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The American Civil War
Bartow County, Georgia


During the Civil War, President Lincoln requested the Army physicians to develop a method of embalming soldiers who had died so their bodies could be returned to their families.

Dr. Thomas Holmes is notable for perfecting embalming during this time. The embalming fluid he used was arsenic. While arsenic is deadly to living beings, it is a near-perfect preservative of non-viable human flesh.

When preparing deceased soldiers, physicians first buried the soldier, then notified family, then disinterred and embalmed the soldier with a hand pump, and then shipped him home. It was soon discovered that relatives would pay well for the return of officers, so the procurement of officers' bodies became an issue of conflict between the good doctors.

President Lincoln himself was embalmed so he could be returned to Springfield Missouri, a 1700 mile funeral procession. His visitation in the Capitol and his interment in Springfield became the first form of modern funerals.

New York Times
January 10, 1900
Page 7

Dr. Thomas Holmes.

Dr. Thomas Holmes, the discoverer of an embalming fluid, died Monday at his home, 267 South Ninth Street, Brooklyn. He was eighty-two years old. He lived in Brooklyn for sixty years. Dr. Holmes was born in New York City, but his parents moved to Williamsburg while he was a boy. He was graduated from the College of the City of New York, and after his graduation he was for six years attached to the Coroners' office as examining physician. During the war of the rebellion he embalmed 4,028 bodies. He had in his home at the time of his death a large number of specimens of embalming work, and it is said that some time ago he discovered a fluid which he believed would destroy the germs of contagious diseases. For three years before his death he was practically out of business, devoting all his time to the study of embalming.

This article from WYFDA Wyoming Funeral Directors Association

Modern embalming really got its start during the Civil War period. Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps and was assigned to Washington, D.C. where he embalmed many army officers killed in battle. He reportedly embalmed over 4000 soldiers and officers.

President Lincoln took a great interest in embalming and directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize embalming to allow the return of Union dead to their home towns for proper burial.

When he realized the commercial potential of embalming, Holmes resigned his commission and began offering embalming to the public for $100.

After the Civil War, embalming fell into disuse because of lack of demand and few to do the procedure. The "undertakers" of the day limited their efforts to ice to ward off decomposition long enough to have a funeral.

A Tribute Dr. Thomas Holmes

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