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A Short History of West Chester’s Thomas S. Bell in the Civil War

West Chester's favorite son was one of the lucky ones.

Tom Bell
Photo by RDNE Stock project / Pexels

On Sept. 20, 1862, three days after Lt. Col. Thomas S. Bell was killed at the Battle of Antietam, an uncle and a friend received his body at the train station. There, they pried open the rough coffin and looked inside. “Decay’s effacing fingers have been busily at work marring the lineaments of his fine face and features,” reported a newspaper at the time.

The son and namesake of a prominent local judge, Bell was a young lawyer and one of West Chester’s favorite sons. A public funeral was announced for the following day, and tradition required the presence of a corpse. But Bell’s remains were in such bad shape that they were taken straight to the cemetery.

Young Tom Bell was raised in a house that still stands at Church and Miner streets. Educated at the West Chester Academy (now West Chester University), he studied law in his father’s office. As a member of the 51st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The summer before his death, the 51st participated in the disastrous Second Battle of Bull Run. The defeated Union Army fled to the defenses of Washington, and an emboldened Robert E. Lee marched his army north of the Potomac River.

On Sept. 14, 1862, Bell was at the Battle of South Mountain, where Union Gen. George B. McClellan seized three passes his army had to control to reach Lee. Three days later, McClellan’s army met Lee’s troops lined up along Antietam Creek. Bell was hit behind the left ear, and he become one of 23,000 men killed or wounded at Antietam.

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Collecting the dead was a chore soldiers wanted to finish quickly, touching the bodies as little as possible. One technique was to loop a rope around the feet, then use a bent bayonet to drag corpses to a burial site.

Lt. Col. Thomas S. Bell
Courtesy of the Medford Historical Society & Museum Civil War Photo Collection

Officers like Bell got better treatment. They were gathered up, packed in charcoal, placed in metal coffins and sent by train to their homes across the North. Such differences annoyed the troops. As one Texas soldier put it, “The officers get a monument—you get a hole in the ground and no coffin.”

The eventual solution was national military cemeteries, where all would receive a measure of the respect given to Bell. Short of stopping the killing, it was the best they could do.

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