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Death and Dying

Intro  |  William Harvey Chapman

Doctor's kit

Doctor's kit that belonged to Dr. Thomas Morris Woodson
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Twice as many Civil War soldiers died from illness than from battle injuries. Almost three-quarters of Union soldiers had serious bowel complaints every year, and by 1865 diarrhea and dysentery accounted for 995 of every thousand cases of illness.

As was so often the case, unsanitary camps, lack of access to clean water for drinking and bathing, and poor diet alone adversely affected a soldier's chance of survival during the Civil War. If he were injured in a battle, his odds of survival were often worse, especially if he were hit by a minie ball.

Confederate dead

Three dead Confederate soldiers of Brigadier General William E. Starke's 2nd Louisiana Brigade after the Battle of Antietam, Sharpsburg, Maryland, September 1862
Library Photograph Collection

Of all of the battles that took place during the Civil War, the Battle of Chickamauga was second only to Gettysburg in the total number of causalities suffered by both sides (34,624 and 51,000 casualties, respectively). After battles soldiers still had to attend to the injured and the dead. In large battles such as Gettysburg, the task of burial alone was monumental. The Confederate dead at the Battle of Gettysburg were so numerous that they were buried in crowded trenches. Since the battle lasted three days, attention to the dead had to be delayed as the living continued to fight. Basic tools such as shovels to inter the dead were often not available.

Broken ambrotype of unidentified soldier

Broken ambrotype of unidentified soldier, ca. 1860s
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Since the victor held the field, sometimes the defeated were not able to bury their dead. John Wyeth, a Confederate surgeon, described the how the night after the Battle of Chickamauga "most of the Confederate dead had been gathered in long trenches and buried; but the Union dead were still lying where they fell. For its effect on the survivors it was the policy of the victor to hide his own losses and let those of the other side be seen." Even the victors did not always allow for it themselves. In the aftermath of Gettysburg, Union Major General Meade said, "I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield." Even civilians helped with burying the dead, partly in sympathy and partly out of necessity.


The Life and Death of William Harvey Chapman
Let Me Kiss Him For His Mother

Let Me Kiss Him For His Mother sheet music, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1859
Kenneth D. Rose Sheet Music Collection

In The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust posits that the Civil War forced a break in the Victorian culture of death, wherein people usually died at home, or their families at least knew what had happened. The family would also often gather as the person lay dying, since it was very important to witness any last words as well as the death. Songs such as Let Me Kiss Him For His Mother (about a young man dying of yellow fever in New Orleans apart from his family) therefore reflected a societal concern that no one should die alone. The Civil War, however, made this Victorian ideal all but impossible for the soldiers who fought and died. The forced break in tradition prompted new cultural and social responses.

Drawing of the City of Knoxville, Tennessee, at the time of General Longstreet's attack, November 1863
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Often, a friend was tasked with writing the deceased soldier's family not only to inform them of the death, but also to let them know what kind of death it had been. There was no formal system for notifying families about causalities, so it was customary for friends of a deceased/injured soldier to write the next of kin. Along with sending their sympathies, the writers also described the manner of death, often with the goal of making sound as peaceful as possible. In camps, doctors and nurses would often provide this service.

The life and death of William Harvey Chapman serves as an illustration of the changes wrought by the Civil War on Victorian practices surrounding death. Chapman was born in Campbell County, Tennessee, about 1833 and was mustered into Company I, 9th Tennessee Calvary, USA, at Knoxville on October 30, 1863. His military records note that he was unusually tall for that time; he was 6 ft. 3 in. William also had a flair for writing, which can be seen in his letters. For example, his company was engaged in the Siege of Knoxville in November 1863. Afterwards, in a letter to his father dated December 19, 1863, he wrote this vivid account of the battle:

William H. Chapman letter, 12/19/1863

Letter from William H. Chapman to John Chapman, Knoxville, Tennessee, December 19, 1863
Chapman Family Papers
PDF of entire letter

I can inform you that I experienced the 21 days siege at Knoxville of which no tongue can tell nor heart can think how I felt at this place. The rebels had us surrounded 21 days it was a terrible siege you must know I was not immediately in the brig I was on the right wing but I saw a many flying bomb; go whizzing through the air. It was on Sunday morning. The 9th Ga [9th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment] made a charge on Cottage Hill we killed a great many of them. We was ordered not to fire untill they had come up close to our works when all at once a thousand triggers was touched then it was that the whole regment [sic] fell nearly all four other regments come up likewise and was cut down . . . The roaring of our cannons made the Earth tremble beneath our feet but thank God our bloodstained banners waves over ever hight [sic] of Knoxville. The Rebel loss was supposed to be 1500 killed and wounded . . . I hope the Rebels won't interrupt you until our force can get good in possession of Tennessee and then we will show them how to live at home in peace where cannons will cease to roar and troubles will have to end then and there we will be enjoying the same old Union that our four fathers fought.

