Robbing the battlefield dead

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
I was reading an account of the Battle of Malvern Hill and a Union officer is quoted as commenting that unknown persons were observed robbing the dead soldiers on the filed under cover of night. I've heard of this before but wonder how common this was?

Anybody else know of any contemporary reports of these kinds of robberies?
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
I'm no expert on this, but from my reading, harvesting supplies (and gold watches, rings, etc for barter or sale) from the dead and sometimes the wounded on the battlefield was not at all uncommon, especially as the war dragged on and the veneer of civilization wore off from the necessity of keeping yourself alive and comfortable. This robbing was not limited to taking things only from the enemy either. Stealing within your own company was not acceptable, but taking something you wanted or needed from a soldier on your own side of the fight, whether shoes, a blanket or money, was not at all uncommon.

One Confederate officer wrote after the war that the saddest thing he ever saw was four shivering soldiers squatting around a dying Union sergeant at Fredericksburg, waiting for him to take his last breath so they could strip him of his clothes and shoes. The fact that they were waiting until he breathed his last was a sign they had not lost all feeling for other human beings. But I have no doubt there were those on both sides who would not have waited.
 

NH Civil War Gal

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but taking something you wanted or needed from a soldier on your own side of the fight, whether shoes, a blanket or money, was not at all uncommon.
This - and if they saw or found out who took the special hats or boots, HUGE fights broke out over this and they could be deadly in camp OR they waited until it became ”friendly fire.” There are people, then and now, that just needed to be dead, even if they were so called on your side, and soldiers recognized that. Those guys came much more with the draft - not so much with the first waves of the volunteers.

A lot of towns up North emptied their jails so the towns could collect the bounties on these low, misfit guys. Unfortunately, it also included the witless and mentally handicapped who were not only entirely unfit for war and soldiering but were the perfect prey for the perfect predators.

Not a lot of research and writing has been done on towns and cities in the North that did this - forcing their poor and criminal into the service for the draft. Of course not all states did this and not all towns within a state doing it did, but it happened.

And, it kind of (to a degree) depended on which theater of war you were in and just how viscous and partisan the fighting was too.
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
Those guys came much more with the draft - not so much with the first waves of the volunteers.
In a letter to his mother, a Georgia boy complained that his unit was currently positioned next to a Louisiana regiment made up of "river rats and cutthroats" drafted into the army, who every night would sneak into surrounding camps to steal. He said in addition to regular picket duty they also had to post five or six men on guard every night against these fellow soldiers.

In the exact same way, in a letter from an Indiana farm boy to his family, he says his officers were trying to get their camp moved way from a New York regiment drafted from the Bowery who were stealing and picking fights with other regiments. He said no one felt safe sleeping at night.

A certain percentage of the population are criminally inclined regardless of which side of the Mason Dixon line they were born on.
 

nc native

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Aug 30, 2011
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Robbing the dead knew no geographical boundaries, North or South. I remember reading an account where two Union soldiers were scavenging the bodies lying on the battlefield after one battle and one said to the other, "I wish there was a battle every week." One solider on one instance had found a bloody plug of chewing tobacco and was asked what he would do with that. He said he was going to wash it off and chew it. Sometimes the fingers were cut off bloated corpses if there happened to be a ring on and it could not be pulled off. During another fight, a Louisiana soldier fell wounded but he encouraged his comrades to continue on. "Charge them boys, they have cheese in their haversacks!" was his battle cry.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
Stealing shoes off the dead hardly seems any kind of offence, given the circumstances of the War. The logic of it is so inescapable that I would not even consider it robbing the dead. I'm thinking more of personal items like jewelry, watches, cash, or other valuables.
Theft is theft. That being said, stealing the shoes or warm jacket or the like from a dead man may be deemed "justifiable". War is a miserable business and perhaps it renders excusable deeds that in ordinary times would be considered negatively. Ironically, stealing the shoes of a dead man during peace may also be motivated by need--but met with less sympathy.
 

