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Answers to Quiz #65 - June 23, 2006
Click on thumbnail to see larger image.
1. Where was this picture taken?
2. When was the picture taken?
3. What was the purpose of the vines draped on the front of the tent?
1. Sanitary Commission Hdqtrs, Camp Letterman, Gettyburg, PA
2. October or November, 1863
3. To keep the bugs away and to disguise the odor of sickness and death
Headquarters, Sanitary Commission, Gettysburg, PA
Photographed by Peter S. Weaver, Gettyburg photographer, c. November 1863. The
lesser known of Weaver's series including the "operating tent" and the "embalming
tent". Standing at left of the arch is Dr. Benjamin F. Lyford with Dr. C. B. Chamberlain
on far right. Underneath the arch seated with an unidentified child is Reverand Doctor
Gordon Winslow who was appointed as Sanitary Inspector of the Army of the
Potomac in May 1863 following his robust service as the fighting chaplain of the 5th
New York. Winslow accidentally fell overboard and drowned in the Potomac River on
June 7, 1864 while accompanying his wounded son home. This Carte de Visite was
auctioned by Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Jun 2005 for $920.
Read more about the Sanitary Commission
Civil War Harper's Weekly,  February 13, 1864 at
(Scroll down to the bottom of the page.)
Camp Letterman, Gettysburg, PA
Regimental surgeons began the grisly task of sorting and treating the wounded while the
[Battle of Gettysburg] raged. Medical supplies began to run low as the battle ground to
its bloody end and the situation was close to becoming a crisis...At the close of the
battle, approximately 22,000 wounded soldiers of both armies required medical
treatment. Some of the more fortunate with minor wounds were able to be treated and
quickly removed from the area though more serious wounded could not be moved.
Temporary "field hospitals" were established wherever there was a source of water and
shelter, and every building was fair game: churches, farm buildings, private homes, and

Treatment of the wounded left at Gettysburg was left up to the mercy of the Army of
the Potomac. Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director for the Army of the Potomac,
was not totally unaware of the difficulties in proper treatment of so many wounded and
the difficulties his staff of doctors and regimental surgeons faced.
Letterman had learned from his experiences in many difficult
campaigns that proper medical care required swift action and the
immediate disposal of staff, supplies and equipment within the
battle area. Letterman also depended on the services of charitable
organizations such as the US Christian Commission and the US
Sanitary Commission to provide medical supplies and personnel to
assist with temporary field hospitals and transport of the injured
and maimed. As early as the first evening of the battle, Letterman
had medical supplies, tents, and provisions on the way to Adams
County. Dr. Letterman allowed regimental surgeons to do their
work at the numerous temporary field hospitals, but knew that the
Jonathan Letterman
The Father of
Modern Battlefield
hundreds of hospitals made support difficult on an already overburdened supply train.
He issued orders on July 5, 1863, to establish a general hospital in the Gettysburg area
and provide transportation and supplies to the site for treatment of the wounded. In his
honor, the temporary hospital was named after him.

Though Camp Letterman was primitive by modern standards, the hospital was vast and
impressive. One tent had upwards of 40 folding cots with mattresses and linen sheets, a
real luxury for soldiers who'd laid on the hard ground or in hay lofts since being
wounded. Nurses were assigned to a set of wards to bathe and feed the patients. A
large cook house, built in the woods at the central heart of the camp, supplied soups,
stews, and warm bread
for meals. Warehouse
tents were erected near
the railroad to
accommodate tons of
supplies that arrived by
railroad. A temporary
morgue and cemetery
were also established near
the camp and deaths were
quickly dealt with by a
Christian burial attended
to by an army chaplain.
Agents and
representatives of the US
Sanitary Commission and
US Christian Commission
arrived and set up their
respective headquarters at
the camp. Both agencies
provided services to the
patients with nursing care
as well as religious
inspiration. Surgeons
assigned to the camp
worked around the clock
treating the more seriously
wounded while the
ambulatory cases
Tents at Camp Letterman General Hospital, photographed by the
Tyson Brothers in September 1863. Each tent is decorated with fresh
boughs of cedar to ward off insects and cleanse the air. The town of
Gettysburg is in the distance at the far right.
were set aside for transferral to permanent hospitals. Camp Letterman was filled to
capacity by late July and eventually hosted over 1,600 patients. Hundreds more were
treated by the medical staff in some of the temporary hospitals in Gettysburg churches
and homes before they were emptied.

Less than 100 patients remained at Camp Letterman by November 10 and it was
officially closed a few weeks later. Tents were removed, remaining supplies taken to
Washington, and the sole cook house dismantled. George Wolf returned his farm to its
original purpose with only the camp graveyard remaining as a reminder of what had
been established there.

