My You Have a Pretty Toe

Battlefield-GettysburgSome of you know that the cover story for the April issue of Civil War Times will feature my article on Confederate military executions.  This is a project that I’ve had in the works for a couple of years, and although I am not finished thinking about the subject, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of my findings with a general audience.  In addition to the article I am also finishing up a 500 word sidebar on an execution that took place in “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps in August 1862 for the same issue.  December has been incredibly productive for me without the pressure of having to churn out daily blog posts.

In the course of my research I came across an interesting account that I am hoping to follow up on in the near future.  The account comes from the Charles Thurston Papers which are housed at the University of Virginia.  Writing from Centreville, Virginia in November 1861, Thurston promised his family to send home a souvenir from the battlefield and hoped to include the following:

I am only pleased to hear from Mother that you are such a good boy and Edwin, too.  Fine lads both of you, and I shall certainly bring you home something good for sore eyes in the shape of a bomb shell, Yankee toe, a Stone Bridge, or Bull Run Walking Cane.  I cut one out the other day, a soldier on the end of it, and I believe I will send it to Mr. Cooks.

You can see that I am interested in Thurston’s desire to send home a body part.  This is the only such account that I’ve come across, but I am sure there are plenty more.  I would very much appreciate any references (Union and Confederate) that you’ve come across in the course of your reading/research.  It seems to me that this would make for a very interesting essay.  I would also like to know if there are any secondary sources on the subject.  I know that it was quite common during the Jim Crow Era to remove bones from lynching sites to keep as souvenirs.  At first glance it seems to touch on the fascination that soldiers attached to battlefields and their struggle to come to terms with the brutality of war.  That Thurston hoped to send a body part home suggests a need to impress upon loved ones of just what he and others experienced in battle.  Thanks in advance for your assistance.

32 comments… add one
  • Dr. Henry Kreon Jan 18, 2012 @ 17:10

    Also heard that Southern women made necklasses of Yankee eyeballs.
    Wonder if they plucked them fresh from the battlefield.

  • Ray Ortensie Sep 8, 2011 @ 11:26


    I’ve done quite a few readings but never came across this before other than in my readings on irregular warfare during the Civil War. I know Bloody Bill Anderson would cut off ears in Missouri and attach them to his saddle. The only place I can think that something like this might have occurred is maybe with either Morgan’s or Mosely’s men. I’ll have to find my copy of Duke’s accounts of Morgan’s adventures.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2011 @ 11:27

      Let us know what you find, Ray.

  • josepheros Dec 19, 2009 @ 19:55

    Harper's Weekly referred at least five times (including once in a cartoon) to Southerners' wearing the bones of dead Northern soldiers as trophies–although none of these seem to be firsthand accounts.

    I could have sworn I saw an illustration of a Southern belle wearing such jewelry, but if I am remembering that right it seems to have appeared somewhere other than in Harper's.

    The quotes (you can find the scanned issues online at (… ):

    “Impatient of natural decay, they boil the dead flesh of our soldiers to get the bones more speedily. The bones are cut and carved into trinkets, into caskets, into drinking-cups; and the women of the region, equally ignorant and cruel, wear them and gloat over them with glee.”
    –Harper's Weekly, May 17, 1862, p. 306

    Cartoon caption: “Some Specimens of 'Secesh' Industry–Intended for the London Exhibition of 1862, but unfortunately intercepted by the 'Paper Blockade'”
    Eight items are pictured: “Goblet made from a Yankee's skull; Paper-weight: Ingenious application of a Yankee Jaw-bone; Reading-Desk formed of a Whole Skeleton of one of Lincoln's hired Minions; Furs formed of Scalps and Beards; Necklace of Yankee teeth; Head Wreath of ditto; Cake Basket made of 'Mudsill's' ribs; Bell-handle [a skeletal hand] from Manassas”
    –Harper's Weekly, June 7, 1862, p. 368

    “And there is news of defeat; of slaughter and massacre; of gallant Northern boys left to become the prey of Southern ghouls, who will convert their skulls into trophies, and whose daughters and wives will not blush to wear ornaments made of their bones; news which makes the cheek blanch, and nerves the brave man's heart to further encounters, and warns the wise man that the time for half-measures has passed.”
    –Harper's Weekly, June 14, 1862, p. 378

