Thursday, March 08, 2012

Faces of the Civil War: Undertaker William Roberts

In this Antietam photo by famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, an unburied
 Rebel lies next to a hastily buried Union soldier. (Library of Congress collection)
When Connecticut families sought the return of loved ones killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the Union army was of little help. The sad reality was that the army was ill-equipped to deal with death on such a massive scale.

A sketch of William Roberts that
appeared with his obituary in the
Hartford Courant on May 23, 1898.

More than 2,000 Union soldiers were killed at Antietam, and many of them were hastily buried after the battle, often in unmarked graves. Thankfully, sometimes the living tried to ensure that the dead could be found by their families.

In a letter published in the Hartford Courant on Sept. 30, 1862, First Lieutenant John Burnham of the 16th Connecticut provided a detailed description of where those killed in his regiment were buried so "friends at home shall have authentic information as soon as possible."

Burnham described how bodies were arranged for burial, key landmarks near the gravesites and the placing of small headboards marked with the names and companies of the dead men.

Burnham's effort was probably appreciated by the family of 8th Connecticut private Oliver Case, who was buried with the dead of his brother Alonzo's regiment, the 16th Connecticut. Case's father, Job, traveled to Sharpsburg, Md., from Simsbury weeks after the battle to retrieve his son's body.

The family of 14th Connecticut private Robert Hubbard relied on the kindness of a farmer. Hubbard was killed by friendly fire on the farm of William Roulette, who two months after the battle shipped the body back to the 31-year-old soldier's family in Middletown.

But several Connecticut families paid for the services of one William W. Roberts, a 48-year-old Hartford undertaker/coffin maker, who specialized in the grim task of traveling south to disinter bodies and returning them to the state for reburial. Roberts was so good at coffin-making that his "burial caskets of artistic design earned him a reputation which extended throughout New England."  (1) 

In addition to making coffins, William Roberts 
provided "ice boxes for preserving bodies for a
 short period," according to this advertisement
 in the Hartford Courant on June 29, 1863.
During the Civil War, Roberts frequently advertised for his onerous body retrieval services in the Hartford Courant.

"...have it done in a thoroughly reliable manner, by one who has had much experience, and is well-acquainted with the different localities in the South," one advertisement noted.

"Persons having friends who have died in the army, and buried at Port Royal, Washington, Fortress Monroe, Shenandoah Valley, before Richmond, or anywhere within our lines can have their remains brought north for internment by applying at the office of Wm.  W. Roberts," read another.

In early October 1862, Roberts returned to Hartford with a ghastly haul of eight bodies from the Antietam battlefield, including 26-year-old Jarvis Blinn of Rocky Hill. The well-regarded captain of Company F in the 14th Connecticut also died near the Roulette farmhouse.

Born in Newington, about seven miles from Hartford, Roberts was oprhaned at an early age. After learning to become a carpenter, he operated a furniture business on Pratt Street in Hartford, across the street from a bank. Roberts later added an undertaking business and was known for the impressive innovation of adding glass to the sides of a hearse -- the first man in the United States to do so. (2).

During the Civil War, Hartford undertaker William Roberts and businessman 
M.S. Chapman, a  former Union soldier,  advertised  in the  Hartford Courant 
for their services for retrieving bodies of soldiers buried in the South.
In September 1866, Roberts, tired of his grim job and evidently a wealthy man, quit the coffin-making and undertaking business. In 1868, he built the Hartford Opera House on Main Street and for 17 years "provided practically all of the professional entertainment in the city." (3) From the business of death to the entertainment business, that's quite a career shift.

Roberts, "silent and uncommunicative by nature," according to his obituary in the Hartford Courant, died at age 84 on May 22, 1898. The man who was very fond of horses and "always had one or more handy steppers in his stable" is buried in Hartford's Spring Grove Cemetery, not far from where he once crafted coffins for the dead of Antietam.

(1) Hartford Courant, May 23, 1898.
(2) Ibid
(3) Ibid


  1. Hey, John.

    The LoC catalog on this image doesn't identify the buried Union soldier, but the marker appears to read, "J A Clark / 7th Mich." That would be this guy.

    Can't beat the detail in those glass plate negatives.

    1. Andy:

      Yah, William Frassanito all over that in his terrific book on Antietam, published in 1978. Good stuff. Will enlarge that area later and post on that. Good stuff.