Embalming Exhibit Preserves
Gory Part of Civil War History

The table is a peeling wooden door laid flat across two upright barrels. The deceased is a bearded young man, his lips and eyelids blue, bare feet extending beyond a white sheet. And hand-pumping chemicals into the body is Dr. Richard Burr, a 19th century Army surgeon who found opportunity in the flourishing practice of embalming fallen Civil War soldiers.

The exhibit is the latest addition to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., a permanent installation of photographs, artifacts and life-size mannequins documenting America's embrace of full-body preservation.

"It's just gruesome enough to get the point across of how serious this was, but we've down-played the goriness enough to not have people run away in revulsion," says George Wunderlich, the museum's executive director.

Embalming dates to ancient Egypt but it wasn't widely used in the United States until the Civil War, to preserve soldiers' remains for shipment home. Before then, chemical preservation of human tissue was used mainly for specimens, says Terry Reimer, the museum's research director. When someone died, undertakers tried to keep the body chilled to slow decay until burial. Refrigerated "holding coffins", with ice chambers on top and drainage systems below, could be rented for viewing.

Civil War battles killed huge numbers of men, many from places far from the battlefields. Some surgeons and pharmacists familiar with tissue preservation became embalmers, following the troops and offering, for fees of up to $100, to prepare bodies for the long journey home. It could take several days for the remains of those killed in Sharpsburg, Md., or Gettysburg, Pa., to arrive in New England or the Deep South. Reimer said railroads would only accept bodies that were odour-free, which meant they had to be either embalmed, disinfected, or sealed in vessels such as the Fisk burial case, and air-tight, cast iron shell.

James W. Lowry, author of Embalming Surgeons of the Civil War, says most of the 529,000 soldiers killed in the war were simply buried near where they died, often wrapped in a blanket. The 10,000 to 40,000 who were embalmed were largely officers. "After one of these large battles, the embalming surgeons, once they got to the battlefield, would go out and bring in the bodies of the officers," says Lowry, a Charleston, W.Va., funeral director. Because officers generally came from wealthier families, "they knew if they embalmed them, they'd get paid." The embalmers often prepared the bodies immediately, before contacting the families, he says.

Reimer says some pharmacists stored embalmed bodies by standing them up against a wall. One, in Washington, D.C., displayed a uniformed corpse in the window for several days, she says.

The museum exhibit recreates a photograph of Burr demonstrating the procedure. A black rubber tube runs from a canister of preservative perhaps arsenic or creosote because formaldehyde hadn't been discovered yet into an artery in the subject's right armpit. Reimer says Civil War embalmers didn't drain their subjects many had bled out on the battlefield anyway. They simply pumped the preservative into an artery and moved on.

The practice, though less thorough than today's techniques, was effective, Lowry says. Draining blood from corpses became more common towards the end of the war; President Abraham Lincoln's body was drained before embalming.

The 7-year-old museum is the only one in the country dedicated to the medical side of the Civil War, which also produced advancements in anaesthesia, nursing, ambulances and mobile hospitals. Some students in a group of eighth-graders on a recent tour avoided looking at the display, but Elaine English, one of their chaperones, couldn't forget it. "I'm sure I'll see it tonight in my dreams," she says.

Syndicated in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle by David Dishneau (Associate Press)

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, August 2003.