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To the Victor go the Spoils: Taking from the Dead

Discussion in 'Battle of Gettysburg' started by Tom Elmore, Dec 5, 2017.

  1. Tom Elmore

    Tom Elmore First Sergeant

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    “To the victor go the spoils” is a rather base concept that our civilized natures might reject and dismiss as ancient and barbaric, yet it still defines warfare to this day, and it was on full display at Gettysburg.

    It was not just practiced by those few soldiers in both armies who would absent themselves from their units whenever a battle was imminent, and hang around on the margins of the field, scavenging the bodies of the enemy dead. Other soldiers, who would always be found at their post, might, once the battle was over, engage in rifling the pockets and knapsacks of the dead lying in the vicinity, if circumstances allowed. It was not just lucrative, but also very practical, as William K. Clare of the 83rd New York tried to explain in a letter home. “While burying the rebel dead, many valuables were found. The idea of searching dead men’s pockets may strike you with indignation – but what’s the use of burying gold and silver? Our men secured thousands of watches, chains, ‘greenbacks,’ and strange to say, thousands in gold coin with which the Southern army is well supplied.”

    Here I am focusing on personal items, not government-issued equipment. During or after a battle, soldiers often seized a good weapon, canteen, sword or pistol that belonged to a dead or wounded enemy combatant. But officially, such accoutrements became the property of the army quartermasters. As John M. Madden of the 109th Pennsylvania pointed out, “nothing that belongs to our government, or is found on a battlefield, can be taken home by anybody unless they are private property and have no Government mark on it.”

    The general rule (not universally followed) was to avoid ransacking the dead of one’s own army, but enemy dead were fair game. As always with human beings, a number of motivations were in play when the dead were being robbed, some being more honorable, or at least acceptable, than others. For instance, footwear was no longer of use to the dead, but they could relieve the suffering of the living. Clothing items were likewise in high demand by the Confederates: On the afternoon of July 3, a squad of Confederate soldiers “gathered up the bodies of 18 men of our regiment and lay them on a level strip of ground a few yards below me. They came, and after taking most of the clothing and all the shoes off of them, arranged the bodies in two rows with the feet together and left them so. (Corporal James Scott, History of the 124th Regiment New York, by Charles H. Weygant, pp. 187-188)

    It was not unusual for the Federals to be stripped. On rare occasion, a Confederate was known to show compassion or respect for the dead by replacing his worn out clothes on the dead man. While a well-intended and humane gesture, it might result in misidentification and burial as an enemy combatant. Private John Fly (or Flye) of the 13th Massachusetts narrowly escaped just such a fate: “In a Rebel ambulance before the door of Christ Lutheran Church, my company-mate John Flye was in a rebel uniform. Flye was left on the field and the Rebels had exchanged his pants for one of their own and brought him in. He died on July 26. The surgeons, seeing him in gray, could not believe he was a Union soldier.” (Corporal Austin C. Stearns, 13th Massachusetts, Three Years with Company K, p. 190)

    It was, as said, a lucrative business. Confederate script was worthless to the Federals, but the latter’s money was still considered valuable, North or South. Just before a battle, many soldiers turned over excess funds to a trusted non-combatant like the regimental chaplain. However, in one regiment the chaplain was forced to turn back on the way home, and returned the funds to their owners, which then had to be carried into the fight. An officer might carry a hundred U.S. dollars or more on his person, which to an enemy private earning 11 dollars a month would be equivalent to winning the lottery.

    To soldiers who had grown accustomed to death, it was normally just an impersonal business of searching knapsacks and turning pockets inside out. But some soldiers made it very personal by taking letters and images of loved ones from the deceased. Harmon Martin, of Cobb’s Georgia Legion (regiment) wrote: “I got three pictures out of a dead Yankee’s knapsack and I am going to send you one. If you do not want it you can give it away. The letters were wrapped up in a letter from the person whose image they are. She wrote to the Yankee that they were her picture and she signed her name A. Spears and she lived in Maine somewhere, but I could not make out where she lived.” One wonders about the psychological impact of getting personal with your enemy, which may lie somewhere on the same spectrum with an ancient barbarian eating a foe’s liver to assume his vital force.