To read the complete article, see a short biography of Dr.
Letterman, see
The Father of Modern Embalming
Dr. Thomas Holmes was born in New York in 1817.  He
attended public schools and New York University
Medical College, though there are no records of him
graduating.  However, in the 1850's he did practice
medicine  and was a coroner's physician in New York.  
In the 1850's Dr. Holmes perfected what we know
today as modern embalming techniques. He is generally
acknowledged as the "Father of Modern Embalming".  

During the Civil War, Thomas Holmes advanced the
concept of arterial embalming and improved the
preserving chemicals to the point where embalming
could be employed on a wide scale at a reasonable cost.
President Lincoln took an interest in embalming and
directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize preservation
Dr. Thomas Holmes
Father of Modern Embalming
1817 - 1900
techniques that would allow the return of Union dead to their hometowns for proper

Holmes quickly realized the commercial potential of embalming and resigned his
commission and began offering embalming to the public for $100. He approached the U.
S. Government and obtained exclusive rights to embalm Union soldiers so they could be
shipped home for burial in their home communities. Not one to miss an opportunity to
make money, Holmes employed salesmen to canvas homes in both the North and the
South to sell coupons for embalming to the families who had sons fighting in the war.
As armies gathered for the typical huge Civil War battles, Holmes and his crew would
set-up camp nearby overlooking the battlefield. At the conclusion of the battle his men
would search the thousands of dead bodies for embalming coupons. Those found with
the coupons would be carried to the nearby embalming tents for preparation and
shipment back home to their families.

Holmes’s embalming method was crude and temporary. He would inject into an artery a
solution of bi-chloride of mercury then place the embalmed body in a wooden box,
sometimes lined with zinc. The name of
the deceased soldier was written on the
coffin lid along with the address of the
unfortunate’s parents. Letters, papers and
other personal effects were placed inside
the coffin along side the remains.

By the end of the War, Holmes had
embalmed over 4,000 soldiers and officers
killed in battle in addition to other
prominent military and civilian figures.
Contrary to some articles, Holmes was not
Turn of the Century Embalmer's Kit
part of the team that embalmed President Lincoln and prepared the great man’s body
for interment in Springfield, Illinois.

Holmes retired to Brooklyn, New York where he sold root beer and embalming
supplies. According to Christine Quigley, author of
A Corpse: a History and Mary
Roach, author of
Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Holmes shared his
Brooklyn home with samples of his Civil War era handiwork. Embalmed bodies were
stored in the closets, and preserved heads sat on tables in the parlor. Not all that
surprisingly, Holmes eventually went insane (Robert Mayer wrote that Holmes became
mentally unhinged after an accident) spending his final years in and out of institutions.
Shortly before he died he is said to have requested not to be embalmed.

From and
Embalming during the Civil War
During the early part of the Civil War it was the Embalming Surgeons that  performed
the embalming procedure.  Many of the men were military surgeons.  However, there
were also a large number of civilian surgeons that took up  embalming  and became
embalming surgeons.

The embalming surgeon was a Northern phenomenon. To date there seems to be no  
documentation that there were Southern embalming surgeons.  When one looks at  the
circumstances surrounding the onset of this new trade, one can understand why  it was
not until after the War that embalming moved into the South.  Dr. Thomas  Holmes, the
"Father of Modern Embalming", was from New York,  his protégées  were all
Northerners, the chemicals were developed, patented and manufactured in  the North.  
During the beginning of the War, Washington was the center of all that  happened with
the military. The South had neither the knowledge nor the  resources to enter into this
new embalming trade. See
Colonel Ellsworth was the first military casualty of the American
Civil War. On May 24, 1861, along with his New York City
Volunteer Regiment (made up mostly of New York City
Firemen) Colonel Ellsworth went to remove a large Confederate
flag from the roof of the Marshall House Hotel in Alexandria,
Virginia. It was there that he was shot in the chest with a
shotgun blast and killed.  Upon the return of his body to the
Washington Navy Yard, Dr. Thomas Holmes visited President
Lincoln and offered to embalm the body free of charge. He was
subsequently given permission to do so. It is reported that Mrs.
Lincoln was so impressed with Colonel Ellsworth's appearance,
that at the death of President and Mrs. Lincoln's son, Willie, she
requested that the same embalmer prepare their bodies.
Elmer E. Ellsworth
First Casualty of the
Civil War

