It is a father’s saddest duty, and in August 1864, it falls to William Harding, the father of two sons serving together in Company I, the 28th North Carolina Regiment — which has just taken part in the bloody Confederate victory at Ream’s Station, on the Wilmington and Weldon rail line outside of Petersburg, Virginia.

The battle results in almost 3,500 casualties, among them Samuel Speer Harding, killed in action. William Harding, accompanied by his youngest son — 9-year-old Thomas Renny Harding — travels north to retrieve his son’s body and carry it home to Yadkin County for burial in the family plot.

For the long wagon journey home, the body is said to be preserved using a new method of embalming: injecting fluids into the veins in order to slow decomposition. The remains are sealed in a lead coffin.

If true, this is unusual treatment for a Confederate, though much more common among Union soldiers. Many in both armies are buried in unmarked graves on the battlefields where they fell. The Confederate dead retrieved by family or friends often make the long journey home in canvas sacks, “body baskets,” or wooden boxes filled with sawdust — whatever is available.

The Charleston, South Carolina, Tri-Weekly Mercury offers a helpful recipe for those who face the grisly task without the aid of an embalmer: “The following preparation, which has been used on many occasions for thirty or forty years, comes highly recommended for the preservation of dead bodies. It will, in great degree, prevent the offensive odor from corpses; and, while the remains of so many of our deceased soldiers are being transported from the camps homeward, it may be of service to publish: Take two pounds of common salt, two pounds of alum, one pound of saltpeter — dissolve in six gallons of water and keep the shrouding wet with the mixture.”

Since most of the fighting occurs in warm weather, the final journey is often plagued by buzzards and the stench of the decomposing corpse. A morbid race against time ensues to preserve the dignity of the loved one and inter him in his homeplace, where he can be honored, remembered, and even visited in death.

Remembering the dead

Decades before the war, in rural areas of both the North and the South, “cemeteries” — derived from the Greek for “sleeping chamber” — replaced the more straightforward “burying grounds” to identify the deceased person’s final resting place. The word conjures up an image of the loved one peacefully asleep in the arms of the Savior — connoting not death but eternal life.

On the headstones themselves, the stark and menacing images of mortality — a skull and crossbones, skeletons, and the like — have gone out of fashion in favor of angels and cherubs, promising reminders that the loved one is forever safe in heaven.

The markers have also grown more elaborate, no longer just flat slabs bearing dates and a brief epitaph. At least for the more affluent, the gravestone becomes a sculpture, memorializing the dead with both words and symbols. An anchor, for instance, signifies hope, an oak leaf strength, an acorn immortality.

Local cemeteries become gardens, sectioned into family plots bordered by ornamental fences, often shaded by dogwood or live oak trees, navigated by winding footpaths and carriage tracks that link to main roads. They are not macabre places to avoid, but, rather, scenes of both private and communal ceremony and leisure.

Families not only tend to their plots — planting flowers, trimming brush, raking off leaf litter — they also gather to picnic beside the graves of their loved ones. In this way, a beloved spouse, parent, or child is not entirely gone but remains, both in memory and in fact, a part of the family’s life.

Even in peacetime, death is no stranger. Farm and factory labor is dangerous. Carriage and railway accidents are all too common. Illness is a constant threat, especially to the very young and the very old.

In the decade preceding the war, one in five white babies dies in infancy. As many as one in three babies born to slaves dies before reaching age 4. The passing of a child is commonly sentimentalized in verse, such as “The Child’s Last Sleep,” which appears in the December 1862 North Carolina Whig. In it, the poet celebrates the dying child’s new birth in Paradise, finishing:

So faint was each expiring breath,

And to the last we thought it sleep —

It was the sleep of death.

Slowly she closed, without a pain,

Her loving eyes of cloudless blue,

And when her vision cleared again,

Her heaven was cloudless too.

Especially when memorializing the death of an innocent child, poems, letters, cartes de visite, and epitaphs emphasize an end to suffering, the loving comfort of God in heaven, and eternal peace.

It is the custom among those with means to have their dead child photographed in peaceful repose as a keepsake. Indeed, certain photographers advertise this as their specialty. One soldier of the 4th North Carolina Infantry carries such a memento in a gilt oval frame: his infant daughter, posed in a tiny crepe-lined casket, her curly golden hair neatly combed, her slight body clothed in a white dress, her little bare arms crossed and clutching a bouquet of flowers, her eyes closed as if she is only sleeping.