    “That his particular friends [the Confederates] starve and torture the loyal citizens of the United States who fall into their hands–that they hack and hew the living bodies of their prisoners, under pretense of surgical practice, until they die in agony–that they dig up our dead like hyenas and ghouls–that they boil the corpses to get the bones–that they cut them into drumsticks and ornaments–that they carve the skulls into cups, and burn the bodies which they can insult no further, are matters that do not trouble the excellent Gregory [a British MP].”
    –Harper's Weekly, July 12, 1862, p. 434

    “We shall not waste time in arguing with the Copperheads. Men who are capable of justifying the rebels and espousing their cause when the blood of some member of almost every Northern family reddens Southern soil, and the bones of Northern soldiers are worn as ornaments by Southern women, are not likely to be convinced by argument, or to be pervious to any thing short of a bayonet thrust.”
    –Harper's Weekly, February 28, 1863, p. 130

    • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2009 @ 21:40

      I've already checked out this particular site, but thanks for taking the time to comment on this post. It's an interesting topic. I am interested in any secondary sources on the subject.

  • vickibetts Dec 11, 2009 @ 13:59

    CORINTH WAR EAGLE [CORINTH, MS], July 31, 1862, p. 1, c. 5
    Southern Brutality.—Chaplain A. H. Quint writes to the Congregationalist from Winchester, Va.:
    “You see accounts of Southern brutality occasionally, I have never believed much of that—knowing some noble Southerners. But I am satisfied. A clergyman of this county—I will not give his name—a man who only from compulsion became silent as to the guilt of secession, assures me, on his honor, that 'Yankee skulls' were hawked about his town, after the Bull Run battle, at ten dollars a piece. Spurs, also, were made of jaw bones, to his personal knowledge. A member of his own Church, who was at Bull Run, told him that hundreds of bodies were left headless for such purpose. But I am not at all surprised. I have ceased to feel any wonder at the brutalities of a slave-holding people.”

  • vickibetts Dec 11, 2009 @ 7:57

    MOBILE REGISTER AND ADVERTISER, April 22, 1864, p. 1, c. 7

    [From the Texas Telegraph.]

    . . . Very well; but now to the incident foreshadowed. On a certain occasion, my friend's company was ordered out, with other forces, to check an anticipated raid of the enemy. They went, of course, and it so happened that they were then in the vicinity of Gaines' Mill, where thousands of the enemies of our country had left their imbecile bodies in the implacable arms of death. Unlike ourselves, the living had simply buried their dead on the top of the ground, or so shallowly that arm and leg bones and skulls were plenty and rather in the way. Our boys had seen nothing of the enemy. The scouts reported that nothing could be seen or heard of them. The boys were not weary, but thirsting, so to speak, for something to do, and one proposed they should have a game of ten pins. The proposition seemed ill-timed and unreasonable; so another asked, “how can this be done here, where the bones and skulls of our enemies are lying around us?” “Easy enough,” replied the eccentric and original, “the thigh and leg bones scattered around will answer for pins and the skulls will suit for balls.”
    The strangeness of the proposition, together with an inexpressible interest all felt in it, won the day, and soon the pins were set up, and the skulls filled with sand to give them specific gravity, care being taken to select the round skulls (a rather difficult thing to find among Yankees), and thus our revellers bowled away for several hours. Just think of it! The invaders of our country having fallen in battle—their bones left by their own friends to cumber the surface of the earth, and our glorious boys meeting with these harmless relics, made them still subserve for the enjoyment of an idle hour. To tell the truth, I should like to have been there to participate. I think at every bowl I should have shouted one more cry for Liberty! and have rolled the balls with a vehemence unusual. The pastime was something so unusual, so piquant, so rich, recherche—like Byron's drinking wine from a skull—that to me doting upon graveyards and delighting in wrecks as I do, the narrative gave exquisite pleasure. This is one of the pleasant features of the Death Dance now going on. Who will get tired first?
    Tom Anchorite.

