The Civil War Taught Us Embalming See Donald William on Oak Island

Donald Williams lives locally and currently retired. He has always had a strong interest of American history and is a direct descendant of a union soldier (his great-grandfather belonged to the 1stVermont Cavalry). As fate would eventually had it, Don and his wife joined the 140th Volunteer Infantry, a Living History Organization, in 1985 where they are still active re-enactors.

Upon joining the 140th, Don started out with a solider impression. But after the 125thAnniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1988 he would soon leave his soldier’s life behind. His impression started with simple question that was posed “so what did they do will all the dead”? This started him on a quest of researching undertaking (embalming surgeon) and funeral process focusing on the mid 1800s. His impression includes all aspects of a mid 19thcentury embalming, describing the differences between notable/credible/hometown embalmers like Drs. Thomas Holmes, George Duiguidand Henry P. Cattell and field embalmers like Dr. Richard Burr. Don also tells about the chemical process of preserving bodies and how that was done both on and off the battlefield. Including how the embalmer’s embraced their craft and profession both honestly and dishonestly.

As embalming practices caught on in the medical arena, each embalmer developed his own mixture of chemicals. As far as we can tell no two mixtures were exactly alike. Dr. Thomas Holmes is the noted father of modern/American embalming, but Frederick Ruyschwas the first to refine arterial injection of using preservation fluids into the vascular system (he however did not publish his findings). Leonardo Da Vinci in late 1400s and early 1500s was first to develop injection via the veins. The title or usage of “undertaker” first appears in the very late 1800s.

The profession of an embalmer as the war dragged on, became a popular with many scam artists (hard to catch). It was not until March 15, 1865, at war’s end, that U.S. Army general order 39 concerning embalmers was instituted. The intent was to put an end to those so-called or less-than-honest embalmers. It was after order 39 was decreed, that only licensed embalmers were allowed on the battlefield. To become a licensed embalmer you had to prove your craft. If you were deemed worthy you would then pay a licensing fee of $25 and attained the title of a licensed embalmer.

Over the years, Mr. Williams’ impression has become widely known and is the “civil war consultant” for the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston Texas.