Images of a favorite toy are sometimes etched into the headstone of a child’s grave. Sometimes, on visitation days, real toys are left there.

Home crafts become a popular way to memorialize lost loved ones. Watch fobs, bracelets, and earrings are woven from the hair of the dead. Intricate patterns are woven with long hair, sometimes framing a portrait of the deceased. Professional jewelers encase locks of hair under crystal in brooches and lockets.

A detailed etiquette of mourning develops, eventually codified in tracts such as Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness. Naturally, the higher the class of the mourner, the more elaborate the requirements — including behavior, dress, and even jewelry.

A woman mourns her lost parent or child for six months to a year, dressing only in black. She may mourn a brother or sister, a grandparent, or a relative who has left her an inheritance for just six months.  Uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews require just three months of wearing black, and the mourning dress may be trimmed with white lace.

A widow mourns her husband for a full two and a half years, divided into heavy mourning, full mourning, and half mourning, during each phase following a strict regimen of dress and behavior — all black and heavy veils giving way to gray and lavender and lighter veils, jewelry at last allowed. Seclusion among immediate family yields to decorous public visitation. In North Carolina, as in most Southern states, Canton or English crepe and silk clothing — and the appropriate jewelry fashioned from black jet — must be imported.

A widower mourns his dead wife for just three months to a year, wearing plain white shirts and his best dark suit sometimes festooned with a black crepe armband. Especially if he has young children, etiquette allows — even encourages — him to remarry reasonably soon.

Slaves follow their own mourning rituals, one of which is to decorate a fresh grave with items recently used by the deceased — bottles, pottery, dolls — some broken, symbolically severing the tie with the living world and protecting the survivors from early death.

A constant presence

With the war comes wholesale death. No longer do communities mourn their dead one at a time. The Greensborough Patriot of April 10, 1862, carries a story that becomes all too typical in communities around the state:

“Died. — In Wilkesboro, on the 13th ultimo, Leander B. Carmichael, Esq. He was a brother of Maj. A. B. Carmichael who was killed the day following in the battle below Newbern. Three grown brothers of this family have died in the last twelve months.”

No longer do families enjoy the luxury of discarding used crepe clothing as unlucky — now they save it, in the certainty that they will need it again. Women confide in their diaries that there are far too many widows and not enough crepe to clothe them all. Mourning periods are shortened, women share their mourning dresses with their families and neighbors, and the protocols of death and mourning require improvisation. Finding it impossible in the maelstrom of war to satisfy the stringent etiquette of grief, mourners do what they can.

If the body of a beloved son, husband, or father cannot be carried home from a distant battlefield, the next best thing is to recover the story of how he died, who was with him to offer comfort and prayer, and with what care and honor he was laid to rest. In their letters home to grieving families, soldiers are careful to provide such details, knowing their own families would crave the same emotional comfort.

Lewis Warlick of Table Rock writes to his “dearest friend,” Cornelia McGimsey, from his camp near Orange, Virginia, in April 1864: “I staid with Mat the night after I left home, arrived at Richmond Saturday morning, went to the Hospital where brother died and found on the books his death recorded 28th Dec., I inquired where his remains rested, was told at Oakwood Cemetery 2½ miles … I was told that he was neatly buried in a raised lid coffin and that the grave was marked.”

For Lewis Warlick, as for so many soldiers, the news of death often carries to the front lines from home. Just the previous year he wrote Cornelia, “I received two days since the sad intelligence of my sister, so was I sad to hear it but God’s will be done. It’s a debt we all owe and have some day or other to pay. Our family has been distressed greatly for the last four years for in that time I have lost a mother, brother and two sisters. I do hope that there will not be another death in the family while the war continues as that gives sorrow and sadness enough to be borne; but we know not the day or the hour we have to bid adieus to this world.”

His letter reflects the prevailing fatalism about death, an attitude grounded by a solid faith in Divine Providence and an eternal afterlife. In January 1862, Larkin Kendrick writes in a heartfelt letter from his camp at “Goalds Burough” to his wife, Mary, “I helpt to put a man in his coffen this morning by the name of Gilbert Well he was from Rutheaford he Died in a ful Triumph of a living faith.”