    Regardless of whether letters and images were removed, or simply cast aside to be scattered by the wind and turned to pulp by the rain, they would have helped identity the mortal remains of the dead. We will never know how many were consigned to eternity as “unknowns” because of it, depriving their families (and generations to follow) of closure and extending their pain.

    Knapsacks and haversacks were prized because they contained both edibles and valuables. Surgeon William W. Potter of the 57th New York “obtained a rebel’s knapsack at Falling Waters on July 14, a dirty brown color, (which) contained sheets of note paper.” On rare occasion the knapsack itself might have intrinsic worth. Sergeant Nussbaum of the 107th Ohio wrote, “I took from the color bearer (Leon Gusman) of the 8th Louisiana his knapsack, which was a very neat one, made of leather with a goat-skin cover. Being minus my own knapsack, I carried it a while, but the comrades made so much fun of me that I threw it away, for which act I have been sorry ever since.” Empty knapsacks also made excellent sand bags. On July 1, the 143rd Pennsylvania came to the field, unslung their knapsacks, and piled them “in a heap near the Seminary … they were left behind and filled with sand by the Rebels and used as a breastwork." (Memoirs of Simon Hubler, 1st Sergeant, Company I, 143rd Pennsylvania)

    Rank has always had its privileges. Corporal Austin Stearns of the 13th Massachusetts recorded this scene in the temporary hospital at Christ Lutheran Church: "Two rebel soldiers came in and going down the aisle picked up everything that struck their fancy. When down in front of the desk (altar?), they both saw and at the same time seized hold of an officer’s haversack, each claiming it as his property, and getting very angry over it. After cursing a good deal and trying to pull it away from each other, they were proceeding to blows when a (Confederate) officer stepping up, took hold of the strap, told each to let go, and then threw the strap over his shoulder and walked off with his prize. The real owner, a wounded union officer, was sitting in one of the pews.”

    Pocket watches were small and valuable and could be readily converted into cash. Major John I. Nevin of the 93rd Pennsylvania wrote, “On July 3, a man from the 62nd New York came to our camp tonight with eight watches to sell.” Of course, handling the dead might be messy. Nevin added that, “One man said he was feeling a Secesh officer’s pocket for money and drew out a handful of clotted blood.” (Diary of Major John I. Nevin, ‘On the March Again at Daybreak,’ ed. by Dana B. Shoaf, A Journal of the American Civil War, vol. 6, no. 3 (Savas Publishing Company), p. 126)

    Writing paper was another item in high demand on both sides. In a letter home a soldier named Franklin from the 15th South Carolina wrote, “I got a pistol and a portfolio full of writing paper and envelopes.” The letterhead bore the unit designation - 20th Indiana (which just might help explain where the 15th South Carolina went during the battle). Likewise, Joseph Burrage of the 33rd Massachusetts noted in a letter home that “this is some rebel paper I picked up on the battlefield.” Private James Dickerson of the 123rd New York notified his parents that “this sheet of paper was taken from a dead rebel’s knapsack, the ball passing entirely through his body and lodging in his knapsack.”

    Stamps would have been a useful item too, were it not for the fact that enemy stamps could not be used as postage. However, they did make great souvenirs. “I send you a rebel postage stamp. I have several of them taken from a dead rebel that was thrown into a trench with 45 others.” (Letter from John M. Madden, 109th Pennsylvania, to his mother, August 16, 1863)

    Rings understandably attracted immediate attention, and removing a ring from a bloated finger posed little problem. Visiting a makeshift field hospital at the Shriver farm, an “expired soldier was found with a missing finger taken off to get a gold ring.” (William H. Connell, 149th Pennsylvania, Two Ebensburg Citizens …)

    James Bryant of the 1st Minnesota picked up a useful sewing kit on the battlefield, while a man named Dale in Company D, 48th Virginia added to his knife collection, probably during his stay in Pennsylvania. After the battle, Lt. Samuel T. Buchanan noted that, “Dale in our company found two or three dozen knives. He gave me two, one with a spoon and fork attached to it, the other a pen-knife.”