Despite his optimism, Chapman did not survive to see the peacetime he longed for, and family letters reveal both the anxieties raised by the spectre of death during wartime and attempts to create practices to assuage them. For example, death customs of the Victorian era centered on domestic scenes and spaces; many did not want their loved ones to go to hospitals because hospitals housed the destitute, not "respectable" citizens, who would usually receive care in a private home. Such concerns were reflected in this letter William received from his father:

John Chapman letter, 05/03/1864

Letter from John Chapman to William H. Chapman, Campbell County, Tennessee, May 3, 1864
Chapman Family Papers
PDF of entire letter

I can inform you that I read a letter from John W. Cates this day sent by the way of Kentucky dated April 10/64 and it stated that you and Lieutenant Bratcher were sick and very bad off but did not state your complaint if you are one among the living I want you to answer my letter as soon as this letter comes to hand for I shall be uneasy about you until I hear from your again. I don't want you to going the hospital if there is any other chance for you yet some one of the boys to take care of you and stay in camps if they will let you stay . . . Harvey if you live to get this letter I want you to be sure to right back immediately to me by some on other and let me know how you are and how you are getting along if they won't let you come home try to get to some good house in the country where you can be taken care of you will fare better I think than you will in the hospital or in camps.

Unfortunately, having survived numerous engagements, William Harvey Chapman died on July 20, 1864, in a private residence near Gallatin. His military records list the cause of his death as "caused by reason of chronic Diarrhoea [sic]," which probably means dysentery. Throughout his correspondence, William often mentioned the quality of the water in the area in which his company was camping. In one of his last letters to his father he wondered whether the water quality might have been to blame for his illness. It is very possible that his theory was correct. Water was often contaminated by camp latrines and was a key cause of illness.

At least two people wrote to William's father after he died. These letters, called letters of condolence, told John Chapman of the manner in which William died. As you can see, they made a point of indicating that he was comfortable, surrounded by friends, and did not suffer:

Wiley B. Smith letter, 07/20/1864

Letter from Wiley B. Smith to John Chapman, Gallatin, Tennessee, July 20, 1864
Chapman Family Papers
PDF of entire letter

I with sorrow have to inform you that I witnessed the death of your affectionate son William H. Chapman this morning one hour before day-light . . . the captain sent up application for a furlough for him some five or six weeks ago it came back disapproved I tried to get him to go to a house over a month before he would go . . . he went out to the house of a [?] old man by the man of Gorge A. Wiley they treated him well we done all we could to stop his bowels but it look like it was impassable I tried everything that we could [?] of but alas I had to mourn the loss of a kind friend a brother soldier he was the only soldier that has been sent to a house all the rest went to the hospital after he got helpless there was two of us stayed with him . . . I tried to get him to send for you but he would not . . . then it was too late . . . he died very easy . . . he did not seem to be troubled much about anything . . . we will bury him to day I will take the number of his grave it is hard to die so far from home but we all are subject to the same fate. So he died with friends a' round his bedside. Wiley B. Smith

B. F. Bratcher letter, 07/21/1864

Letter from B. F. Bratcher to John Chapman, Gallatin, Tennessee, July 21, 1864
Chapman Family Papers
PDF of entire letter

Dear sir I take my pen in hand to inform you of the death of your son Wm H. Chapman he departed this life on the 20th . . . for several days W B. Smith stayed with him all the time . . . We buried him in the town burying ground he was as decently put away as the nature of the case would admit . . . he has paid the debt we all have to pay sooner or later and perhaps like him away from Father & kind sisters . . . his effects will be sent to Knoxville by express they be there before this reaches you you can get them by applying at the express office his money will be handed to you when we see you or sent by some safe hand. B. F. Bratcher, 1st Liet. Co. I, 9th Tennessee Cavalry

While John Chapman was mourning his son, many other families arguably suffered more by simply not knowing the fate of their loved ones. Approximately 40 percent of deceased Union troops and many more Confederates died as unknowns.


bleeding knives
trepanning saw
tooth extractor

Bleeding knives, trepanning saw, and tooth extractor
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

surgeon's kit (1)
surgeon's kit (2)
surgeon's kit (3)
surgeon's kit (4)

Surgeon's kit
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

medicine kit

Medicine kit
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

medicine chest

Medicine chest that belonged to Dr. Bailey of Early Grove, Mississippi
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

quinine bottle

Quinine bottle
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

caudle cup

Caudle cup that belonged to Dr. Julius Theoderick Jennings, Charleston, South Carolina, 1860
Caudle cups were used for feeding invalids.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

sketch of soldiers

Sketch of Civil War soldiers for the mural in the John Sevier State Office Building, Nashville, Tennessee, ca. 1940
Library Photograph Collection

Plan for the Chattanooga National Cemetery

Plan for the Chattanooga National Cemetery, Chattanooga, Tennessee, April 29, 1866
William Alonzo Wainwright, U. S. Assistant Quartermaster Records

National Military Cemetery, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Stereograph of the Chattanooga National Cemetery, Chattanooga, Tennessee, ca. 1900
Stereograph Collection

military hospital

Pencil sketch of a house used as a military hospital, December 28, 1863
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection