Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Interview with Meg Groeling, author of The Aftermath of Battle

The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead by Meg Groeling
Emerging Civil War Series
Savas Beatie; Fall 2015
192 pp.; 211 images
ISBN: 978-1-61121-189-4

I first became aware of this book when our local bookstore was touting an upcoming talk by its author, Meg Groeling. I wasn't able to make that talk, but the topic interested me since I too would think, "What did they do with all the bodies?" when visiting a U.S. Civil War site. While reading the book I found many more questions being raised, something the Suggested Readings section helps address. When I found out Groeling lived close by, I figured why not ask her some of these questions? So what follows is the culmination of our e-mail chain. (I've cleaned up a few of my typos.)

Since some of my questions go beyond the scope of the book, I recommend you read this article on Groeling and the book by Liam McGurl and this interview with Groeling by the book's publisher first since they focus more on the book itself. My post on the book lists some of the topics included in the book.

Dwight: You mention several of the directives and orders released after the war started, such as Federal General Order Number 33 (page 15) on how to construct a burial trench. I'm curious as to what was in place at the start of the war.

Meg: Practically nothing was in place--mortuary science was not exactly a "thing" at that time, and it was mainly left to the winning army (determined by who had final control of the battleground) to deal with the dead & injured. Usually the dead were gathered up and buried in relatively shallow graves, with wooden markers. Dead Mexican soldiers in the Mexican War were not identified, but were interred. There was no "official" way to move a corpse, which was usually in the process of decomposing. Lead-lined caskets were used, but sometimes railroads refused to move smelly cargoes. There weren't even toe-tags, or ways to identify wounded as they were moved from hospital to hospital. It was barbaric, or so it seems to us now.

Dwight: With so many officers on both sides having attended military academies (West Point or VMI, for example), is it possible to know what they had studied regarding logistics in general and specifically handling the dead during their studies? (I don't know if it's possible to know what the West Point curriculum looked like in the 1840s and 1850s, but I thought I'd ask.)

Meg: I wondered myself--one thing that shows up again and again in the Civil War is the incredible inability of officers to write coherent orders. I am thinking "Writing Orders 101" was not a class at West Point! Mostly they studied math and engineering. Some French was offered, and Jomini was taught, with attention to Napoleonic tactics and things like interior & exterior lines, frontal assaults, flanking attacks, etc. Battles from the past were studied, but logistics was NOT given the emphasis we now know it needs. Experience in the field was supposed to supplement a lack of curriculum depth. One problem with this was that America had fought no large-scale engagements since the Mexican War, and there was no military retirement plan. Officers at the top just stayed until death, basically. This meant that very few positions of command opened up for younger officers, so guys like Lee and McDowell ended up staying captains forever, and many had never commanded large numbers of men by 1861. No one even talked about handling the dead. Frontier forts just buried soldiers in fort cemeteries, and then wrote letters back home.

Dwight: Burying the dead, as you mentioned in the book and your online interview, usually fell to the victor since they held the ground. But it seemed to fall to the locals if the ground wasn't really "held" in the usual sense, such as in Grant's Overland Campaign (constant engagement with Lee) or Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaigns (constant motion and harassment). From what you've described, though, they don’t seem to have really been able to handle the clean-up, especially near the end of the war, do they?

Meg: In a word, no. Technology had to catch up with reality very quickly. There wasn't even reliable embalming, much less reliable transportation for dead or injured. Many times the home folks came to the battlefield looking for loved ones and privately arranged for the returns. People scoured hospitals looking for loved ones as well. This really ticked [Dr. Jonathan] Letterman off. The soldiers got better treatment at a hospital than at home, and he knew many would not survive being moved any distance at all.

Dwight: The book covers a lot of wide-ranging topics, some of which I see are covered in books in the Suggested Reading section. I particularly liked the chapter on the horses and mules and the one on Dr. Jonathan Letterman. Was there a particular topic or subject you wanted to include in the book but weren't able to cover?

