Death and mourning in America during the 19th century was not a new occurrence, yet memorializing the deceased publicized a new tenacity due to the Civil War. The recent trip to Richmond, Virginia’s American Civil War Museum (aka: The Museum of the Confederacy) gave this group of budding scholars an opportunity to delve in the archives of the rare postmortem artifacts and memorial oddities by today’s standards and gather a new understanding of how death was processed and the unspoken rules associated with it. This was not an average field study with an articulating docent giving us a rehearsed spiel, but a scholarly interpretation from the archival curator of the museum that garnered our attention. These were historical artifacts that allowed us to use our deductive abilities by using our senses of sight and touch to garner a deeper understand that is not available by just reading a standardized description published in a catalog or monograph.
An aspect of history and artifact preservation or display that has long been one of my passions is the random oddities that rarely get placed in the display cases for general public consumption because of the extravagant worth placed on per square inch real estate value. Much of what we saw maintained little documentary value in the macro-scheme of the museum, yet in the micro these items revealed a story of what life was like for the living in a time when society was dwindling daily by the thousands because of the advancement of technology on the battlefield and not because of plagues or disease.
One story that I wish to share through three artifacts was that of a general and his horse that died early in the war. If not for a few civilians and a soldier that saw a need to memorialize his story through tangible artifacts we would not have a deeper understanding of General Turner Ashby who led the 33rd Virginia Infantry or “Stonewall Brigade” and was mortally wounded on June 6, 1862 while leading his men on foot after his horse was shot out from under him during the Battle of Harrisonburg. As past precedence has shown, usually the men who die in a blaze of glory on the battlefield usually have a story told of their lives on a scale of grandeur, yet his story is told through a postmortem ambrotype while his eyes are closed and propped up in a chair to capture the essence of the man before he is placed to rest with the other deceased of the battle. What was the initiative behind such a photograph and how was it that a photographer was available at that time and place that allowed his image to be memorialized for future generations to study and in some cases memorialize his contribution to the war effort? Did the infantrymen who served under him have a fondness they wished to memorialize or was it to be sent back to his family in appreciation for his valiant service to the “cause”?
In any case, the portrait is just the tip of the iceberg of his memorials. The general’s stead, Gallant Gray donated aspects of his physical being that became showpieces of memorializing the General through a brooch and a horse hair spray of flowers. Through the horse’s death and battlefield acquisitions, people saw an opportunity to create both a piece of jewelry in the form of a brooch from one of the “decayed bones” and likewise used the hair from the same corpse found on the battlefield where he fell to weave a detailed spray of flowers and a detailed note of condolence. While the brooch is very non-descriptive, it was something that a civilian kept in their possession to memorialize the general indirectly, and the hair art was created as an ad hock memorandum of condolence and given to his mother with an attached letter of sympathy.
All three of the aforementioned Ashby mourning articles by today’s standards would be cryptic if recreated. Yet, in the latter part of the 19th century these were considered part of the normal mourning and memorial process that allowed the grieving solace when trying to move forward when such graphic death and destruction had become part of the day to day life in the war torn south. Is it possible that by investing time into something as simple as horse hair or bone jewelry from a horse cadaver the survivors found a deeper appreciation for the living, or was it just a physical memento of a time that they wish would be part of their past?