After 18 years of banning the news media from covering the return of war casualties, the Obama Administration has ruled that dead soldiers’ families will decide who may be present. Even so, partisans continue to debate what is most respectful.
But, really, why respect the military dead at all? Punctiliousness about the corpses of U.S. soldiers can be traced to the Civil War. Back then, only a few were treated as tenderly as Lt. Col. Thomas S. Bell of West Chester.
Bell, a young lawyer and one of the town’s favorite sons, was killed at the Battle of Antietam. Three days later, on Sept. 20, 1862, Bell’s uncle and a friend received his body at the train station. There, they pried open the rough coffin—hammered together on the battlefield by Bell’s comrades—and looked inside.
Their reaction: Ewwwww. “Decay’s effacing fingers have been busily at work marring the lineaments of his fine face and features,” reported the Village Record newspaper at the time.
What to do? A public funeral had been announced for the following day, and tradition required the presence of a corpse. Still, the icky facts were undeniable. Bell’s remains were taken straight to the Oaklands Cemetery.
In that era, most of the nation’s used-up cannon fodder was simply shoveled into pits or left to rot. Burial details, observed one Union chaplain, covered bodies “much the same as farmers cover potatoes, with this exception, however: the vegetables really get more tender care.” Many went into the ground naked, stripped by those desperate for clothing and shoes. Such tales shocked a nation in which a “good death” happened at home, in old age and surrounded by family, and then followed by religious services and a proper burial.
“Perhaps the most distressing aspect of death for many Civil War Americans was that thousands of young men were dying away from home,” wrote historian Drew Gilpin Faust. “But four years of civil war overturned conventions and expectations.”
Bell was the son and namesake of a prominent local judge. Thomas S. Bell Sr. had moved in 1821 from Philadelphia to Chester County to practice law. In 1837, he was elected to represent Chester and Montgomery counties at the state constitutional convention. Later, he served in the state senate and, for five years, on the Supreme Court.
By 1859, the year in which his son was admitted to the Chester County bar, Judge Bell had returned to private practice. Father and son discussed working together.
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. Bell joined the county militia in 1858 and ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1860. Public spirited and ambitious, he was among the first to respond when President Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion.
“Do try, my dearest father, to keep up your spirits,” Bell wrote from Camp Curtin near Harrisburg in April 1861. “I am going in a just cause, and the almighty arm that protects us in peace will not be withdrawn from me in the crash of battle.”
Brave words, but Bell spent his first enlistment doing nothing much. The Civil War was expected to be short, so early volunteers signed up for only three months. Bell’s unit, the 9th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was mustered in April and discharged in July.
But that was enough time for Bell to demonstrate his character. When another regiment rioted after receiving hardtack rather than bread, Bell reacted quickly.
“I was aroused by shouts in the street and found about half of the 11th [regiment] shouting, ‘Crackers,’ ‘Lincoln flints,’ ‘Give us the Commissary,’ etc.,” Bell wrote home. “I went out amongst them, found they were disposed to raise a difficulty, and so hurried off and got four companies, marched with them and arrested all men not in charge of an officer. Thank fortune, the 9th didn’t disgrace itself by taking part.”
Subsequently ordered to Delaware to intimidate local secessionists, the 9th finished its service in Northern Virginia, where the green armies mostly sat and watched each other. But when a Confederate scouting party spooked a superior officer, Bell’s account dripped contempt.
“[The rebels] advanced pickets on a hill, whereupon he retreated with his staff back to the wagons, called upon his officers to close around him in single file, and sent forward for a company ‘for God’s sake to come back and defend them,’” wrote Bell. “Girl! He should be dressed in a ribbed petticoat and sent home.”
Bell immediately re-enlisted in the new three-year 51st Pennsylvania, then suffered “the blues” as he waited weeks for it to depart. “To be inactive now makes me so sad and gloomy that I’ve been a burden to myself,” he wrote in September. “I feel that I must have made my presence far from pleasant to my friends. Before long, I hope to feel very differently.”
Promoted to lieutenant colonel with the 51st, Bell joined Ambrose Burnside’s assault on a rebel fort at New Bern, N.C. Advancing from transports on the Neuse River in March 1862, the 51st exchanged one volley with the Confederates. Then, Bell ordered his men to charge.
“To you, I don’t mind confessing that after this my recollection is very confused,” Bell wrote home. “I only remember rushing down the hill [and] struggling through broken timbers and water. How I got on their breastworks I don’t yet know.”
The rebels fled. The region remained under Union control throughout the war.
That summer, the 51st participated in the disastrous Second Battle of Bull Run, after which the defeated Union Army fled to the defenses of Washington. As an emboldened Robert E. Lee planned his first invasion of the northern states, Lincoln again put Gen. George B. McClellan in charge. This pleased the army, including Bell.
Bell’s final letter told his family not to worry. “They will never enter Chester County,” wrote Bell on Sept. 10. “And if they venture to cross into Pennsylvania, I’d stake almost anything that a battle would soon be fought that would forever crush them.”
By this time, though, Lee’s army was already north of the Potomac.
On Sept. 14, Bell and the 51st were at the Battle of South Mountain, where McClellan seized three passes his army had to control to reach Lee. That night, in his characteristic eighth-inch script, Bell made his last diary entry, writing that “the action was kept up until about 8 p.m., when the fire slackened and stopped. We lay in the woods behind the wall, watching the right all night.”
Three days later, McClellan’s army met Lee’s troops lined up along Antietam Creek. Bell and the 51st were ordered to attack across a narrow stone bridge. Confederate cannon responded with grapeshot, a form of ammunition consisting of dozens of 1.5-inch iron balls that sprayed out like shotgun pellets.
One ball hit Bell behind the left ear. “I don’t think it is dangerous,” Bell told Sgt. Edwin Bennett, who was among the first to reach him. “Boys, never say ‘die.’” But Bell did die, about 5 p.m. in a nearby farmhouse.
When the Civil War began, there was little preparation for medical care and almost none for burying the dead. Hospitals were required to bury those who died in their care. But when the armies were in the field, care of the dead was usually the responsibility of a soldier’s friends.
That worked when soldiers died by ones and twos. But at Antietam, 23,000 men lay dead or wounded, along with countless horses and mules. A week later, Dr. Daniel M. Holt, a Union Army surgeon, reported that “the dead were almost wholly unburied, and the stench arising from it was such as to breed a pestilence.”
In one place, wrote Holt, he saw “stretched along, in one straight line, ready for interment, at least a thousand blackened, bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.”
Burial detail was often a punishment. In any case, it was a chore soldiers wanted to finish quickly—and by 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. One Union burial party threw 58 dead Confederates down a well.
Officers such as Bell got better treatment. After the 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain, noted historian Faust, most Union dead lay on the battlefield for days. The exceptions were their dead officers, who 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 a Texas soldier put it, “The officers get the honor; you get nothing. They get a monument; you get a hole in the ground and no coffin.”
Overall, Civil War soldiers accepted the possibility of death. But they hated that they might be chewed by wild animals. As he lay dying at Gettysburg, Jeremiah Gage of the 11th Mississippi asked “to be buried like my comrades. But deep, boys, deep, so the beasts won’t get me.”
Traveling undertakers followed the armies and tried to fill the void. But even this market-based solution was unable to keep up with the universal desire for a coffin, shipment home and burial in a marked grave. The solution was national military cemeteries, where all would receive a measure of the respect given Tom Bell.
Short of stopping the killing, it was the best they could do.
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