Gruesome Yard Sale

17 01 2010

I received the following from John Hennessy this evening.  Like him, this is something I’ve never heard of before.  The 12th Alabama was not attached to Ewell’s brigade until after the battle.  Your comments are encouraged.

Here’s a little thing that falls into the realm of the obscure and the  bizarre.  The letter is from When I Think of Home: The Civil War  Letters of William Harrison “Tip” Crow, ed. by Dewayne R. Welborn, Owasso, OK, 1996.  page 17-18.  Letter to his father, August 24, 1861,  from Manassas.   Crow was in the 12th Alabama.

Dear Father

there has been something else come up of which I wish to inform you I wrote you a letter yester day but every hour here brings up something new   Order issued by the Colonel that the clothes of the dead men to be sold   Thomas’ showel [shawl] and coat have to be put  up at the highest bidder and sold and if it had not been just eh kindness of our Captain [Higgins] his shirts would have been sold  he had to give them in according to the order but he did not and told me to keep them    I wanted the showel and I in tend to have it as I will make some man pay 12 dollars for it    I here some of them talking about biding for it but I dont [want] any body els shal have his things to stroe about….Lem is going to get hte coat   this is one thing that hurts me to think Tom and I have always been to gether and have been like brothers and now I have to pay a big price to get his things….  I do think we have the most tiranical officers at the head of this Regiment that ever men were under but you [know] that it won’t do to say any thing    experienced me that have been in the service before say they never heard of dead men’s clothes being sold before….

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7 responses

17 01 2010
Gerry Mayers

Never heard of this happening after a Civil War battle but as I was reading it was reminded of the scene in the versions of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” where some of Scrogge’s possessions are being sold. The secne is also in the book.

I wonder if this was something that indeed was done at the time but, not everyone was in agreemtnt as to its propriety?

I would like myself to know if there are any other accounts from this particular regiment about this occurrence or from other regiments, US or CS, relative to any other battles.

17 01 2010
Chris Evans

Wow, that is really interesting. I have never heard of them selling the clothes of dead men after a battle. I know ,of course, the stripping of the dead took place after a battle but that was usually of opposing sides. As superstitious as soldiers can be and especially Civil War soldiers that they would want to wear the clothing of someone who had died that was in their regiment or on the same side seems pretty strange.
Thanks,
Chris

18 01 2010
Bruce Trinque

Selling the clothes of dead sailors was a long-established custom in the Royal Navy and, I think, the US Navy. But I have never heard of it before in connection with Civil War soldiers.

18 01 2010
Michael C. Hardy

Harry – I’m not sure that I’ve come across a letter in such detail, but I have seen examples in my research on Tar Heel soldiers of the effects (not personnel, like a watch), being sold after death and the money sent to the family.

Regards,
Michael

18 01 2010
Terry Johnston

Never heard of such a thing. I wonder, though: Where did the colonel intend for the money raised to go? Into some sort of regimental fund, perhaps?

22 01 2010
Ken Noe

Several years ago, I published an article* about a KIA Union soldier whose pards divided up his belongings, only to be sued for their return by the soldier’s father. I suspect that entire situation of dead men’s belongings was more complicated than we’ve ever considered.

*‘Coming to Us Dead’: A Civil War Casualty and His Estate.” Journal of Illinois History 2 (Winter 1999): 289-304.

22 01 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks for commenting, Ken. Yes, I get the feeling there are some details of soldier life about which we are in the dark, despite the best efforts of folks like Wiley, Billings, etc. Maybe it was too mundane to talk about – perhaps it was something that simply reflected the culture in general and was not peculiar to the military. I think the maritime customs referred to earlier may hold some key to this.

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