  • vickibetts Dec 11, 2009 @ 7:55

    DAILY TIMES [LEAVENWORTH, KS], July 13, 1862, p. 3, c. 2

    Bone Ornaments.

    Silent the lady sat alone;
    In her ears were rings of dead men's bone;
    The brooch on her breast shone white and fine,
    'Twas the polished joint of a Yankee's spine;
    And the well-carved handle of her fan
    Was the finger bone of a Lincoln man.
    She turned aside a flower to cull,
    From a vase which was made of a human skull;
    For to make her forget the loss of her slaves
    Her lovers had rifled dead men's graves.
    Do you think I'm describing a witch or ghoul?
    There are no such things—and I'm not a fool;
    Nor did she reside in Ashantee;
    No—the lady fair was an F. F. V.

    Vicki Betts

    P.S. Kevin, the book arrived and is now in the colllection of the University of Texas at Tyler Library. Thanks!

    • Kevin Levin Dec 11, 2009 @ 7:56

      Thanks so much for the links. I hope the book arrived in decent condition.

  • Ken Noe Dec 10, 2009 @ 12:13

    Certainly there's precedent for this sort of thing, from frontier scalping to the documented World War II cases. But I'm with David Rhoads, people might cut “off” toes, but they don't cut them “out.” Nor do they bring home real stone bridges to little boys. I also think he's carving trinkets “in the shape of” those items out of wood or bone. Now as to why you'd carve a toe instead of a bridge, I think the Chicago Journal piece provides a clue. One thing I've learned over the last few years is that Confederate soldiers were as redundant as we are. They borrowed terms and phrases from popular culture and then ran them into the ground like the latest line from Seinfeld. Witness “this cruel war.” If masculine young Johnny Rebs in 1861 were boasting about sending home toes, then why not carve one? How many people who joke about getting luxury cars this Christmas will wake up to find one in the shape of a Hot Wheels?

  • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2009 @ 12:12

    Thanks everyone for the comments and references. Most of the examples cited reference Confederates. I don't doubt that there are just as many cases of northerners engaging in such behavior, but a proper analysis will perhaps have a regional flavor. It seems reasonable to suggest that southerners would have been sensitive to the idea of the enemy buried on their native soil. While that seems fairly straightforward I think James raises a very interesting question about how this fits into the broader debate about restraint.

    • Ed Dec 10, 2009 @ 12:36

      Would that be “Confederate Toe” in northerner engagement in this behavior? 🙂

  • James Bartek Dec 10, 2009 @ 11:55

    Joseph Glatthaar, in “General Lee's Army,” briefly discusses how Confederates collected body parts of dead Union soldiers (teeth and hair) as souvenirs after the battle at Bull Run. Check out pp. 61-62. I was genuinely surprised by the account. I've periodically come across these kinds of stories in my research. Some appear to be more a case of grave robbing than intentional mutilation, while others are clearly nothing more than propaganda. I wonder how often this sort of thing really happened. Surely not as often as in the Indian wars. Still, it might qualify the idea that the war was marked by “restraint.”

  • Ed Dec 10, 2009 @ 11:32

    Southern Ladies And Yankee Toes. — Our correspondent down the Mississippi sends us numerous little trophies captured in the late expedition up the Yazoo, as described in his letter, published in this paper on Friday last.

    If any body doubts the barbarism existing in the South, and the reported mutilation of the bodies of Northern soldiers by the rebels, the originals of the letters from which the following extracts are made, can be seen at this office :

    “I want you to tell the ladies if nothing but the toes of a Yankee will satisfy them I will Bring them a pocket full.”

    ” John promised to get some yankee toes but he has not done it yet but he got several other things that is a great deal better we could have got plenty of toes if we had tried but we concluded that we did not want any and I think that we will have an other chance yet.”

    These letters were dated at Corinth, Mississippi, on the same day, April fourteenth, 1862, and are respectively signed “J. B. Sims,” and “H. J. Toler.” These were soldiers in the rebel army at Corinth, and they each wrote these letters upon note-paper bearing the shield, eagle, stars and stripes, the word “Union,” and the motto, ” Emblem of our Nation's Liberty,” at the head.

