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The Dead on the Battlefield

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by lincoln1809, May 4, 2010.

  1. lincoln1809

    lincoln1809 Cadet

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    I don't know anything about death, but something puzzles me. Looking at dead bodies scrawled on the field of battle like Gettysburg or Antietam why are the faces of the dead so bloated. The eyes and cheeks especially. It's a gruesome sight. Anybody have any solutions why? :sabre:
     

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  3. Will Posey

    Will Posey First Sergeant

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    The photographs were not taken until some period of time after the battles. The bloating is a normal result of decomposition.

    War is gruesome.
     
  4. revbucky

    revbucky Cadet

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    Will Posey is right. Also, when I was doing hospital chaplain work, I noticed that certain medications would make patients appear bloated right before they died.
     
  5. lincoln1809

    lincoln1809 Cadet

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    That explains it. Thank you for clearing that up for me. I've never seen a decomposed body in real life. War is gruesome that is for sure. :cannon:
     
  6. Jamieva

    Jamieva Sergeant

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    In the case of Gettysburg, remember that is in early July, so the heat would cause the bloating to start even sooner then battles fought in colder temps.
     
  7. DWMack

    DWMack Cadet

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    I am be off, but isn't it called rigormortis?
     
  8. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

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    Rigor mortis is temporary. After that stiffening, softening sets in. The gases generated in decomposition cause the bloating. It will happen, but the heat kicks it up a notch.

    When I think of what a soldier had to do, while burying the dead, my gorge rises. A body, in the heat of summer, for a day, will be bloated and swarming with maggots. While that might not equate with walking barefoot through freezing temps, it's got to come close. I've heard that the rotting body of a human smells worse than the rotting body of almost any animal. We don't hear much of that part of the war. (Or the pigs that roamed many battlefields and ate the choice parts of the bodies.)

    There are stories of details beating their bayonets into hooks so they could drag the reeking bodies to the burial place. Gotta be almost as bad as getting shot at.

    Not a detail I'd want to be on.

    Ole
     
  9. M E Wolf

    M E Wolf Brigadier General Moderator

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    Lincoln1809,

    Having come across some dead folks during my career, the decomposing of the body, the gas in the body in the bowels and stomach are the first thing to bloat. Rigor Mortis starts to set within 2 hours and totally stiff by 12 hours and gradually dissipates until approximately 72 hours (3 days) after death but, this too is depending on what the weather and where the body is, e.g. in a house and our outside, in winter or in hot summer. The condition of where the body is also depends on how fast the body bloats and, when the 'larva and or maggots' enter as well, they enter any opening and start depositing using the body as an incubator. This too bloats the interior of the body until the body fluids dissipates and by this time the larva/maggots are mature and move on or consume the corpse.

    What gets a bit unsettling is having the cadaver have what is called "cadaveric spasms" and or "post mortem spasms."

    Hope this helps explain things.

    Medical examiners and morticians are good people to talk to in exploring the body after death.

    Respectfully submitted for consideration,
    M. E. Wolf
     
  10. M E Wolf

    M E Wolf Brigadier General Moderator

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    Ole, sir;

    You wrote:
    I agree with this portion:
    I've heard that the rotting body of a human smells worse than the rotting body of almost any animal.

    It is pretty bad because of what humans eat and drink. I've been around dead humans, animals--and dead humans smell the worst. We always had plastic bags to void in, especially when especially ripe or ugly....We used Vicks under our noses and surgical masks coated with it. Wool was the best filter believe it or not...it works filtering smoke as well. Perfumers use wool to clear their noses as well.

    What isn't pictured in some of these Brady, Williams, etc., photographs are the bodies cut in two and run over by horses and wagon wheels... which isn't that much different from traffic fatalities I investigated...just wider indentations and more contents escape from the corpses.

    Just some thoughts.

    Respectfully submitted,
    M. E. Wolf
     
  11. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

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    M E: I'll suspect that the reality was much, more horrible than the photos of the time suggest. Some realities are simply not revealed. The photos were something no one got to see at the time. Photos were not reproducible in print. It did reveal the carnage to those who were privy to the availability of the photos, but the hoi polloi didn't get to see them until years later.

    Had they been available for common viewing at the time, the horror would likely have affected both sides negatively.

