The Telegram No One Wants
The iconic image of Western Telegraph telegraph showing up at the door of a loved one in the military is one that is both poignant and unforgettable. Telegrams were used by the War Department and the branches to break the news to the distraught family member. If you don’t know the feeling there are no words. This clip from We Were Soldiers actually captures it well. In time the telegram gave way to the phone call and the visit from a representative.
In the Civil War, there was no such mechanism in place to let family members know their loved one had been killed in battle. If you knew the unit of the army they served in you could watch your local paper. They would publish casualty lists after battles. Some newspapers discontinued this towards the end of the war.
The best you could hope for was that soon after a letter from your loved one would arrive telling you they survived. Sometimes when they did not survive a friend or fellow soldier would write the family to break the news. Eventually the unit commander may follow-up with a note and their condolences, but most often there was nothing.
The absolute worse part was that at the time of the Civil War dog tags were not a standard. Most men carried no form of identification. Some before a battle may have written their name and next of kin on a piece of paper and pinned it to themselves. Just in case, but many more died fighting and were never identified. In 1865 Clara Barton started the Office of Missing Soldiers that searched to put names to the unknown. Over the next four years, she was responsible for identifying almost 20,000 unknowns.