    The envelope, enclosing one of them at least, has the stars, stripes, cannon, soldier, etc., of the Government, and the device ” Our Union Defenders.” This stationery they claim to have ” captured from the Yanks.” Under the United States postage-stamp is written, ” Played out,” while the other end of the envelope bears two confederate postage-stamps for five cents each.

    Of course the letters are as vindictively hostile to Yankees as they well could be.—Chicago Journal.

    From:, page 28

  • Larry Cebula Dec 10, 2009 @ 10:17

    Kevin: There was a lot of collecting of Japanese body parts including skulls, fingers, and ears in the Second World War. See Dower's War Without Mercy and Paul Fussells essays for an introduction.

    • msimons Dec 10, 2009 @ 12:12

      I have seen several WW2 body parts including a Japanese skull with a KA-Bar Embedded in it on a Old Bankers Desk in the Delta of Eastern Arkansas. My cousin who was a Lerp in NAM said the Native American Soldiers in his unit took VC and NVA scalps and hung them outside their tents at the firebase.

  • Terry Johnston Dec 10, 2009 @ 9:16


    The June 7, 1862, and February 7, 1863, issues of Harper's Weekly both ran sketches and stories of alleged Confederate atrocities. The former contains images of what are labeled “some specimens of 'secesh' industry,” including a goblet created from a Union soldier's skull, a paperweight made from a “Yankee Jawbone,” a woman's head-wreath of Yankee teeth, etc. The 1863 issue shows Confederate soldiers beheading and scalping their Union opponents, and purports to document a series of “barbarities” committed by Confederates dating back to First Bull Run. Also, I seem to recall a book released several years ago, I think titled something like “Civil War Curiosities,” that covered the topic in one chapter. Don't remember if it was done in detail, however.

    Have a great holiday…


    • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2009 @ 9:21

      That's great Terry. Thanks so much for these references. I will definitely check them out. I know there is a book titled, “Civil War Curiosities” but if I remember it is more narrative driven as opposed to analytical. At the least there should be some references to follow up on. Enjoy the holidays.

      • Terry Johnston Dec 10, 2009 @ 9:37


        I just checked out HarpWeek, and sure enough, the images are there (a relief, as I based my previous post off rather old notes). The 6/7/62 issue contains several other sketches. There's a necklace of Yankee teeth (perhaps to accompany the woman's Yankee teeth head-wreath?); a cake basket fashioned out of human ribs; a fur coat formed from Yankee scalps and beards (seriously); and a door handle made from a Yankee soldier's skeletal hand.

        The article that accompanies the images in the 2/7/63 issue looks to contain a wealth of interesting information. It references a Senate committee appointed to “inquire how the rebels had treated our dead on the field of Manassas.” There's an excerpt of their report. Here are the first few sentences: “The rebels manifested a fiendish spirit in their treatment of our dead. Bodies were pried out of their graves, and Mrs. Pierce Butler, who lives near the place, said that she had seen the rebels boiling portions of the bodies of our dead in order to obtain their bones as relics. They could not wait for them to decay. She said she had seen drumsticks made of Yankee shinbones, as they called them. She had seen a skull that one of the New Orleans Artillery had, which he said he was going to send home and have mounted, and that he intended to drink brandy punch out of it the day he was married. Many of the bones have been manufactured into finger rings.”

        I don't recall ever hearing of this committee. I wonder if there's more out there about it. And exactly why / how it came into being.

        And I think you're correct about the nature of “Civil War Curiosities.” Still, as you point out, there might be a usable reference or two in there.

      • Mark Snell Dec 10, 2009 @ 10:45


        I recalled that Sullivan Ballou's grave was opened by Confederate soldiers during the winter of 1861/62. With a quick internet search, I found this interesting article:

        Time to get back to grading. I detest the end of the semester . . . .

    • Vince Slaugh Dec 10, 2009 @ 11:54

      To add to the Harper's Weekly reference, I can think of a soldier's letter I read talking about passing through former Confederate winter quarters near Bull Run (perhaps spring 1862, Pennsylvania Reserves?), who noted the use of presumably Yankee bones as winter camp decorations.