The embalmer would use any
building or shed available.  In
the absence of a permanent
structure he would pitch a
tent.  There were days when it
was not uncommon for there
to be more than 100 bodies
waiting to be embalmed.  As
the "embalming surgeon" or
"undertaker" contracted to
prepare the body of the dead
soldier, he would set up an
embalming tent near the
battlefield or hospital.  There
would be times when there
might be tens upon tens of
bodies waiting to be embalmed
and prepared for shipment
home. The cost would vary
with each embalmer.  For
Dr. William J. Bunnells' Embalming Shed, Army of the James
before Richmond, advertised "Embalming Free from Odor or
Infection", December 1862.
many families the cost was a hardship.  However, having a Christian burial at home for
their loved one was worth the sacrifices that had to be made.  Of course, when the
body arrived home there would be additional costs for the wake and service.  It is well
to remember that because of horrific battle conditions and general confusion, it was
very difficult to located the remains of an officer and almost impossible to locate the
remains of a common soldier.  But still, the hopes of the family persisted.  It became
more and more common for the soldiers to pin cards to their sack coat or shirt, or to
wear a metal disk around the neck, upon which he would write his name and
hometown.  If his body would be found the undertaker would know where to send it.
From Embalming: History, Theory and Practice by Robert G. Mayer

Until the Civil embalming was performed for funeral
purposes. Most preservation, such as it was, for brief periods was
provided by ice refrigeration when available....

Read more of this excerpt by clicking
Peter S. Weaver
Civil War Photographer
This image shows Samuel Weaver (the man with the white beard and notebook)
supervising the digging up of the Union dead killed in the Battle of Hanover the day
before the main battle at Gettysburg began. The 1864 disinterment preceded their
reburial at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg. Weaver, who lived in
Gettysburg, operated a photographic gallery there in the 1850s and was in charge of
identifying the bodies during the exhumation and reburial. His son, Peter S. Weaver,
who took this photograph, operated a photographic gallery in Hanover from 1861 until
his death in 1906.

The exhumation of Union soldiers and their reburial at the National Cemetery was
repeated hundreds of times in Gettysburg and the surrounding area in 1863 and 1864,
but this is the only known photograph that documents the somber, gruesome operation.

To read the complete article as it appeared in
The Center for Civil War Photograaphy,
Civil War Photographer, Vol III, Issue 1, February 2006, see
Related Trivia
Do you know the difference between a coffin, a casket and a sarcophagus? It's the
shape! A coffin is wider at the shoulders, narrower at the head and feet. A coffin is
rectangular and a sarcophagus is more molded into the shape of the human body and
often had a portrait of the deceased painted on the lid.

Lina D. Odou was the first woman embalmer.

The Scottish anatomist William Hunter (1718–83), is credited with being the first to
report fully on arterial and cavity embalming as a way to preserve bodies for burial. His
discovery attracted wide attention after his younger brother, John Hunter, in 1775
embalmed the body of a Mrs. Martin Van Butchell, whose will specified that her
husband had control of her fortune only as long as her body remained above ground.
To meet that condition, Van Butchell had her embalmed, placed her fashionably dressed
body in a glass-lidded case in a sitting room, and held regular visiting hours.
(Factoids courtesy of Delores Martin)
Interesting Links for Further Reading
National Museum of Funeral History, Civil War Embalming Diorama

The History of Embalming

America's Civil War: The Humble Undertaker by James C. Lee

A Brief History of Embalming

Medicine in American History: Hygeia by the Bay-A City of Health
(Article about Dr. Benjamin F. Lyford, West J. of Med. 127 442:449, Nov 1977)

Excerpt from Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice by Robert G. Mayer
(Information on Dr. C. B. Chamberlain and Dr. Benjamin F. Lyford)

Pictures of contemporary re-enactment of a Civil War embalming surgeon

The Truth about Civil War Surgery by Alfred Jay Bollet, M.D.

Civil War Battle Medicine, Dr. Letterman's Gettysburg Report, Oct 3, 1863
Arsenic and Other Toxic Metals Used for Embalming
are Contaminating the Groundwater near Historic Cemeteries
Arsenic-based embalming process used from 1856 until through
1910 (and possibly later).

There are at least 10 patents for embalming with arsenic

Up to 13 lbs of arsenic was used per body

Tissue samples from a Civil War soldier contained 2.8% arsenic (4.2
lbs for 150 lb corpse). If there are 1,000 similarly embalmed bodies
in a cemetery, there could be 4,200 lbs of arsenic released to the
underlying soil and groundwater.

Other embalming agents included mercury (and other toxic metals),
creosote, cyanide, and nitrocellulose (gun cotton).

A 20 to 30 year exposure is strongly associated with lung, bladder,
and skin cancer.

Arsenic is the highest priority substance on the Agency for Toxic
Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) list of hazardous
constituents at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National
Priority List (NPL) Sites.

Mercury, creosote, phenol, zinc, copper, cyanide, and formaldehyde
are also ingredients of nineteenth century embalming agents
appearing on the ATSDR/EPA list of hazardous constituents at NPL
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Quiz #65 Results