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A Case Study of Memorials for Union Soldiers

Guest post by Jake Fletcher

If your ancestor was an officer for the Union Army during the Civil War, there is a good chance his immediate family and the community published a memorial in his honor. Communities would also compile similar publications for women who worked in field hospitals and even civilians who did not fight, but advocated for the Union. Several hundred volumes of these published memorials and circulars are available free on Google Books and Internet Archive.1

Any genealogist whose Civil War-era ancestor has such a published memorial has acquired a valuable family document from that time. These memorials often included transcriptions of letters and correspondence between the soldier and his family, military leaders and the soldier’s family, and community members who spoke highly of the person — documents that could provide incredible detail when telling the narrative of the soldier’s life before and during the war.

BurnhamIn the Memorial of Lieutenant Howard M. Burnham, for example, the researcher discovers that the soldier was born 17 March 1842,2 the son of R. H. Burnham, Esq., of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and a grandson of the late Elisha Burnham, a merchant. His mother was a daughter of the late Samuel Mather of Connecticut, a descendant of Cotton Mather. He enlisted in the Union Army in April 18613 and was promoted to lieutenant, then first lieutenant, in an artillery command.4 He was 21 years old when he was killed in action at the Battle of Chickamauga, on 19 September 1863.5 He was the first-born and only son of the Burnhams.6

But there is more that can be gleaned from these memorials, taken as a whole, when we review them with a critical eye. In Standard 35 of Genealogy Standards, the Board for Certification of Genealogists reminds us that genealogists should always “appraise” the history of each source we use for its “purpose.”7 Studying these memorials for Union soldiers killed in action demonstrates the importance of this requirement. By appraising the memorials for their purpose, we are able to determine the extent to which we may rely on them as genealogical evidence and the extent to which they provide evidence of the Protestant print culture of the time.

Putting these memorials into the context of their time, we see that, upon surviving American’s early years as a sovereign nation, roads to the west opened up and free enterprise was expanding. The era of the individual’s ability to pursue happiness had arrived.

Americans in the antebellum period were much “softer” religiously than the Puritans or Colonial Americans. They took child development and the family’s role much more seriously. Part of a mother’s domestic role during that time involved nurturing a child with good Christian habits and decision-making. In contrast, fathers were supposed to work and lead their sons by example. Many Americans had foregone the idea of predestination, the belief that an individual is born inherently good or evil.8

Almost overnight, the Civil War challenged these assumptions. College students and young professionals with bright futures were killed; their families left to understand the senseless loss of their child. This, then, was the context in which the memorials were written, and looking at a broad selection of these popular tracts provides insight into the Union’s religious and political mindset during the Civil War.

As pillars of the community, theologians and ministers needed to rally support for the Union cause as the casualties mounted. American Protestants constructed a narrative of the soldiers that justified their death using God’s providential reasoning. The concept of providential reasoning is the belief that God determines all actions in the external world.9 Ministers interpreted the soldier’s death as a gift rather than a loss, based on the assumption God had predestined these soldiers to sacrifice their lives for the country. In order to calm the people, they had to convince them the soldiers died gracefully under the watch of God. Themes of crucifixion and atonement convinced readers the soldier had transfigured into a beacon standing next to God that was for future generations to follow. “His name is enrolled among those of the nation whom posterity will not willingly let die.”10

These memorials, then, were not a tribute to the soldier as much as they were an instruction pamphlet on Christian morals applied to the circumstances of War – or moral-didactic literature.11

Thus, the one characteristic that stands out is that the same type of descriptive language was used as to virtually every one of those memorialized. Each young man was described as showing an early desire for military service, a patriotic enthusiasm, and deep Christian beliefs. The memorial for Lieutenant Burnham, for example, describes young Howard as having “evinced in early boyhood a taste for military pursuits” in the process of which he was “unconsciously fitting himself for his career.”12 At the same time, he showed impressive “acquaintance with the bible”, exemplifying his strong Christian faith.13 Burnham’s memorial, like others of the time, sounded the repeated theme that the soldiers faithfully performed their filial duty to God to the very end. Similarly, Rev. Nathaniel Butler from his pulpit in Rockland, Maine, assured the mourning community that Hiram G. Berry died without a “stain of cowardice.”14

