"With a Trembling Hand and an Aching Heart"
Letters of Notification of Death and Condolence
By Mark H. Dunkelman

Please take a moment and visit Mr. Dunkelman's website The Hardtack Regiment, where you can learn more about his work and the regiment he writes about.

The Civil War’s terrible human cost was paid on battlefields and in hospitals, but it extended to the home front, where families and friends were anguished on learning of the loss of a beloved soldier. The heartbreak most often began with a letter from the front containing news of the soldier’s death and offering condolences. Receiving those tidings of loss, lives were shattered by sorrow, families were prostrated with grief, and communities gathered to tender sympathy to the bereaved.

Writing a letter of notification and condolence to a deceased soldier’s loved ones was a most solemn duty. For nineteenth century Americans, death was often an intimate family affair. The deathbed was a sacred spot, a place where the family circle closed round its loved one to offer comfort and reassurance and to witness a peaceful passing. To be present at the deathbed of a relative was considered a great privilege; to be unable to attend was greatly regretted. To die alone and unattended, away from the family circle, was a terrible prospect. 1

The war irrevocably disrupted those conventions. Deprived of the presence of relatives, dying soldiers looked to their surrogate family — their comrades of company and regiment — to stand by them in the deathwatch, to bury them and mark their graves, to send the fateful notification and condolence letter to their loved ones. No formal system existed to transmit the news of a soldier’s death to his family, so the melancholy duty of writing the letter fell to the deceased’s comrades. Often the company commander or another officer took on the task. Under certain circumstances, however, home folk also heard from enlisted men, hospital personnel, and visitors to the front. Drew Gilpin Faust has noted that letters of notification and condolence often followed certain formulas. They offered sympathy to the bereaved, discussed relevant money matters such as pay due the deceased, and provided the type of information about the passing that a family member would have sought in a peacetime deathbed scene. Such letters, Faust writes, “sought to make absent loved ones virtual witnesses to the dying moments they had been denied.” 2

More than a dozen notification and condolence letters survive concerning members of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry, a regiment that was raised in Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties and served in the Army of the Potomac’s Eleventh Corps and the Twentieth Corps of the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Georgia. The letters are a small fraction of the number that were written; 232 members of the regiment died in the service. Nevertheless, they form a random sample that offers examples of the genre and demonstrates how the soldier and civilian writers of these letters responded to this saddest demand of their comradeship and friendship.

On rare occasions, a relative managed to reach the bedside of a dying soldier. Such was the case with Private Edward Shults of Company K, age 22, whose brother arrived at the Odd-Fellow’s Hospital in Washington, D. C. on the morning of February 15, 1863, about an hour before Edward died. Four days later a hospital attendant wrote to the young man’s father in Ellicottville, New York. “I thought you might be gratified to hear more of the circumstances of his sickness and death than your son could give you,” wrote Andrew Kemmisen. Private Shults had arrived at the hospital six days before he died with a high fever and a rapid pulse; he was generally delirious “and seemed to suffer much, though he did not probably realize it.” Kemmisen and the young soldier shared the Christian faith and discussed religion. “It was painfully interesting to hear him pray and sing and shout,” Kemmisen wrote, “when his mind was all in confusion.” Hospital personnel took an interest in Shults “and did all we could to sooth his pathway to the grave; but we trust he had a friend that was better to him than father or mother, brother or sister.” Attendants made sure Shults remained in bed and gave him water when he thirsted. Wracked with pain, he suffered much on his last night, repeatedly crying, “Jesus, lover of my soul, Let me to thy bosom fly.” His prayer had been answered, Kemmisen believed. Soon after his brother arrived, Shults failed rapidly, and the end came at 11 a.m. as Washington church bells tolled to call together the faithful. “Thus passed away a Christian soldier, leaving dear ones to mourn his loss,” Kemmisen wrote; “but you do not mourn as those who have no hope; you have the cheering assurance that he was prepared to die, and that your loss is his eternal gain.” Several witnesses to Shults’s death remarked, “I wish I was as sure of going to Heaven as that young man.” Kemmisen “assisted to lay him out, and I have seldom seen so pleasant a corpse.” He closed by recommending to the bereaved parents the consolation of religion and exhorting all of Shults’s relatives “to secure that preparation for death which will enable them to meet him in Heaven.” 3

Shults’s family thought so much of the letter that they shared it for publication in a local newspaper, whose editor commented that it would be read with much interest by Shults’s young friends. Meanwhile Shults’s corpse — presumably accompanied by his brother — arrived in Ellicottville on March 7, 1863, and was buried in the village’s Jefferson Street Cemetery the next day. “A large concourse of our citizens accompanied the remains to their last resting place,” reported the Cattaraugus Freeman, adding, “Edward was universally loved and respected by all who knew him.” 4

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