Obituaries and Local Memorials to the Dead

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Obituaries and Local Memorials to the Dead

Most of the monuments to the dead constructed during the Civil War appeared in the Northeast, with considerably fewer in the Midwest and the South. The monuments generally adhered to two styles: a statue of a uniformed soldier standing at parade rest (holding the barrel of a rifle that rests upright on the ground in front of him) or an obelisk. In the years after the Civil War, the soldier replaced the obelisk as the dominant type of monument. Americans only began to commission statues of common soldiers during the Civil War.

Public notions about death and the dead changed during the Civil War. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the rise of evangelicalism led to a softer, sentimentalized imagination and religious sensibility (Hume 2000, p. 36). Concern over the fate of the soul helped give sentimental memories of the deceased a place in the collective memory of early-nineteenth-century Americans.

Obituaries in mass-circulation newspapers in the early years of the war provide evidence of the sentimental and religious aura surrounding death. The February 19, 1862, New York Times obituary of Joseph Vignier de Monteil, lieutenant colonel of the Fifty-third New York State Volunteers (d'Epineuil Zoaves) noted:

There is something truly touching in the manner of his death. When the order to charge was given, he ran at the head of the column until the fatal bullet came which instantly deprived him of life. Even in this dying moment, amid the triumphant shouts and steady rush of the charge, his soldier's instinct, we gladly believe, told him that victory was assured. (New York Times, February 19, 1862)

Civil War Obituaries

The obituary for Samuel Marcy (1820–1862), which appeared in the February 23, 1862, New York Times, is typical of the flowery tributes of the Victorian era, particularly those written for deceased members of prominent families. According to official Navy records, Marcy, the son of a former Secretary of State, had been successful in pursuing and seizing several blockade runners in the summer of 1861. At this early point in the Civil War, Americans had not become matter-of-fact about the deaths of their men.


The costly tribute which the country is daily rendering to the National cause cannot be counted in contributions to the Treasury. Thousands of loyal lives must be added to make up the fearful aggregate. We read of brilliant victories and the National heart is made glad. Rejoicings pervade the land. With our tears we express sympathy in the sad loss of human life, and we place the names of the dead, and dying, and suffering heroes, one the records of the National gratitude. Having done this, we turn our thoughts to new fields, which victory gives an added luster to the National Party.

It is only when some isolated case is presented to our notice that we can appreciate the sacrifices of loyal blood, and the unspeakable sorrow of bereaved hearts, which are the consequences of this disastrous war….

Samuel Marcy [commanded] the sloop-of-war Vincennes, one of the blockading squadron off the mouths of the Mississippi. To his zealous devotion and earnest sense of duty in this responsible situation, his life became the sacrifice. He was determined that, so far as his ship could maintain the blockade, no vessel should escape. He had already made several captures, when, on the morning of the 23rd of January last, two vessels were seen apparently on fire, having grounded near the outlet after vainly attempting to run the blockade. With the view to secure possession of the vessels and cargos, Lieut. Marcy instantly dispatched two boats from his ship, in one of which was placed a heavy pivot gun. While, with characteristic energy and activity, he had entered personally upon this dury, and was engaged in directing the operations of firing, the gun recoiled, fell upon, and fatally crushed his body and limbs. Words of condolence are vainly uttered to soften such bereavements; but sorrow for the dead should find alleviation in the respect and affection which follows the good and true to their last resting-place.


A December 1861 resolution passed by the commissioned officers of the Illinois First Regiment Douglas Brigade in commemoration of the death of Colone W. A. Webb resolved "that to his relatives and friends we tender our sincere sympathy and crave of them the sad privilege of mingling with their sorrow a soldier's tear" ("Death of Col. William A. Webb," December 26, 1861, p. 4).

Newspapers, in a time before death became routine, often provided considerable detail about the manner of death. When Charles E. Zellar, the foreman of the job press rooms of the Chicago Tribune died in an accident at work, the newspaper reported that "in some way his hand became entangled between the belt and the drum, and he was drawn up in an instant, his head striking the ceiling with fearful force and dashed down to the floor again, falling upon his face." The obituary further revealed that the coroner found that Zellar's spinal column had been dislocated between the second and third vertebrae ("A Melancholy Accident," January 3, 1862, p. 4).

Throughout the Civil War era, far more men than women were mentioned in obituaries. Because women's lives generally were centered on the home, they were not public figures. Mrs. Isaac Funk was mentioned in an obituary in the February 5, 1865, edition of the Chicago Tribune only because she died within hours of her husband, a hog farmer who during his life had risen to considerable wealth and prominence. An obituary for Mrs. H. C. Conant concludes with, "The literary and religious public loses in Mrs. Conant one of its brightest ornaments, but her death falls as a heavy and almost unsupportable blow upon the home where she was conspicuous for feminine virtues, and is mourned as a wife and mother" (New York Times, February 20, 1865). Women were noted for their religious faith, fortitude in the face of death, sweet character, and dedication to their families.

During the war, however, the style of obituaries shifted from sentimental tributes to matter-of-fact accounts of a notable life, and by the war's end, they reflected a near indifference toward dying. The obituary for Episcopal Reverend Thomas Brownell of Connecticut, presumed to be the oldest Protestant bishop in the world, might be expected to have included religious rhetoric, but it did not. Instead, Brownell's life is sketched straightforwardly from his education to his public achievements (New York Times, January 16, 1865). Men generally were noted for their bravery, patriotism, and public-spiritedness. The obituary of composer and journalist W. H. Fry notes that "it was his privilege and pride to lend a helping hand to younger men who were striving in the cause of art. No one, with a good purpose, sought Mr. Fry in vain" (New York Times, January 19, 1865). Death notices were less likely to list specific causes of death, instead mentioning "lingering illness" or sudden death.

Obituaries of African Americans were rare in mass-circulation newspapers. Other forms of commemoration of the dead in black communities also received little public notice, but freed slaves did uniquely remember the deceased. One of the more unusual remembrances of the dead occurred on February 23, 1865, when Union troops arrived at Middleton Place Plantation outside of Charleston, South Carolina. As the Union soldier Henry Orlando Marcy reported in his diary, while the Union officers burned the main house and numerous outbuildings, the newly freed slaves ransacked the Middleton marble mausoleum, opened the caskets, and threw the "decayed remnants of humanity outside" (Brown 2004, p. 75).

By 1865, the war had diminished the shock value of death. The tremendous numbers of dead, missing, and maimed soldiers accelerated the turn to a greater admiration for emotional and intellectual detachment from the body. Over the course of the fighting, the adoption of a remote attitude toward the physical remains of the dead became a reasonable sensibility. Though Americans honored the memory of their dead after the war, they no longer focused on the corpse or the act of dying.


Brown, Thomas J. The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2004.

Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1865.

"Death of Col. William A. Webb," Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1861.

Fowler, Bridget. The Obituary as Collective Memory. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Hume, Janice. Obituaries in American Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Hunt, Judith Lee. "'High with Courage and Hope': The Middleton Family's Civil War." In Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South, ed. Catherine Clinton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

"A Melancholy Accident," Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1862.

New York Times, February 19, 1862.

New York Times, January 16, 1865.

New York Times, January 19, 1865

New York Times, February 20, 1865.

Caryn E. Neumann