    To imagine a son or a grandson lying on the battlefied and being eaten by pigs would be too much. Or simply bloated and infested with maggots.

    It has been said that humankind survived because humans were not prey -- they simply didn't make good eats. (Pigs are not so discriminating as lions and tigers and bears; oh my!)

    And then there were the horses! At Shiloh, and presumably on other fields, they were piled up and burned. (Coal oil?)

    Yurk. Too much to think of.

    Ole
     
  12. Will Posey

    Will Posey First Sergeant

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    In the CW, most battlefield bodies were buried on or near the battlefield and not always in a timely manner. Many burials were hurried, either because of the decomposing or the need to move out with the rest of the troops. This led to the graves often being too shallow, and the bodies would be dug up by scavenging animals or heavy rains would wash away the covering dirt, exposing the bodies again to the elements.

    Right offhand I don't remember where, but on one occasion, troops were moving across an earlier battlefield and discovered bodies, or portions of bodies, protruding from the shallow graves of the earlier battle. Most battlefield burials were in mass graves.

    Among the camp followers were civilian embalmers, who would recover and embalm bodies of those (usually officers) whose families or comrades had paid for having the bodies shipped home. That was often a gruesome task.

    Identification of the bodies was a major problem for both sides.

    In the South, families would often come to the battlefield after a fight and search for and recover the bodies of their loved ones, taking them home on wagons.

    After the national cemeteries were established, many Union bodies were exhumed from the battlefield graves and reburied in the new cemeteries. Fallen Confederates were moved sooner than the Union soldiers in many areas; this because the people in some areas of the South acted on their own to establish and populate Confederate cemeteries.

    Neither government had a graves registration unit; body recovery was a family, not government, affair.

    Will
     
  13. Dred

    Dred First Sergeant

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    I'm sure it happened more than once but the one that comes to mind to me is during the Wilderness campaign when they were fighting/camping around the old Chancellorsville battle field.
     
  14. bama46

    bama46 Captain

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    The bending of bayonets into hooks so as to move the dead into a shallow grave was done at Vicksburg after the 2nd attack and be fore the seige. there was one area where the dead and wounded union soldiers lay on a hillside for IIRC 3 days before a cease fire could be arranged to tend the dead. I have seen the bent bayonets in the museums
     
  15. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

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    End of June at Vicksburg must have had some scent to it. Burial had a necessity to it that had nothing to do with the Christian respect for the deceased. If you're trying to catch some Z's in ground that's already been fought over anywhere, the stench might have made sleep impossible. More than once, a truce was called to finally bury the day-old dead.
     
  16. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

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    Never saw one of those, Bama. Only read about it.

    Ole
     
  17. catspjamas

    catspjamas First Sergeant

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    Have smelled dead animals, have never smelled a dead human. I know animal vomit does not smell as bad as human vomit. We treated a dog once that had eaten something, poisonous mushrooms possibly, and could not stop vomiting. The only way to describe how bad it smelled was it smelled like human vomit.

    Animals will spasm and moan after death also. It's a little disconcerting the first time you experience it. I was putting a dog in a bag and I swear he shook his head. But to have one make noise after you've closed the bag up, that's creepy.
     
  18. Will Posey

    Will Posey First Sergeant

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    Given the same temperature and other environmental factors, the decomposing body of a human will smell pretty much the same as an animal of the same size. The odor comes from "tissue" gas generated by the decomposition process. Out in the open, the odor will eventually dissipate, but not any time soon after death. Burying the body allows the dirt to absorb the odor; also, new insects and other lifeforms enter into the process.

    Will
     
  19. lincoln1809

    lincoln1809 Cadet

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    This is about as far as I want to go with this topic. This now clears everything up and now having just eaten I feel sick to my stomach.
     
  20. M E Wolf

    M E Wolf Brigadier General Moderator

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    I'm ok with that Lincoln1809.

    :smile:

    M. E. Wolf
     
  21. Old Hickory

    Old Hickory First Sergeant

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    For a real in-depth look at battlefield casulties, (at Gettysburg anyway) Greg Coco's book, "A Strange and Blighted Land-Gettysburg, The Aftermath of A Battle." It gets into some rather discriptave detail, about burying the dead, treating the wounded, prisoners of war, and the general condition of Gettysburg and the surrounding area from July 1-the closing of Camp Letterman.
     

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