    Other pertinent citations:

    (Assistant Surgeon Willis W. Keith, 12 SC, letter of 19 July) The only pair of pants that I have, I captured on the battlefield. My own were broken, so I slipped them off, and these on. I have one of the flannel shirts I brought with me, and one cotton striped shirt that I captured, and change from one to another, so you see my wardrobe is small.

    (The Story of Our Regiment, A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers, J.W. Muffly) Buried dead on July 4 … rare to find one not robbed. All regiments had battlefield robbers, who would sell all kinds of trinkets after the battle. … (by R. W. Wadding of Company I) In the Wheatfield, the night of July 2, saw a rebel and companion that robbed the dead that night.

    (Surgeon A. S. Coe, 147th New York, letter of 24 September) Confederate encountered at Eagle Hotel related how he had taken a revolver from an artillery officer who had refused to give it up.

    (Charles A. Fuller, Personal Recollections of the War of 1861, 61st New York) "As the rebs retreated through the Wheatfield, a nice looking fellow, small of stature, with bright black eyes, whose face was smutted up with powder, picked up my sword, and said, 'Give me that scabbard!' I said 'Johnny, you will have to excuse me, as my arm is broken and I can’t unbuckle my belt.' He made no comment, but went off with my sword."

    (Museum of the Civil War, Richmond) Sergeant Michael Specht, 72nd Pennsylvania, recovered Brig. Gen. Armistead’s sword and sword belt and used them when he was promoted to Lieutenant.

    (Martin A. Haynes, 2nd New Hampshire) Lt. Vickery of Co. I was shot in the back and fell into the hands of the rebels, who stripped and robbed him with their usual dexterity. … Lost my knapsack on July 2, the Johnny who had the overhauling of my knapsack got a fine picture of a certain black-eyed Yankee girl, but he didn’t have the reading of any of her letters (which he had burned on June 30) … July 13, I have a rebel roundabout, cartridge box, and plate with letters “C.S.” on it.

    (Obituary of August Raasch, 26th Wisconsin) Wounded and captured, on his way to rear a Confederate soldier was about to relieve him of all he had when he caught sight of his own regiment and hurried to join them. Early next morning two rebel soldiers carried him to an ambulance. These men like others asked for his money, but he would not tell of the $5 he had with him.

    (Bernhard Domschke, Twenty Months in Captivity, 26th Wisconsin) A lieutenant of my regiment, killed beside me, fell victim to outrageous plunder. They even robbed their own dead.

    (M. S. Schroyer, diary, 147th Pennsylvania) An Ohio soldier took $85 in gold and a gold watch from Major B. W. Leigh’s body. … Every one of the Confederate dead on Culp’s Hill had been searched and their pockets rifled by the battlefield thieves.

    (Captain George K. Collins, Memoirs, 149th New York) In visiting the Confederate dead, the first thing that attracted attention was the pockets turned inside outwards and the haversacks and knapsacks opened and ransacked. This profanity of the dead, however, was largely the work of the enemy and not of the Union men.

    Not so, Capt. Collins, although it is human nature to lay most of the blame on your opponents.
     