Meg: Oh yes!! I really wanted to do a chapter on haunted battlefields! Gettysburg is said to be one of the most haunted places in America. I know I could have handled the topic with some degree of taste (because ghosts care about that sort of thing, you know!) but I was voted down by my editors, big time. I guess the stories will have to wait--but it would have been fun!

Dwight: The detail you provide on many of the historic sites (National Parks and Cemeteries) seem to be from first-hand visits. Were you able to visit many of the sites you mention? And how hard is it to write about events that happened in Virginia (for example) when you live in California?

Meg: One of the truths about being any kind of historian is that you have to just have to suck it up and go where the history is. I have visited many historic sites and plan to continue to do so, although I am not a particularly good traveler. The Civil War Trust has excellent information about their sites, and it is hard to beat the National Park Service for the individual e-sites dedicated to battlefields and other historic places. I think the quality of the information improves as folks get used to manipulating the technology to five visitors a virtual experience. It makes it easier all around, for trip planning and for seeing what is there second-hand.

Dwight: I had wondered about the role of race when it came to the cemeteries, and Matt Atkinson provided a glimpse at this in his Appendix on the National Cemetery in Vicksburg. Was the racial segregation pretty standard for many of the cemeteries? I'm glad to see blacks at least included in Vicksburg's cemetery. For Confederate cemeteries, were slaves or freed blacks that died in battle on the South's side likewise included (like at Hollywood)? Or is Vicksburg pretty much an anomaly?

Meg: When the Union Army lost large numbers of men, like at Olustee, the Crater, or Ft. Wagner, the Confederates were anything but respectful of African-American corpses. Few were returned, and many were mutilated beyond belief. There were few black bodies to bury, or to rebury, for that matter. The Union bodies at Fort Wagner are famous for having been tossed into a shallow pit, white officers, black soldiers--no matter what--just all buried together. When the bodies were reinterred, some had been lost because of the ocean tides. But those left remained together, just as in life, so in death.

Dwight: I wondered if you'd like to say a few words about the Emerging Civil War Series? It seems like a great way to provide new details and research on the war by people with eclectic backgrounds but with an interest in the subject.

Meg: The Emerging Civil War series was originally created as a series of price point books that could be sold at the National Park sites, with an emphasis on a certain book being sold at a matching site. It turned out that the books were written very well, and as nicely illustrated as possible in black & white, and actually more than anyone thought they would be. The original price has been raised a little, the page count is now longer, and the subject matter is wider. Aftermath is one of the newer books, with more pages. Its topic is general, and includes several Civil War sites, making it suitable for sale at more than one venue. I know, however, that the idea to do a book on the topic, "What did they do with all the bodies?" has been part of the ECW idea from the beginning. I was asked to write it, and proud to do so.

My final question had to do with the book Meg is currently working on, which is about Elmer Ellsworth, considered the Civil War's first casualty. Since much of her reply seemed to be "off the record," I won't post her answer. I will update this post as more becomes available about its publication.

Many thanks to Meg for taking time to patiently answer my questions! Now...go check out her book...


Jean said...

Fascinating stuff! Maybe you could do a new post on Ellsworth, if it's very long before you can release the information. I'd be quite interested to read about him. My husband is the 4th Elmer in his line, the first two being Elmer Ellsworth namesakes. (My husband also goes by his middle name, because Elmer is a terrible name for anyone under 90.) Then my best friend married an Ellsworth...

Dwight said...

I'm not sure how long it will be before it's released, but it's definitely an interesting topic. It turns out the school Meg teaches at was named after a California educator who was named after Ellsworth. It's remarkable to see the ripple effect from his death.

If I remember correctly, S.C. Gwynne has a good section on Ellsworth in "Rebel Yell," his book on Stonewall Jackson.

Meg did say she thought she would cover some new ground on a couple of topics related to pre-war topics, so I'm anxious to see it, too!