Need we say whose graves they were? Need we say whose fair hands placed those mementoes there, or whose kind hearts prompted the deed?
In general, nineteenth century Western culture was marked by an intimacy with death that would be incomprehensible to most modern-day people. Understanding that death could be swift and sudden, each person hoped only for a “good death” – one in which last words could be uttered, surrounded by loved ones. This ideal was sought even among soldiers, who kept letters in their pockets in case of their death, or who wrote such letters for dying friends.
Yet the horrific realities of war – and the bad death that was its companion – were unavoidable. Advances in technology led to extensive photographs of Civil War battlefields, exposing civilians to the carnage of the conflict, and “stripping away much of the Victorian-era romance around warfare.”
New Orleans was captured by Federal troops in the spring of 1862 and remained occupied through the conflict. The rites of death and burial in New Orleans were offset during this time: newspapers report fewer visitors and less ornate decorations on All Saints’ Day. Many war-related burials in the city were for Federal troops, transported to New Orleans after occupation. At the site of what is today Chalmette National Cemetery, Union soldiers, freed slaves, and African American hospital patients sought refuge. Many of these people, as well as seven thousand Confederate soldiers, would be buried in what became the National Cemetery.
Practically no system of identifying, recovering, transporting, and re-interring deceased soldiers existed during this time. For this reason, the return of dead loved ones was disorganized, belated, and often non-existent. In many cases, both Union and Confederate dead were left on the battlefield where they fell, their bones exposed for years. Said one historian:
On November 1, 1865, a great many of those who would come home were not yet located or reburied. Documents state that it was a beautiful Wednesday of extremely pleasant weather. Among the notable architecture newspapers chose to highlight in this year were the tomb of the New Lusitanos Benevolent Association and the tomb of W.W.S. Bliss, both located in now-demolished Girod Street Cemetery.
Several soldiers in tattered gray stood around. “You served under him,” we remarked to one, as we looked at him. Tears started in his eyes as he merely said, “yes,” and pulled a twig from a cedar circlet, hanging on the grave, and handed it to us.
Other articles point out the noticeable presence of many more male attendees to ceremonies than in years past. Yet the focus of the holiday in 1865 seemed to be on the women – mothers and spouses who mourned lost soldiers. The Lusitanos tomb is described as attended by wailing women. In another account, women tend to the simple wooden monuments that temporarily marked their loved ones’ resting places:
PBS American Experience: Death and the Civil War
“The City,” Daily Picayune, November 2, 1862, 1.
Army of Northern Virginia tomb erected 1881; Army of the Tennessee tumulus erected 1887; Confederate Monument at Greenwood Cemetery, remains relocated 1868, monument erected 1872; Grand Army of the Republic monument completed 1883.
“The City,” Daily Picayune, November 1, 1865, 2.
“All Saints’ Day,” Daily Picayune, November 2, 1865, 1.
Daily Picayune, November 5, 1865, 1.