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2017

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  3. Miles Krisman

    Miles Krisman Corporal

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    A few days after the Battle of the Wilderness, Union General Grant pulled back his forces to his extended lines between the Wilderness and Higg's Mills, leaving all of his dead and wounded on the field. When night came on, each Captain of the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment received orders to send details out onto the field and to go as far as it was prudent, and bury the dead Yankees in front of them, as the smell from the bodies were becoming offensive. Corporal Paul Lavender of Company D was ordered to take a detail and go in front of his Company and bury all he could reach, and to bury them as well as he could. When he returned he was asked how he did the job, replied: “I did it well, but buried them all North and South, so they would not face the East at the Resurrection.”[1] One of the soldiers of Company D, who was as good a soldier as ever lived, had a mania for robbing the dead Yankees that were left on the field. That night he went out to see if he could find any valuables, and he came across a dead Yankee that had on a splendid pair of boots. After working and tugging faithfully, the soldiers’ feet, being badly swollen, he succeeded in capturing them. He took them back to camp with his other booty and traded them off to a fellow soldier, who in putting his hand down the foot of the boot pulled out thirty-five or forty dollars in greenbacks. Now the question arouse as to who the money belonged to; the one that sold the boots or the one that bought them. After a serious argument and no little display of temper, the men turned to Captain Williams. He advised them to divide the money equally, which they did.[2]



    [1] Greensboro Record, July 16, 1903 “Captain Jonathan Whiteside Williams, His Life And Times With The 5th Alabama, C.S.A. Company “D”, Greensboro Guards

    [2] “Company D, At the Battle of the Wilderness, Sketches of the Greensboro Guards, Co. D, Fifth Alabama, C.S.A. by One of Them, One of a Series of Articles by J. W. Williams” The Record, continued from Issue of July 2nd
     
  4. Miles Krisman

    Miles Krisman Corporal

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    The following is from the diary of a soldier in the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment regarding the aftermath of the Battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks.

    "Nearly all the dead have had their pockets searched. All their hats and shoes are gone. One man had his pocket turned and emptied off of all except a small testament.......Hundreds of them from Richmond and the country are on the field gathering. Sentinels were detailed on the roads to take the guns from them and turn them over to the government. A very proper disposition. They stay at home until the victory is won then flock to the field to plunder. A regular stampede was made among them by a Yankee battery throwing a few shells into the field. They left in quick time."
     
  5. bankerpapaw

    bankerpapaw 2nd Lieutenant

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    When I was in Vietnam, we killed a VC in an ambush. I got a Russian wristwatch he was wearing.
     
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  6. christian soldier

    christian soldier Sergeant

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    Tom. I have a question: I have seen many photographs of dead soldiers on a civil war battlefield and saw their clothing in disarray and always thought that other soldiers were rifling through their clothes looking for valuables, etc, however, I heard Shelby Foote, if I recall correctly in the Civil War Series, say that the dead soldier's clothes were in disarray because once they got shot they were checking to see if the bullet hit them in the abdomen, in which case they knew they were going to die. Have you ever heard of this before? David.
     
  7. Burning Billy

    Burning Billy Sergeant

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    There are a couple photographs of dead soldiers that appear like they might have had their pockets rifled.
     
  8. mofederal

    mofederal 2nd Lieutenant

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    This practice is being carried on today. I guess it is just human nature to loot and pilfer the dead. During WWII we added a new twist called battlefield salvage and marked the items with a tag marked CS for Combat Salvage. Clothing items, jackets etc., shoes, packs, belts, were collected and were cleaned and taken to salvage depots where G.I.'s could pick up what you needed. I have several items in my collection marked with CS tags.
     
  9. JAGwinn

    JAGwinn Private

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    At what point does and item removed from the site of a battle leave off being stolen property and become artifact?
     
  10. JOHN42768

    JOHN42768 2nd Lieutenant Trivia Game Winner

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    If one could have been sure that personal effects would be returned to the deceased family by the burial detail and still have left identification attached then yes it is wrong. Nothing wrong with captured firearms or other appendages (canteen, belt,buckle,knapsack,etc.) being removed, but anything that might serve to identify the person should have been left on the body. How many soldiers went unidentified and families searching for any shred of evidence where their loved one might be buried.
     
