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Dark Victories

Americans on the eve of the Civil War were no strangers to death. Life expectancy at birth was forty years, largely because of an infant and child mortality rate nearly ten times as great as today. Most parents had buried at least one child; few young people reached adulthood without the loss of siblings or cousins. Many husbands grieved for wives who had died in childbirth. Fearful epidemics of cholera, yellow fever, and other diseases periodically carried off thousands in the antebellum era. The scourge of “consumption”—tuberculosis—blighted the existence of many in middle age as well as those who had managed to live beyond it.

The ever-present reality or prospect of death created what the historian Mark Schantz calls a “culture of death” to help Americans cope with that reality. No best-selling novel was complete without deathbed scenes that were often deeply sentimental and accompanied by assurances that Christian redemption would transport the departed to heaven. The death of Little Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most famous example of this genre.

Poetry seemed even more obsessed with the poignancy of death. “Gathering momentum after the publication of William Cullen Bryant’s classic work ‘Thanatopsis’ in 1821,” writes Schantz, “the subject of death became the coin of the realm in the antebellum poetic imagination.” Emily Dickinson “accorded death a prominent place” in hundreds of her poems, including the opening lines in one of her most famous: “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me.” The cemetery movement that followed the successful model of Mount Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston turned traditional graveyards into beautifully landscaped parks where mourners and visitors could contemplate the bliss of eternity. If modern America is, as many critics have noted, “a death-denying culture” that tries to hide the inconvenient fact of dying, according to Schantz, “nineteenth-century America was a death-embracing culture.”

Drew Gilpin Faust would not go that far, although in This Republic of Suffering she contrasts the preoccupation of antebellum Americans with death to our discomfort with the subject today. But while Schantz believes that “antebellum Americans could face death with resignation and even joy because they carried in their hearts and heads a comforting and compelling vision of eternal life,” Faust portrays death, however frequent, as a heart-wrenching experience for both the dying and their surviving loved ones. If there was a “culture of death,” it consisted of rituals to cushion the numbing shock of loss. Faust labels the most important ritual “the concept of the Good Death.” Such a death occurred at home in bed surrounded by family and friends who provided every comfort during the last hours of life. The dying person spoke last words assuring everyone that she or he was ready to depart in peace and to meet them again in the afterlife where the strife and hardships of earthly toil were unknown. “By the 1860s,” Faust writes, “many elements of the Good Death” had been largely “separated from their explicitly theological roots.” Assumptions about “the way to die” had “spread beyond formal religion to become a part of more general systems of belief held across the nation about life’s meaning and life’s appropriate end.”

Recently inaugurated as president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust is the author of a half-dozen important books and has been for thirty years a leading cultural historian of the antebellum South and the Confederacy. This Republic of Suffering is sure to attract more attention than Mark Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country, which is his second book. The latter deserves our attention, however, for it offers some incisive insights that complement those of Faust. Both books focus on the same subject, as indicated by their subtitles. The differences between them are sometimes distinct and sometimes subtle. Together these books offer a richer understanding of the impact on American society of widespread death during the Civil War than either does alone.

One difference between them concerns the theme expressed by Schantz’s title. His most important chapter analyzes the central tenet of the American culture of death: a widespread belief that “a heavenly eternity of transcendent beauty awaited them beyond the grave.” For many Americans this resurrection would include bodies as well as souls; they would literally be able to recognize and be recognized by their friends and relatives in the next world. “That those who fought the Civil War marched off to battle with robust notions of the literal bodily restoration planted firmly in their cultural universe,” writes Schantz, “is a matter of deep significance.” He does not mean to suggest that soldiers deliberately courted a martyr’s death and immediate ascension to heaven as, for example, a Muslim suicide bomber is said to do. Rather, the literal belief in eternal life “may help to explain how and why Americans on all sides were able to endure such a grisly conflict.”

Schantz is on to something important here. In my own research on the beliefs and motivations of Civil War soldiers, I have also encountered the conviction that “religion is what makes brave soldiers.” A Mississippi private stated that “Christians make the best soldiers, as they would not fear the consequences after death as others would.” Some soldiers expressed sentiments that come close to justifying Schantz’s assertion that Americans could face death with resignation and even joy. An Illinois cavalryman wrote to his wife that death was merely “the destruction of a gross, material body…. A soldier’s death is not a fate to be avoided, but rather almost to be gloried in,” while a Georgia officer found “something solemn, mysterious, sublime at the thought of entering into eternity.”*

Faust also discusses the belief in salvation as a factor in nerving soldiers to face death with equanimity and as a source of comfort to their families. She cites the funeral sermon for a Massachusetts officer killed at Petersburg, in which the clergyman defined death as “the middle point between two lives.” But she seems inclined at times to view this conviction as the equivalent of grasping at straws—or, to change the metaphor, of whistling past the graveyard. Instead of a deeply held belief, it was for many soldiers and their families, she writes, the product of “distress and desire” to make tolerable the intolerable prospect of death. She also suggests the provocative idea that the vision of death as the middle point between two lives was a nineteenth-century version of a death-denying culture.

