Memorial Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the staggering statistic that forty percent of all Union dead in the Civil War were unidentified. While this was a marked improvement from the Mexican War fifteen years earlier – in which 100% of the American dead were buried in unmarked graves – it nonetheless posed a particular problem for Americans.
Death held a central place in the culture of Victorian America. Society dictated that there was such a thing as a “good death,” in which the deceased expired in his own home, surrounded by loved ones. To such a religious society, the dying individual was closer to God, and therefore his final words were dutifully recorded as being of great importance.
The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the prime of their lives at great distances from their homes and families was therefore at variance with the notion of the “good death.” While thousands of dollars were spent on embalming bodies to return them home for burial, many families were left without even a place to mourn their fallen soldiers.
A solution was the effigy grave, a memorial stone for a victim whose body – because it was unidentifiable or for financial reasons – was unable to be returned home. The Civil War graves grouped together in Litchfield’s West Cemetery (with a monument of a drum labeled “Mustered Out) are a good representation of these graves.
Perhaps these memorials gave some comfort to the families of these soldiers in the aftermath of the war. One hundred and fifty years later, the stones continue to remind passersby of these soldiers’ service to our nation.