Saturday, September 22, 2012

Antietam: Advice for transporting bodies

Sergeant Wadsworth Washburn of the 16th Connecticut was 
killed at the Battle of Antietam. His father retreived his remains from
 the battlefield. (Photo: Connecticut State Library archives)
Nearly two months after his son was killed at the Battle of Antietam, Asahel C. Washburn wrote a long letter to the Hartford Courant about the best way to transport a soldier's body home.

By November 1862, the reverend from Berlin, Conn., had plenty of experience at that grim task, a fact he revealed in the missive published in the newspaper. Not only had he traveled 800-plus miles to Sharpsburg and back home with the remains of his only son, 26-year-old sergeant Wadsworth Washburn of the 16th Connecticut, but he also had made another trip south to retreive remains of other soldiers who died at Antietam.

Because the overwhelming number of dead taxed resources of the Union army, the task of retreiving a loved one's remains, especially non-officers, usually was left up to the family of the dead. And to transport the dead, there was a great demand for coffins -- lots of them. Throughout the Civil War, advertisements by undertakers for caskets were peppered in newspapers, including the Courant.  For the sad trip home, Reverend Washburn advised that wood coffins were much better and much less expensive than metallic ones. 

In addition to making coffins, William Roberts of Hartford 
provided "ice boxes for preserving bodies for a short period," according
 to this advertisement  in the Hartford Courant on June 29,1863
 "It may benefit some who are personally concerned in this subject," he wrote in the letter published in the Courant on Nov. 12, 1862, "to be informed that metallic coffins are not needed for the safe and comfortable removal of the remains of the dead.

"With the assistance of Wm. M. Smith, an undertaker in Meriden, I brought six bodies of deceased soldiers from the battle-field of Antietam after they had been buried more than six weeks, and not a particle of unpleasant odor escaped from one of them.

"The  boxes were made of sound pine boards, thorough fastened with long screws, (not a nail in them), lined, except the covers, a part with lead and a part with zinc, so that they were water-tight," Washburn continued. "The bodies were placed in them and covered with pulverized charcoal near to the top, then filled with sawdust, pressed hard, and the lid firmly screwed on. Such a box costs about one-fourth that of a metaliic coffin. Metallic coffins often fail, while a box prepared as above would, I verily believe, convey a dead body in perfect security around the globe."

Washburn also advised against embalming, a relatively new practice to the United States during the Civil War.

"Place a body in a box as above described," he wrote, "and embalming is utterly useless, and in my opinion, most of the embalming pretensions are a deception and an egregious fraud."

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