SeaTurtle

Private
Joined
Jun 14, 2021
I believe that if a man his cold, footsore, thirsty or hungry then taking from the dead is understandable and probably acceptable. However robbing the dead of personal items and or gold teeth then that would be reprehensible in my opinion
Regards
David

What if they were taking those gold teeth to sell/trade for food to avoid starving? I don't think this kind of thing is so clear cut ... I think that taking anything off the dead, whether clothes or personal items, has to be judged within the context of that specific situation.
 

SeaTurtle

Private
Joined
Jun 14, 2021
Mutilation of a corpse would be unacceptable.
Lubliner.

This actually makes me wonder ... were there any accounts of scalping during the Civil War? I've heard of it happening a few times during WW2 (and despite the stereotypes, not just by Indian soldiers).
Maybe I should ask that question in a different thread though, don't want to drag this one too far off topic... although I guess taking someone's scalp is a type of "theft"...
 
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Tom Elmore

1st Lieutenant
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Jan 16, 2015
This actually makes me wonder ... were there any accounts of scalping during the Civil War? I've heard of it happening a few times during WW2 (and despite the stereotypes, not just by Indian soldiers).
Maybe I should ask that question in a different thread though, don't want to drag this one too far off topic... although I guess taking someone's scalp is a type of "theft"...
I am reminded of an incident involving Captain James L. Lemon of the 18th Georgia, who found one of his men moving among the Federal dead to spit tobacco juice in their faces. The captain took hold of him and said, "Don't do that, the dead cannot hurt you and deserve respect as men." The fellow replied that they were "wretched dogs who must be killed." Lemon replied, "Old Pard, they are, as you can see, dead. Don't debase yourself. Let the dead be." The fellow came to his senses and relented.

I think Captain Lemon touched upon the consequences of such behavior, that is, the degradation of one's own soul, which would include mutilating the dead, and perhaps the lifelong consequences to the mental well-being of that individual. War takes its toll in many different ways.
 
Joined
Dec 12, 2020
This - and if they saw or found out who took the special hats or boots, HUGE fights broke out over this and they could be deadly in camp OR they waited until it became ”friendly fire.” There are people, then and now, that just needed to be dead, even if they were so called on your side, and soldiers recognized that. Those guys came much more with the draft - not so much with the first waves of the volunteers.

A lot of towns up North emptied their jails so the towns could collect the bounties on these low, misfit guys. Unfortunately, it also included the witless and mentally handicapped who were not only entirely unfit for war and soldiering but were the perfect prey for the perfect predators.

Not a lot of research and writing has been done on towns and cities in the North that did this - forcing their poor and criminal into the service for the draft. Of course not all states did this and not all towns within a state doing it did, but it happened.

And, it kind of (to a degree) depended on which theater of war you were in and just how viscous and partisan the fighting was too.
Reprehensible, but that's the 19th century. Highly religious but ignorant and brutal. Survival of the fittest. In the course of my reading I sometimes read history of the west post Civil War. It didn't get better.
Getting back to the topic at hand, if they had no supplies and the bodies were going to be shoveled into a trench anyway, taking what could be used isn't exactly stealing. I don't think the common soldier carried alot more than what he needed.
Research is being done on the Irish. Off the boat and into the War. And other immigrants as well.
 

SeaTurtle

Private
Joined
Jun 14, 2021
I am reminded of an incident involving Captain James L. Lemon of the 18th Georgia, who found one of his men moving among the Federal dead to spit tobacco juice in their faces. The captain took hold of him and said, "Don't do that, the dead cannot hurt you and deserve respect as men." The fellow replied that they were "wretched dogs who must be killed." Lemon replied, "Old Pard, they are, as you can see, dead. Don't debase yourself. Let the dead be." The fellow came to his senses and relented.

I think Captain Lemon touched upon the consequences of such behavior, that is, the degradation of one's own soul, which would include mutilating the dead, and perhaps the lifelong consequences to the mental well-being of that individual. War takes its toll in many different ways.

I guess it would depend how you were raised and how you felt toward your enemy. Some folks, whether due to culture, personal beliefs, hatred, etc. wouldn't see the problem with taking physical trophies off dead enemies. It's a practice that's been seen around the world in a variety of eras ... scalps, fingers, teeth ... I'm reminded of the Walla Walla chief Peopeomoxmox who was killed, scalped, and skinned by a group of Oregon volunteers in 1855 during the Yakima War.
 
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