This news is comfort to the man’s family, and the reason why chaplains follow the army; conduct prayers before battle; persuade unbelievers to be “plunged,” or baptized; and bless the fallen: to ensure that any man who dies is received by the Almighty into his everlasting reward. How else could a man face such appalling odds in battle?

Kendrick continues in the same letter, “I often look at the moon and the countless stares and wonder if my belove ones is a behold the same seen my Dear companion I never Shal forgit you for my love to is as costant as the Wheales of time the time is a huring us on to a neve ending eturnty I hope if we never meat on earth we may meat where the Sound of the Drom and war whoop is heard no moar I will cloas by saing I want you to Rite as Son as you Get this and Give me the news So nothing moar at this time but Still Remaines yor husban untill Deth.”

Ordinary men, fallen heroes

Most of the men who fall in battle or succumb to illness are ordinary, even anonymous, known only to friends and family, their names mere letters on a company roster of casualties. But some are famous: the “Boy Colonel,” Henry King Burgwyn Jr., killed in action at Gettysburg and buried on the field; Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew, the scholar-warrior killed in a skirmish after Gettysburg, his body borne home to Raleigh; Gen. Leonidas Polk, the fighting bishop, cut in half by a cannonball at Pine Mountain, Georgia. They pass into legend, and one day their names will adorn monuments.

And there is one ordinary man whose very death rescues him from obscurity: Pvt. Henry Lawson Wyatt, 19 years old, shot in the forehead at Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, while charging the enemy. Wyatt has the distinction of being the first North Carolina soldier to die in the war.

The stories of death in battle are often colored with descriptions of manly virtue and upright moral character. A comrade, Pvt. John H. Thorpe, paints a word picture of Wyatt’s glorious, seemingly painless death: “He never uttered a word or groan but lay limp on his back, arms extended, one knee up and a clot of blood on his forehead as large as a man’s fist … To look at Wyatt one would take him to be tenacious of life; low, but robust in build, guileless, open, frank, aggressive.”

Capt. Matthew Manly of the 2nd North Carolina relates the death of Col. Charles Courtenay Tew, struck down in the charge of Gen. Thomas F. Meagher’s Irish Brigade at Antietam: “He was shot through the head and placed in the sunken road … Here he was found, apparently unconscious, the blood streaming from a wound in the head, with his sword held in both hands across his knees. A Federal soldier attempted to take the sword from him, but he drew it toward his body with his last remaining strength, and then his grasp relaxed and he fell forward dead.”

Empty sacrifices and vacant chairs

But as the war wears on, the sacrifice begins to seem too much, the valor wasted. Lt. Col. James M. Ray of the 60th North Carolina writes of his men lost in the slaughter at Chickamauga — an Indian word, he reminds his reader, that signifies “river of death”: “Of the color guard, every man save one, George Lindsey, was killed or wounded. The bearer of the flag, Sergeant Baily, though mortally wounded, called Sergeant Lindsey to him, told him he was shot, showed him the wound and said: ‘I turn over to your keeping the colors’ …  Here again is another instance of great victory, at an expense of almost a deluge of the best blood of the country and apparently nothing achieved.” The 60th contributes its bloody share of the nearly 35,000 casualties.

For the grieving families waiting at home, usually without a body to bury in a sanctifying funeral, the dead live on in their letters, the stories told by their comrades, and another ritual: singing at the piano in the family parlor. The songs are sentimental, keyed to the range of ordinary voices, memorials to both the courage of the fallen brother, son, or husband, and the joy he brought to others.

“The Vacant Chair,” with lyrics by H.S. Washburn, becomes a favorite. An allegory written about the death of a Union infantryman, it nevertheless speaks to the hearts of families made bereft by war on both sides. It celebrates his courage:

At our fireside, sad and lonely,  Often will the bosom swell

At remembrance of the story  How our noble Willie fell.

How he strove to bear the banner

Thro’ the thickest of the fight

And uphold our country’s honor

In the strength of manhood’s might.

 

But the chorus tells the harder story of sadness and loss:

 

We shall meet, but we shall miss him.

There will be one vacant chair.

We shall linger to caress him

While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.

 

And on distant battlefields, in crude outdoor camps and crowded hospitals, the dying goes on.

This story was published on

Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.