Many Americans such as Dr. Henry Bowditch of Boston, Massachusetts, seemed to be comfortable juxtaposing the horror of losing a child to war and the necessary sacrifice as ordained by God. Upon losing his son Lt. Nathaniel Bowditch, Dr. Henry Bowditch printed a circular in Boston pleading the Union Army to organize an ambulance system because his son was “left to suffer and die.”15 Two years later, he compiled a memorial for his son Nathaniel that assured his son’s death ended in “serenity.”16 In Boston, Rev. Clarke proclaimed at the funeral of Lieut. Bowditch, “This is not death; it is the revelation before of the life to come.”17

My application of this specific genealogy standard to these memorials led me to consider if understanding a source’s purpose could include the role of religion, culture, and politics played in the document’s creation. Studying the significance of these memorials also highlights that, without this crucial source analysis, genealogists could very well miss some important details and hinder their research. Published memorials give researchers an insight into how our ancestors dealt with casualty and how they remain dignified amidst so much loss. In the same way that genealogists and folk anthropologists study motifs on gravestones to document a culture’s understanding of death, memorials and print circulars from the Civil War Era are cultural artifacts that provide evidence of America in a theological crisis.

At the same time, when we understand that these documents were more than mere memorials to the deceased but were also examples of religious “print culture,” we can see that memorials such as these should be scrutinized carefully before they are taken as historical fact.

About the Author

Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. He received his Bachelor Degree for History in 2013 and is now researching genealogy professionally. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since high school using his blog page Travelogues of a Genealogist. The Legal Genealogist is pleased to offer Jake this venue for this thoughts, which he was kind enough to share with us all.


  1. I have been unable to find a complete inventory, but many have been digitized by Harvard University. When searching on Google Books or Internet Archive, search the word “memorial” or “memoir” with “Union Army” or “Civil War”.
  2. Memorial of Lieutenant Howard M. Burnham (Springfield: Samuel Bowles & Co. printer, 1864), 45; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  3. Ibid., 46.
  4. Ibid., 28-29.
  5. Ibid., 29-33.
  6. Ibid., 35.
  7. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2014), 21-22.
  8. For more on child psychology in antebellum America, See Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of The Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York 1790-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 69. For a historiography of Calvinism, see Daniel Walker Howe, “The Decline of Calvinism: An Approach to Its Study,” 14 Comparative Studies in Society and History (Jun 1972): 307.
  9. Charles Hodge, “Scriptural Doctrine of Providence”, cited by Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as A Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 78.
  10. C.M. Tyler, Memorials of Lieut. George H Walcott (Boston: Mass. Sabbath School Society, 1865), 1; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  11. Moral-didactic genre refers to a specific type of print culture from the American Antebellum period (1820s-1860) and entails a story in which one finds God through his or her actions and is able to find salvation. Mary Kelley, “Pen and Ink Communion’: Evangelical Reading & Writing in Antebellum America”, 84 New England Quarterly (December 2011): 555.
  12. Memorial of Lieutenant Howard M. Burnham, 8.
  13. Ibid., 13.
  14. Discourse Delivered at Rockland, Maine: Funeral of Maj. General Hiram G. Berry (Portland: David Tucker, printer, 1863), 10; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  15. Henry I. Bowditch, A Brief Plea for an Ambulance System for the Army of the United States (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1863), 6; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  16. Henry I. Bowditch, Memorial (of Lt. Nathaniel Bowditch) (Boston: John Wilson & Son, printer, 1865), 2; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  17. Ibid., 48.
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