Trish Thomas recently wrote the following article that was published in “The Williamsburg Line” Oct. 2023 The Williamsburg Battlefield Association’s monthly Newsletter.
Before the Civil War, most people died at home or within ten miles of home. The “Good Death” represented an ideal experience for the one dying and his family. The family would surround the dying person, comforting and tending to him in his final days and hours. It was thought that the dying would impart a particular kind of wisdom that only came at the end of one’s life, or maybe the dying person would offer apologies for his transgressions and forgiveness to those who had wronged him.
19th-century Victorian society did not invent this concept of the “Good Death.” It had been around since the 15th-century and was published in various texts, most notably Holy Living and Holy Dying by Jeremy Taylor in the 17th-century. Victorians rediscovered and perfected its concepts.
Victorian evangelicals did not believe in Purgatory, but that consignment to heaven or hell was decided at the moment of death, making the “Good Death” very important. The last moments of a person’s life were scrutinized, interpreted, and narrated. The family was determining how their loved one would fare in the afterlife and if they would re-unite in heaven. In the last days and hours before death, no pain medication was given. The family did not want the dying person’s mind to be clouded.
After the loved one died, the women of the household or community washed and prepared the body for viewing in the home. The men built the coffin for the occasion. Candles and flowers filled the room to mask the smell of decay. After the viewing, the coffin was buried in a grave dug on the property of the deceased. This was all at no expense to the deceased’s family.
By the eve of Civil War, though, populations in cities were growing rapidly and the burial process had transitioned to a paid service dominated by men. Previously, an undertaker meant a person who built fences, staircases, or coffins. Now, he did all the necessary work to bury the dead from preparing the body and building the coffin to arranging transport to a municipal cemetery usually outside of the city.
The Civil War further upended this well-ordered process. Suddenly, men were dying in large numbers far away from home, family, and proper burial services. Despite such losses, the concept of the “Good Death” still prevailed. A tract distributed to Confederate soldiers by the Presbyterian Church stated:
“Death is not regarded as a mere event in our history. It is not like a birth or a marriage or a painful accident. It has an importance that cannot be estimated by men. Death fixes our state…what you are when you die is how you will reappear on the Great Day of Judgment.”
Attempts were made to replicate the “Good Death” in a war setting. Comrades and officers wrote condolence letters to families, often letting them know the mindset of their dying loved ones. Magazines offered proof that soldiers dying on the battlefields were trying to adhere to the “Good Death.” In 1864, the Godey’s Ladies Book reported that a dead soldier was found on the battlefield with the pictures of his three children tightly clasped in his hands. The article described how “denied the presence of actual family he pulled the pictures out and spent his last few moments communicating with their representations.”
In hospitals, homes, and on battlefields, unfamiliar women now took the place of faraway mothers, sisters, and wives at the bedsides of dying soldiers. They fed them, read to them, comforted them, and wrote letters to their families.
Following the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, every public building and private home in town became hospitals for Union and Confederate soldiers and surgeons. On May 6, Mrs. Cynthia Coleman and Mrs. Letitia Semple ventured to Bruton Parish Church to aid the wounded. Even strongly secessionist Delia Bucktrout gave water to a wounded Union soldier there, though somewhat reluctantly. Victoria King took buttermilk to the wounded in the Baptist Church next to the Powder Magazine, and Goodrich Durfey and his wife took a wagon of food to the wounded soldiers laid on corn husks in the barns of the Custis Farm. Harriette Cary wrote of women regularly visiting the wounded to help them pass the time while convalescing and even gathering at bedsides to console soldiers as they died. Dr. J. R. Bronson, a volunteer surgeon from Massachusetts, commented that “if ever men appreciate little kindnesses of this character, it is when sick away from home.”
For the wounded soldier, the prospect of dying and burial in mass graves far away from home and loved ones was distressing. Confederate soldiers dying at the Baptist Church expressed deep concern about burial in large pits of unconsecrated ground on the Market Square. Isabella Sully promised them she would have them reinterred in the Bruton Parish Churchyard after the war. At least 250 Confederate dead were buried in a common grave south of town in Cedar Grove Cemetery. Richard Bucktrout, the undertaker, could not produce coffins fast enough for the dead and dying, so most soldiers were just buried in blankets. His ledger only mentions a few Confederate soldiers who were provided coffins and decent burials in the cemetery. The U.S. Sanitary Commission provided embalming equipment for any Federal soldiers who wanted and could afford to have their bodies shipped home. Bucktrout’s ledger records packing and shipping the remains of five Federal officers from New Jersey.
Some families, when hearing of their loved one’s injuries or death, at great hardship and expense, went to find them. Upon hearing that her husband, Major William Payne of the 4th VA Cavalry, had been badly wounded at Williamsburg and was not expected to live, Mary Payne embarked from Danville, VA while pregnant. After several jolting wagon rides, a train ride, and a boat ride, she arrived at his side in the Peachy House (Peyton Randolph House) a month later. He fortunately recovered.
When Stillman Wightman of New York City received news in January 1865 that his son had been killed at Fort Fisher in North Carolina, he determined to bring him home for burial in the family plot. He found his son’s body but was told no public transportation would ship it in a pine coffin due to its state of decomposition. In desperation, Mr. Wightman had the body exhumed and wrapped in a tent cloth, the outside of which was covered in pitch. The body was then placed in a coffin with its seams pitched. This was next placed inside another box likewise treated. In this way and after giving some bribes, Mr. Wightman arrived home with his son on February 7, and Edward Wightman was buried in the family cemetery beside his little sister.
Most soldiers, though, were buried in unmarked graves or trenches on the battlefields where they fell. In July 1862, U.S. Congress authorized President Lincoln to “purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a National Cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” Since more men died of disease or wounds, these first national cemeteries were established near military hospitals, prison camps, and recruitment and training centers. It was not until February 1867, that the National Cemetery Act provided legislation to substantively finance and develop national cemeteries. The Federal Government sent men into the South to find forgotten gravesites. The search went on for five years, recovering the remains of 316,000 Union dead and costing about four million dollars. Pvt. Thomas Riddle of the 8th New Jersey was killed at the Battle of Williamsburg where the 7- Eleven now is on Route 60 near the Riverside Doctor’s Hospital. He was buried there along with many of his comrades. His remains and those of other Union soldiers buried on the Williamsburg battlefield and across the Peninsula were later reinterred in the Yorktown National Cemetery.
No systematic effort, however, was made to recover Confederate bodies. In 1865, John Trowbridge, a Northern writer for the Atlantic Monthly, toured Virginia’s battlefields. At the Wilderness battlefield, he was shocked to come across two unburied skeletons. His guide examined the buttons lying with the remains and noted they belonged to North Carolina soldiers. Government policy only permitted reinterment of Union soldiers.
Southerners had to directly fund and plan the reburial and memorialization of their dead, and it took decades for the South to recover financially to do so. It was 1920 before the Confederate dead buried on the Market Square were finally moved to the Bruton Parish Churchyard as Isabella Sully had promised. As excavations at the Powder Magazine in Colonial Williamsburg showed this past year, though, at least four were missed. It was 1935 before a Confederate memorial was erected in Cedar Grove Cemetery at the mass grave there, and it is believed that Confederates are still buried on the Williamsburg battlefield.
The Civil War altered landscapes, society, and hearts throughout the nation. Northern and Southern soldiers and citizens struggled to retain a semblance of the prewar, orderly “Good Death” amidst so much devastation and separation. In the end, though, the Civil War put to rest, not so peacefully, the “Good Death.”