death, had repeatedly professed his Christian faith and willingness to die during the three days after he was wounded. Nathaniel had certainly “died happily,” a fellow soldier assured the father. Bowditch embraced the very consolations that the ars moriendi offered and that Robinson had prescribed. From Nat’s death, he explained to his wife, he would derive even greater commitment to the doctrines of immortality, and these would sustain him in his loss. Just a day after Nat died, Bowditch wrote from Virginia of his determination “after as short a delay as possible” to “return to life & (made—oh! how blank!) to my accustomed work.” The very phrase displayed the difficulty he faced: the sober dedication to reasoned self-control and to a swift resumption of normal existence, interrupted by the powerful emotions of emptiness and loss that undermined his rational intentions.48

Bowditch was not prepared for the force of grief that overtook him. In Virginia to retrieve Nat’s body he sought “concealment” from others lest they witness the feelings he could not hide. He judged himself “ill fitted to see anyone” and was distressed by his “display of unmanliness.” In its implications of loss of control and of weakness, grief seemed to challenge and erode masculinity. Men would find it especially difficult to acknowledge their sorrow and truly mourn.49

When the solace Bowditch sought in faith and nation proved insufficient to mitigate his sorrow, he seemed bewildered that he was unable to contain his grief. With tears as “my constant companion,” he confessed, “my heart seems almost breaking.” But, he wondered, “why do I complain?” There could not have been “a more noble life or a more noble death.” What more could he have hoped for? But this knowledge was not enough. “My whole nature yearns to see & hear him once again.” For months, Bowditch found, “the full force of…affliction would press itself forwards and my first sorrow would return.” It was in vain that he sought refuge in “other sustaining thoughts” of God and country. Grief was so overpowering that his resolution to return promptly to regular life and work proved impossible. “For months at times I have been unable to work at all.”50


Henry Ingersoll Bowditch at the time of the Civil War. Harvard University Archives.

Bowditch found his feelings reflected in a poem entitled “My Child,” by John Pierpont, a fellow abolitionist, a Unitarian clergyman, and a friend. The poem, Bowditch wrote, “tells the tale far better than I can in prose the real story of my constant thought of my soldier boy” it represented the kind of sharing of sorrow Robinson and Cross had advised, and it offered as well a narrative of redemption from suffering and from death. The poet, like Bowditch, could not believe—could not “realize”—this son’s death. “I cannot make him dead!” the first line proclaimed. He saw his “fair sunshining head,” heard his footfall, expected his arrival, but “he is not there!” Like Bowditch yearning with his whole nature to see his son again, the poet at last accepts his child’s absence and then is free to ask the question that will lead to an alleviation of his pain: “Where is he?” The poem ends with the assurance that “we all live to God!,” that we all will meet “in the spirit land,” and “twill be our heaven to find that—he is there!” Accepting a son’s terrestrial death was the first step toward denial of his death in another realm, a sustaining affirmation that elsewhere he was still alive. Pierpont’s poem aided Bowditch in his effort to move to “Hope rather than Mourning.”51

At the same time Bowditch was struggling spiritually to deal with Nat’s loss, he also undertook actions within the world to express and relieve his grief, as well as to ensure Nat’s continuing presence in memory. Arranging for the body to be embalmed so that “it may be seen on my return to Boston” by Nat’s mother, fiancée, siblings, and friends, who were also in need of solace, Bowditch shared his sorrow with the dozens of mourners who attended Nat’s funeral. “You have not lost him,” Reverend James Freeman Clarke’s sermon comforted them; he was “not dead but alive with a higher life” he was “just the other side of the veil,” where “he says…I wait for you all.”52

Bowditch supplemented the formal rituals of religion with rituals of his own. From a ring given Nat by his fiancée together with a “cavalry button cut from his blood-stained vest,” Bowditch fashioned an amulet that he attached to his watch: “There I trust they will remain until I die.” For Nat’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Bowditch designed another embodiment of his life, exactly copying his sword in stone to serve as a monument. Unable to overcome his preoccupation with his dead son, Bowditch turned his distress into consoling activity, compiling elaborate memorial volumes and scrapbooks that traced Nat from birth to death, a “collation of the letters, journals &c illustrative of his dear young life.” Bowditch did not complete this extensive and therapeutic effort until 1869. “The labor was a sweet one. It took me out of myself.” Coping with Nat’s death required a transcendence and transformation of self.53

Henry Bowditch undertook another action in relief of his own suffering and in honor and memory of his son. His preoccupation with Nat would serve as a lever at last to get, as he put it, “out of myself” and out of his grief in order once again to embrace his reformist commitments: he made Nat’s death, and the long abandonment on the battlefield without medical care that preceded it, a cause célèbre in the effort to establish adequate ambulance service in the Union army, a goal that was achieved in the last year of the war. Bowditch transformed Nat’s suffering into the salvation of others.

In the twenty-first century Americans considering the impact of death regularly invoke the notion of “closure,” the hope and anticipation of an end to the disruption of loss. Civil War Americans expected no such relief. For hundreds of thousands, the unknown fate of missing kin left a “dread void of uncertainty” that knowledge would never fill. Even for those who had detailed information or, better still, the consolation of a body and a grave, mourning had no easy or finite end. Many bereaved spent the rest of their lives waiting for the promised heavenly reunion with those who had gone before. Wives, parents, children, and siblings struggled with the new identities—widows, orphans, the childless—that now defined their lives. And they carried their losses into the acts of memory that both fed on and nurtured the widely shared grief well into the next century.

But if such devastating loss could not be denied, if it was “realized” and acknowledged, it had to be explained. The Civil War’s carnage required that death be given meaning.

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