The same Christian theology that offered the solace of salvation also included the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” “How can a soldier be a Christian?” asked an Indiana officer whose regiment saw a great deal of action. “Read all Christ’s teaching, and then tell me whether one engaged in maiming and butchering mencan be saved under the Gospel.” He had not resolved this question when he was killed at the Battle of Resaca in Georgia in May 1864. Faust discovered that many Civil War soldiers found it harder to learn to kill than to face the possibility of death. Although few soldiers had read Saint Augustine or Hugo Grotius on the theory of “just war,” they eventually developed their own version of this doctrine as applied to “Yankee vandals” or “Rebel traitors.” A variety of beliefs and attitudes helped soldiers to overcome the sixth commandment, among them ideas of duty and self-defense (kill or be killed), a desire for revenge against a demonized enemy who had killed their comrades, the murderous hatred of Confederate soldiers toward black Union soldiers, and the latter’s retaliation for the massacres of captured black soldiers by frenzied Confederates. Veteran soldiers became hardened to death. They were, in Faust’s words, “never quite the same again after seeing fields of slaughtered bodies destroyed by men just like themselves.”

Both Schantz and Faust maintain that however omnipresent death had been before 1861, the Civil War experience was unique. Some 620,000 soldiers died in the war. And this is surely an undercount, for the figure of 258,000 Confederate war dead is derived from incomplete data and does not include the unknown (and unknowable) number of Southern civilian deaths indirectly caused by the ravages of disease, exposure, malnutrition, and other inevitable disruptions of a war that was fought mostly in the South and destroyed much of the Southern infrastructure. But even if we accept the most conservative estimate of 620,000 dead, that figure was 2 percent of the American population in 1861. The same percentage would translate into more than six million dead in the United States today.

Whether or not Americans possessed a “culture of death” in 1861, they were totally unprepared for mortality on this scale. Faust portrays the shock of death in the war as a matter of quality as well as quantity. A “Good Death” was impossible for soldiers shot through the head or lungs or guts and dying in agony in no man’s land between the lines far from home, or suffering from typhoid fever or dysentery in an army hospital hundreds of miles from loved ones, and buried unceremoniously in an often anonymous grave. “Sudden death represented a profound threat to fundamental assumptions about the correct way to die,” Faust points out. “One of the Civil War’s greatest horrors was that it denied so many soldiers” the chance for a Good Death “by killing them suddenly, obliterating them on the battlefield and depriving them of the chance for the life-defining deathbed experience.”

Soldiers and civilians did what they could to create a semblance of the Good Death. Some soldiers wrote anticipatory letters home before going into battle or while lying dangerously wounded or ill. These letters substituted for last words at home. They assured loved ones of a readiness to die and to meet them in the next world. Chaplains and hospital nurses sometimes wrote such letters for the dying. Neither the Union nor Confederate armies had an official procedure for notifying next of kin of soldier deaths. This task fell to company officers or chaplains or army buddies, but the process was hit or miss. Mothers or wives or fathers at home often endured weeks of harrowing uncertainty about the fate of their son or husband, who might have been reported in the newspaper casualty lists as “dangerously wounded” or “missing.” In many cases that uncertainty lasted forever. Neither army provided soldiers with identity tags. Approximately half of the 620,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War were buried in graves—sometimes mass graves—without identification.

Walking through the Civil War section of a National or Confederate military cemetery today and reading all of the stones marked “Unknown” gives one only a faint idea of the pain suffered by families who never saw the body of their soldier son or husband, never had an opportunity to say goodbye, could never visit his grave. “Death without dignity, without decency, without identity imperiled the meaning of the life that preceded it,” writes Faust. “Americans had not just lost the dead; they had lost their own lives as they had understood them before the war.”

Efforts to counter this dismal fate made some progress during the war, especially in the North. The United States Sanitary Commission, the Christian Commission, and other private organizations worked with the army to identify deceased soldiers, notify their families, and in some cases to arrange for their shipment home where families could have at least the comfort of burial in local cemeteries and a marker to honor their sacrifice. The practice of embalming, rare in the United States before the Civil War, expanded greatly during the war and laid the foundations for a funeral “industry” after it. Embalming and coffins for shipment of bodies were expensive, however, and those whose remains received this treatment were mostly officers. But not entirely: of the 5,100 Union soldiers killed or mortally wounded at Gettysburg, an estimated 1,500 were interred or reinterred in their hometown cemeteries. Gettysburg, of course, was closer to Northern communities than any other major battlefield.