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  11. AUG351

    AUG351 Captain Forum Host

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    Some excerpts from Reminiscences of a Private by Frank M. Mixson, in Hagood's 1st South Carolina Infantry, Micah Jenkins' Brigade:

    At the battle of the Wilderness:
    "While we were halted here in the confusion after happening to this misfortune [Jenkins' death and Longstreet's wounding to friendly fire], I ran upon a dead Yankee officer finely dressed, clean and nice looking. He had on a fine pair of high top boots, brand new, the spurs, of course, coming with them. I immediately took them to Col. [James R.] Hagood and he found them as good as fit as if made for him."

    "We did not sleep much this night, for we were right in among the dead and dying, and many a poor fellow, especially from the Yankee army, would beg for water, and we did not have it to give him. Our men got some canteens from the dead, some with a little water and some with brandy. All this was given to the poor fellows without any regard to which side he belonged. All we cared for was that he was a hmnan being and a brother, though we had fought him hard all day."

    At Spotsylvania:
    "In making this advance I ran over a nice looking fellow who was just dead. I happened to notice a gold ring on his finger, and as the enemy were getting back as fast as they could, I concluded to get that ring. So, stooping over, I pulled it off...."

    "It was now late in the afternoon and another company was sent to relieve us. We had been on the skirmish line since the evening before. On passing back to our works I stopped and foraged a little; and when I went into our works I was literally loaded down with haversacks, knapsacks and hats. I had six Stetson hats—new—and, on opening the knapsacks the things which struck my fancy most were white laundered shirts (biled shirts). I gave a hat to Col. Hagood, Capt. Wood, Lieut. Dick Bryan, Lieut. Dick Best, Jim Diamond, and kept one myself. The dry goods and rations were divided out to the company."

    "While upon the field of battle I came upon one poor fellow with his head completely gone, taken off even with his shoulders, evidently by a cannon ball. In taking his watch from his waist-band pocket, I felt a small roll of something. On investigating I found a few greenback bills sewed up in his waist-band. There were two tens and a five. As soon as Sid Key knew I had them he was after a trade, and I finally sold to him for three hundred and seventy-five Confederate."
     
  12. huskerblitz

    huskerblitz Captain

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    It is interesting, at Chickasaw Bayou it is debated on whether or not Confederates stripped clothing and items from dead federal soldiers. I have read letters stating that some bodies were stripped clean of all accoutrements and personal items, other letters that say that accoutrements were taken but the bodies had been tidied up and personal effects left alone. Then other letters make no mention at items being taken at all. Officially, George Morgan writes in Battles and Leaders:

    Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 9.58.08 PM.png

    Later on, Stephen D. Lee also echoes Morgan's stance that bodies were not pillaged.
     
  13. AUG351

    AUG351 Captain Forum Host

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    I have inherited a couple Japanese bayonets my granduncle picked up in the Philippines, they aren't marked with CS though. Course not all were, many items were taken strait from the battlefield as souvenirs. In the Pacific the Japanese swords and flags were especially high in demand. Also, as featured in the show The Pacific, there are many accounts of Allied troops collecting gold teeth from Japanese dead.
     
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  14. Burning Billy

    Burning Billy Sergeant

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    Indeed, a lot of the stuff ended up sent home or sold to rear echelon troops and sailors. Eugene Sledge describes the practice in With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa:

    "During a lull the men stripped the packs and pockets of the enemy dead for souvenirs. This was a gruesome business, but Marines executed it in a most methodical manner. Helmet headbands were checked for flags, packs and pockets were emptied, and gold teeth were extracted. Sabers, pistols and hari-kari knives were highly prized and carefully cared for until they could be sent to the folks back home or sold to some pilot or sailor for a far price..

    The men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes. It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the likes of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where the antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred. It was uncivilized, as is all war, and was carried out with that particular savagery that characterized the struggle between the Marines and the Japanese. It wasn't simply souvenir hunting or looting the enemy dead; it was more like Indian warriors taking scalps."
     
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