I have in my desk drawer a set of dog tags Will gave me when he deployed. I wore them all the time he was gone. He had his own set he wore.
During the Civil War, there was no standard identification system and many soldiers worried they would not be identified or their families notified in case of death. Northern newspapers advertised metal pins, stencils, discs, and rings for identification. Union sutlers seemed to notice and have the materials to address this need. They started carrying materials to stamp metal discs or plates and selling them in the camps they visited.
There were also cardboard tags with metal grommets on one end given out by the Christian Commission. The soldier filled in the blanks on the tag and then wore the tag around his neck on a string or leather thong.
Sometimes battles were fought in bad weather or bodies left in the rain, swamps, and snow. Other times wounded lay in forests where either shot or lightning caught the underbrush on fire and unable to move they burned to death.
The metal identifications were the best, of course. News accounts painted a poignant picture of soldiers before the Battle of Cold Harbor writing their information on slips of paper and pinning them to their coats or putting them inside a pocket. At the end of the battle, the Union had lost 7,000 casualties to the Confederate 1,500.
When the soldiers started digging the entrenchments for the battle on May 31, 1864, that lasted through June 12, they found several remains of soldiers that had been buried in unmarked graves from the previous battle there.
The wounded lay where they fell mostly in 1864, unable to get attention.
Every corpse I saw was as black as coal. It was not possible to remove them. They were buried where they fell. … I saw no live man lying on this ground. The wounded must have suffered horribly before death relieved them, lying there exposed to the blazing southern sun o’ days, and being eaten alive by beetles o’ nights.
Union artillery officer, Frank Wilkeson
Soldiers, as they always did before battle throughout time if they were able to, tried to write some kind of letter to family and loved ones to reassure them of their affections. They also wrote out slips of paper with their names, unit, home address, and names of next of kin in case they were killed. Unfortunately, many times wounded weren’t collected immediately after a battle. Dead were buried even more slowly.
By the time the bodies could be recovered, paper slips and cardboard tags, even if they had survived the initial wounding were illegible if anyone had attempted to read them. Gravediggers went through pockets for valuables and had no interest in bibles, letters, or paper identification markers that might be found on bodies.
Cold Harbor was just one example of the way war went and the reason for some many missing loved ones after the war. As an aside, after the war, Clara Barton set up an aid society to help families find out what happened to their missing soldiers.
Compendium of the War of Rebellion (1959, p.20), states that of the 325,230 federal soldiers who are buried in National Cemeteries, 148,883 are marked unknown.
Paul F. Braddock, author of Dog Tags, History of the American Military Identification Tag, has a Confederate identification tag in his collection that was privately made. These are rare.
Identification Discs of Union Soldiers in the Civil War: A Complete Classification Guide and Illustrated History by Larry B Maier and Joseph W. Stahl
In the Hills of Shiloh a song sung by Bobby Bare that brings home the pain of so many women left behind.