The rest of the Union dead at Gettysburg were buried in the soldiers’ cemetery there, which provided a model for the government’s principal effort to honor the memories of those who gave their lives for the republic and to provide at least some closure and comfort for their families. Although the Northern states whose men had fought at Gettysburg took the initiative in establishing that cemetery, the national government assumed responsibility for its maintenance and became the owner of the eventual total of seventy-four national military cemeteries (including Gettysburg) that were the final resting place for 303,536 Union war dead (and thousands of veterans of later wars as well).

As early as 1862 the US Congress enacted legislation authorizing the president to purchase land “to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” Three such cemeteries in addition to Gettysburg were established during the war. But the greatest effort to find, identify, and reinter Union soldiers took place during the half-dozen years after the war, with generous appropriations authorized by the National Cemeteries Act of 1867. This undertaking was virtually unprecedented; except for “Republican Athens,” noted a Northern journalist in 1866, “no people or nation had ever designated a burial place for the common soldier.”

This postwar program did something to atone for the government’s haphazard record-keeping and treatment of the dead during the war’s early years. Even though nearly half of those 303,536 Union soldiers in national cemeteries remained “Unknown,” the reinterment program identified tens of thousands and gave comfort, Faust writes, to many families even of the unknown who could believe that their loved ones had been buried with dignity and marked with a stone—key elements in the ideal of a Good Death. “Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment,” wrote the army officer principally responsible for the reinterment project, “the world has never witnessed.” Faust agrees. “The reburial program represented an extraordinary departure for the federal government,” she maintains, “an indication of the very different sort of nation that had emerged as a result of civil war.” It “would have been unimaginable before the war created its legions of dead, a constituency of the slain and their mourners, who would change the very definition of the nation and its obligations.”

What of the more than 258,000 Confederate war dead and their constituency of mourners? The United States obviously could not honor those soldiers who fought against their country. During the war many Confederate dead were buried in local cemeteries near where they fell—Oakwood and Hollywood cemeteries in Richmond, Blanford Cemetery in Petersburg, and others around the South. But scores of thousands remained in unmarked graves from Pennsylvania to Louisiana. Southern women formed Confederate Ladies Memorial Associations after the war to locate battlefield and hospital burial sites and reinter the remains of Southern soldiers in marked graves at Confederate cemeteries, whose memorials and monuments matched those in national military cemeteries.

These Civil War cemeteries, writes Faust, “were unlike any graveyards that Americans had ever seen.” They “were not clusters of family tombstones in churchyards, nor garden cemeteries symbolizing the reunion of man with nature.” Rather they “contained ordered row after row of humble identical markers, hundreds of thousands of men, known and unknown, who represented not so much the sorrow or particularity of a lost loved one as the enormous and all but unfathomable cost of the war.”

Many of the 57,000 Union dead not buried in national cemeteries and Southern soldiers not interred in designated Confederate burial grounds were placed in civilian cemeteries or family graveyards, often with elaborate tombstones that honored their sacrifices. Mark Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country analyzes the funerary art that was an important part of the American culture of death. One of the most popular Currier and Ives lithographs was The Soldier’s Grave, which showed a female mourner weeping next to a large gravestone commemorating “a brave and gallant soldier and a true patriot.” These lithographs “created imaginary soldier’s graves for those tens of thousands of Union troops who died many miles from their homes,” Schantz writes. “In creating funerals for the mind and for the spirit,” the lithographs “sustained Americans as they confronted loss of life on a mass scale.”

For both Schantz and Faust, this loss of life and the cultural institutions Americans constructed to cope with it are the most enduring legacy of the Civil War. The “horribly luminous” reality of 620,000 war dead, writes Schantz, “worked profound transformations on American society.” For Faust, “death created the modern American union.” The dying and killing “transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering.” The “meaning of the war had come to inhere in its cost…. The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come.”

My discomfort with this conclusion does not stem solely from its apparent morbidity. Surely the legacy of the Civil War went beyond its cost in human lives. Both authors acknowledge that the war preserved the United States as one nation and, in Faust’s words, “launched it on a trajectory of economic expansion and world influence.” It also “ended slavery and helped to define the meanings of freedom, citizenship, and equality.” But somehow these achievements seem to pale before the real “texture of the experience, its warp and woof …the presence of death.”

In my view, however, the meaning of the war inhered at least as much in its results as in its cost. Faust makes a strong case that the creation of national cemeteries with their constituency of mourners and the slain changed “the very definition of the nation and its obligations.” But I think that the Thirteenth to Fifteenth Amendments, which defined freedom, citizenship, and equality, were even more nationalizing and transformative. Despite the war’s “harvest of death,” almost four times more soldiers survived than died. Their veterans’ reunions well into the twentieth century commemorated the sacrifices of comrades who had given their lives in the war, to be sure, but they also celebrated the achievements of the living.

To be fair, however, we must grant the authors their topic. They chose to write about that harvest of death, and, drawing on extensive research, they have done so with insight and sensitivity—even eloquence. If they have not changed our understanding of the war’s meaning, they have certainly deepened that understanding.

  1. *

    James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 68–69.

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