  • Kyle Allwine Dec 10, 2009 @ 8:37

    I would like to propose a theory that relates to Kevin Levin's original theory. People during this period used connotative layering in their narrative structures. The “Shape of a bomb shell, Yankee toe, a Stone Bridge, or Bull Run Walking Cane,” may all be metaphorical references to toes. For example, the “Bull Run Walking Cane” is referring to the Battle of Bull Run, where the Yankees had to walk home in defeat. In modern eras, WWII soldiers would bring back letters, diaries, helmets, and other equipment from the enemies that they found dead. In a earlier time period, the Civil War, the world view was far different than our current one. Victorian era people took photographs with their dead relatives in order to have a “Family Portrait.”

    • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2009 @ 8:57

      A body part may have functioned as the clearest symbol of victory.

      • Kyle Allwine Dec 10, 2009 @ 10:41

        Very similar to the Cabinets of Curiosity displayed in prominent homes.

  • David Rhoads Dec 10, 2009 @ 7:51

    I wonder if the phrase “Yankee toe” might be some sort of idiom describing something other than what a literal reading implies. Certainly, the final two items in the list of potential souvenirs–“a Stone Bridge” and “Bull Run Walking Cane” seem to my modern ears to be somewhat cryptic references, especially as “a Stone Bridge” would seem to be an impossible thing to “bring home” if read literally.

    Also, the sentence “I cut one out the other day, a soldier on the end of it, …” strikes me as oddly phrased if indeed “one” refers to “Yankee toe” (as written, the antecedent of “one” is not entirely clear). A more natural prhasing, again to my modern ears, would be to say “cut one off” rather than “cut one out” if Thurston is in fact writing about removing a toe from the foot of a Yankee soldier, and the “soldier on the end of it” part just sounds bizarre (or at least redundant) .

    Of course, this is just my 2 cents based on a quick textual analysis of the excerpt you quote, but like you, I have never run across any such reference before in my fairly extensive reading about the war, including a great many soldier's letters, and to be honest I guess I would rather there be some interpretation for what Thurston writes here other than its being a casual and apparently light-hearted reference to the mutilation of a corpse.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2009 @ 8:03

      You may in fact be right. Come to think of it, the date of the article doesn't place Thurston near a recently fought battle. Perhaps others can support your interpretation.

      • David Rhoads Dec 10, 2009 @ 8:24

        The more I think about it, I wonder if Thurston is talking about whittling or wood-working. He's writing to young boys and it could be he's saying he will carve them a toy and bring it home for them. And if he had recently “cut out” a cane with the figure of a soldier on the end, that would make a better gift for Mr. Cooks than would an amputated toe.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2009 @ 8:31

          Definitely a reasonable interpretation. Now that I think about it, the reference to 'cutting one out the other day' seems to connect to the walking cane. That still leaves us with the toe to figure out. Thanks again.

      • HIram Hover Dec 10, 2009 @ 9:08

        Could a “Bull Run Walking Cane” be what he cut out–after all, it's the last item in the series of things he mentions. He might have carved a the figure of a soldier at the grip end of the cane.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2009 @ 9:12

          A real blast from the past. Nice to hear from you and trust that you are doing well.

          I think you are right that the BR Walking Cane is what he cut out, but that still leaves us with a missing toe.

          • Hiram Hover Dec 10, 2009 @ 9:37

            Doing well and enjoying your blog, even during your period of reduced posting.

            Wondering if “Yankee toe” was a euphemism, I did a quick check of Google books, and did find one other literal reference to taking “Yankee toes” as souvenirs/trophies–tho like this reference here, it seems like a boast about something someone might do, rather than something he's actually done. This is from a Chicago newspaper, reprinting what it claims is a captured Confederate letter from Mississippi in the spring of 1862, as a proof of Confederate barbarism, and reads in part:

            “John promised to get some yankee toes but he has not done it yet but he got several other things that is a great deal better we could have got plenty of toes if we had tried but we concluded that we did not want any and I think that we will bave an other chance yet.”

            link (p. 28-29)

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.