- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Only a small percentage of fallen Civil War soldiers were embalmed, said James Lowry, a historian and author.

Mr. Lowry, also a professional embalmer from Charleston, W.Va., said of the roughly 620,000 soldiers killed from 1861 to 1865, about 40,000 were injected with chemicals to preserve the remains. Two factors, he said, determined whether a soldier would be embalmed: money and the condition of the body.

“Most soldiers were buried where they fell,” Mr. Lowry, 64, said during a presentation this summer at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

The museum in downtown Frederick has a permanent exhibit on embalming, which flourished during the war as family members sought to have their loved ones’ bodies returned home for burial — a journey that could take days.

“The body had to be free of odor before they would ship it,” said Mr. Lowry, adding that if a corpse started stinking in transit, workers removed it from the train and buried it at the next train stop.

As soldiers went off to battle, some embalmers handed them fliers encouraging them to prepay for their embalming at rates of up to $100, according to museum records. Those who accepted were given cards to carry as proof of purchase, specifying their burial wishes.

Mr. Lowry said the practice was eventually barred because it hurt troop morale. Instead, embalmers followed the battles and picked through the dead to find officers whose families were likely to be wealthy enough to pay for embalming.

The embalmers were generally doctors who had learned about chemical preservation of human tissue in medical school. Until the war, the process was used mainly for specimen preservation, Mr. Lowry said.

He said whole-body preservation gained more widespread acceptance with the embalming of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, a friend of President Lincoln and leader of the 11th New York Zouave Regiment, who was among the first to die for the Union. Ellsworth was fatally shot May 24, 1861, after removing a Confederate flag from atop the Marshall House inn in Alexandria.

Lincoln had the body brought to the White House, where it lay in state for a day before being moved to City Hall in New York. Ellsworth was buried in Mechanicsville, N.Y., 10 days after his death. Many were amazed his body was in such good condition, Mr. Lowry said.

During the war years, embalmers used arsenic, alcohol, zinc chloride and other chemicals to preserve bodies because formaldehyde hadn’t been discovered.

Mr. Lowry said one of the war’s best-known embalmers was Dr. Richard Burr, who worked out of a tent at the Battle of Gettysburg and out of the building that now houses the Civil War medicine museum during the Maryland battles of Antietam, South Mountain and Monocacy.

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