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June 18, 1863: New science of embalming preserves dead for long trips home

Jun. 18, 2013 - 05:00PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — A grim new practice invented here in the nation’s capital is making it possible for those killed in battle to be preserved for long shipments home for burial among friends and family.

It’s all part the new practice of “embalming” created by Dr. Thomas Holmes just as the war began two years ago.

Holmes rose to prominence when he offered to preserve the body of Col. Elmer Ellsworth, the first union officer killed in the war on May 24, 1861, when was shot by a local innkeeper after ripping down a rebel flag flying in Alexandria, Virginia.

Ellsworth was a close friend of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and his wife. Holmes’ work so impressed the president that Holmes was soon commissioned into the Federal Army’s medical corps and put to work.

While the vast majority of those killed in combat are buried close to where they fell, in the two years since, Holmes has still preserved the bodies of hundreds, if not thousands, of troops killed in action for transport home and viewing before burial.

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