Posted by: ushistoryfiles | September 19, 2012

Death and the Civil War

Last night (October 18) PBS’ American Experience: Death and the Civil War premiered.  For those of you who missed it like I did you can watch it here.  While I did not watch the episode last night, a few of years ago (2009 I think) I did read and write a review of Drew Gilpin Faust’s, This Republic of Suffering, which I am posting below.

Drew Gilpin Faust. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A Knopf. 2008. xviii + 346 pp.


In the vast body of Civil War literature the subject of death has received scant attention.  While death is present in casualties cited in battle histories, or at the culmination of biographies, the subject itself has not been covered.  In a departure away from her studies of the South, Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, has examined this uncomfortable topic in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.  The only other work to touch upon the subject, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death by Mark S Schantz, focuses on the Antebellum view of death and not on the country’s attempt to understand the meaning behind those killed fighting the Civil War.


The American Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in American history, with the number of Americans who died more than the fatalities of America’s other wars combined through the Korean conflict.  These numbers do not include civilian casualties from disease and starvation as there was no reporting mechanism for civilian fatalities.  The number of fatalities, about 620,000, represents roughly two percent of the population of the United States at that time.


Human beings are not simply “passive victims of death”, instead, Faust argues, humans interact with death in a variety of ways.  Labeling this interaction “the work of death” Faust goes on to examine how death on such a massive scale as was seen in the Civil War changed society, culture and politics.  Such massive numbers of Americans dying at such a young age challenged prewar beliefs on how life should end.


Antebellum America was no stranger to death.  In a concept that became known as the Good Death, Americans believed that death was supposed to come at home surrounded by family.  One was to be “saved” or assured of salvation, have some “final words” of acceptance, and give up one’s soul willingly.  These fifteenth century Christian beliefs had, by the nineteenth century, made their way into the general cultural belief about death.


The American Civil War would challenge these beliefs as Americans died on battlefields far away from home, often in the midst of strangers or the pseudo-family of comrades-in-arms, and in some cases without the ability to pass on “final words” to family members and friends.  Faust points out that one huge concern that weighed on the national conscious of that of closure.  Families went to great lengths to get final confirmation of the demise of their loved one.  Those with the means took painstaking measures and expenses to bring bodies home.  Some wrote repeated letters to government, military, and Christian Commission officials seeking information.  Unfortunately, estimates are that about forty percent of fatalities went into graves marked “unknown”.  Such desire for information led to the rise of scrupulous and unscrupulous individuals who hired themselves out to search military camps and hospitals for information on missing soldiers.


New businesses also sprung up as Americans tried to cope with the mounting casualties.  Faust discusses the changes in coffin construction, as well as regulations for sanitary shipment of bodies.  The sheer number of bodies that families wanted shipped home from battlefield or hospital created a booming business for companies like the Adams Express Company and the Southern Express.  Refrigerated and airtight coffins, embalming, and other methods were used to try to preserve the corpse.  Faust shows that a whole industry rises in an attempt to preserve the notion of the “Good Death”.  Families desired to see deceased loved ones in as lifelike a state as possible as this softened the blow of the reality of death.


On the battlefield the soldiers themselves asked some basic questions about death.  Many wondered why they were the one to survive while friends and comrades lost their lives.  With the increased force of Civil War weaponry soldiers saw fellow soldiers maimed beyond recognition and had to overcome Christian prohibition against killing.  Unlike modern wars, the Civil War was a more “personal” war with enemies engaging in combat in relatively close quarters.  Soldiers on both sides could see the result of their handiwork, and easily imagine themselves a causality.


Faust does a good job of showing us a society trying to cope with death on such a grand scale.  From books like The Gates Ajar, to sermons, to mourning fashion, Faust shows how Americans tried to answer some basic questions about death.  Not wanting death to be quite so final, and not accepting of earlier conceptions of a cold, impersonal heaven some turned to Robert Patterson’s Visions of Heaven for the Life on Earth where heaven was “home” and love and friendship continued on the “other side”.  Others, not wanting to wait, became followers of a growing spiritualist movement.  In the 1860s an item called a planchette (a pre-Ouija board) became a popular item and found its way into many homes.


Death not only needed to be explained on an individual level it also needed to be examined on a national level as well.  Faust explains that as the war progressed this was easier for the North than for the South.  When the war ended northerners could put the dead at the center as the cost of preserving the nation.  By contrast with the defeat of the Confederacy, white southerners searched hard to find meaning in their war dead.  Some struggled with their faith in God, while others set aside their doubts and continued strong in their faith.  The rise of the myth of the Lost Cause and the celebration of Confederate memory were an attempt to assign meaning to the Confederate casualties.


Faust closes the book with a brief chapter on the attempt to account for the Civil War dead.  This was impossible to complete with any type of real accuracy considering the sketchiness of the records.  But for Faust the importance is not in the accuracy, it is in the attempt.  According to Faust, this attempt by a reunited nation was not just about the duty of the government to its citizens, but a way to examine the deeper meaning of the conflict.  She argues that it was an attempt to seek meaning for the individual in the midst of mass warfare.  For the post Civil war American it was the individual that mattered.  As the numbers were compiled there was an inherent struggle to preserve the individual in the midst of the ever growing numbers of Civil War dead.


Overall, This Republic of Suffering, does offer an unseen insight into death as it relates to the Civil War.  Faust not only examines soldiers but civilians who were causalities of the war, and families’ reactions.  Throughout the book she shows death as an interactive process during the war years.  She marks fundamental changes in how Americans viewed death and the afterlife, as well as how Americans expressed their discomfort with death through poetry and fiction.  This Republic of Suffering is an excellent read for anyone interested on how Americans sought to cope with the immense casualties brought on by the Civil War.

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