I just finished reading the next book on our reading list, within the Houston Nonfiction Book Club that I am part of: This Republic of Suffering – Death and the American Civil War by Harvard President’s Drew Gilpin Faust. It is only fitting, from a timing perspective, that this post coincides with Memorial Day weekend. This book is a dire reminder of the atrocities committed during the civil war:
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States embarked on a new relationship with death, entering into a civil war that proved bloodier than any other conflict in American history, a war that would presage the slaughter of World War I’s Western Front and the global carnage of the twentieth century. The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The Civil War’s rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities. As the new southern nation struggled for survival against a wealthier and more populous enemy, its death toll reflected the disproportionate strains on its human capital. Confederate men died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one in five white southern men of military age did not survive the Civil War.
These atrocities, however, served as valuable – albeit very costly – lessons of meanings in “race, citizenship, and nationhood” that ultimately lead to re-uniting The Nation:
In the Civil War the United States, North and South, reaped what many participants described as a “harvest of death.” By the midpoint of the conflict, it seemed that in the South, “nearly every household mourns some loved one lost.” Loss became commonplace; death was no longer encountered individually; death’s threat, its proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences. As a Confederate soldier observed, death “reigned with universal sway,” ruling homes and lives, demanding attention and response. The Civil War matters to us today because it ended slavery and helped to define the meanings of freedom, citizenship, and equality. It established a newly centralized nation-state and launched it on a trajectory of economic expansion and world influence. But for those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death. At war’s end this shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite. Even in our own time this fundamentally elegiac understanding of the Civil War retains a powerful hold…A war about union, citizenship, freedom, and human dignity required that the government attend to the needs of those who had died in its service. Execution of these newly recognized responsibilities would prove an important vehicle for the expansion of federal power that characterized the transformed postwar nation. The establishment of national cemeteries and the emergence of the Civil War pension system to care for both the dead and their survivors yielded programs of a scale and reach unimaginable before the war. Death created the modern American union—not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.
This civil war reshaped the lives of the soldiers and civilians who participated within it, and for generations to come:
As they faced horrors that forced them to question their ability to cope, their commitment to the war even their faith in a righteous God, soldiers and civilians alike struggled to retain their most cherished beliefs, to make them work in the dramatically altered world that war had introduced. Americans had to identify—find, invent, create—the means and mechanisms to manage more than half a million dead: their deaths, their bodies, their loss. How they accomplished this task reshaped their individual lives—and deaths—at the same time that it redefined their nation and their culture. The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.
Below are key captions from the topics covered within the book, that highlight how the Nation dealt with the Civil War from a perspective of death/suffering, both in the immediate aftermath and how these reactions had the impact they have had on the development of the nation.
Civil War soldiers were, in fact, better prepared to die than to kill, for they lived in a culture that offered many lessons in how life should end. But these lessons had to be adapted to the dramatically changed circumstances of the Civil War. The concept of the Good Death was central to mid-nineteenth-century America, as it had long been at the core of Christian practice. Dying was an art, and the tradition ars moriendi provided rules of conduct for the moribund and their attendants since at least the fifteenth century. Despite clerical efforts, the boundary between duty to God and duty to country blurred, and dying bravely and manfully became an important part of dying well. For some soldiers it almost served to take the place of the more sacred obligations of holy living that had traditionally prepared the way for the Good Death. As the intensity of this war and the size of its death tolls mounted in the months and years that followed, vengeance came to play an ever more important role, joining principles of duty and self-defense in legitimizing violence. The desire for retribution could be almost elemental in its passion, overcoming reason and releasing the restraints of fear and moral inhibition for soldiers who had witnessed the slaughter of their comrades.
Killing was the essence of war. But it also challenged men’s most fundamental assumptions about the sanctity of their own and other human lives. Killing produced transformations that were not readily reversible: the living into the dead, most obviously, but the survivors into different men as well, men required to deny, to numb basic human feeling at costs they may have paid for decades after the war ended, as we know twentieth- and twenty-first-century soldiers from Vietnam to Iraq continue to do; men who, like James Garfield, were never quite the same again after seeing fields of slaughtered bodies destroyed by men just like themselves.
The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s speech, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station. This was a dramatic departure from the privileging of rank and station that prevailed in the treatment of the war dead and different even from the policies of the Chattanooga cemetery that would be created later in the year. The establishment of the Gettysburg cemetery marked the beginning of significant shifts in attitude and policy produced by the nation’s confrontation with Civil War slaughter…The engagement of the Union government in these matters, first made highly visible in the Gettysburg dedication ceremonies. acknowledged a new public importance for the dead. No longer simply the responsibility of their families, they, and their loss, now belonged to the nation. These men had given their lives that the nation might live; their bodies, repositories of their “selfhood” and “surviving identity,” as Harpers had put it, deserved the nation’s recognition and care. The dead, as well as the living, had claims upon a government “deriving,” as Henry Bowditch proclaimed in his plea for ambulances, “all its powers from the people.”
The commitment to individual rights that emerged as such an important principle of the northern cause made attention to particular soldiers’ fates and identities inescapable; honoring the dead became inseparable from respecting the living. But the strongest impetus for these changes was the anguish of wives, parents, siblings. and children who found undocumented, unconfirmed, and unrecognized loss intolerable…But the dimensions of Civil War loss did not yield to small-scale, individual intervention or even to entrepreneurial improvisations, and Americans turned to the emerging philanthropic bureaucracies of the Sanitary and Christian commissions and ultimately to enhanced state power and responsibility. As Union victory became all but certain in the winter and early spring of 1864-65, the demands of the unnamed dead grew more pressing. At war’s end, the United States would embark on a program of identification and reburial that redefined the nation’s obligation to its fallen, as well as the meaning of both names and bodies as enduring repositories of the human self.
In the twenty-first century Americans considering the impact of death regularly invoke the notion of “closure,” the hope and anticipation of an end to the disruption of loss. Civil War Americans expected no such relief For hundreds of thousands, the unknown fate of missing kin left a “dread void of uncertainty” that knowledge would never fill. Even for those who had detailed information or, better still, the consolation of a body and a grave, mourning had no easy or finite end. Many bereaved spent the rest of their lives waiting for the promised heavenly reunion with those who had gone before. Wives, parents, children, and siblings struggled with the new identities—widows, orphans, the childless—that now defined their lives. And they carried their losses into the acts of memory that both fed on and nurtured the widely shared grief well into the next century. But if such devastating loss could not be denied, if it was “realized” and acknowledged, it had to be explained. The Civil War’s carnage required that death be given meaning.
On Believing and Doubting:
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is perhaps the best-known example of such an explanation and justification of war’s carnage. Determined that “these dead shall not have died in vain,” Lincoln hallowed and sacralized a nation and its purposes with biblical cadences and mentioned God. In the address the dead themselves become the agents of political meaning and devotion; they act even in their silence and anonymity. Lincoln immortalized them as the enduring inspiration for an immortal nation. Unlike the “honored dead,” the Union would not “perish from the earth.” Soldiers’ deaths, like Christ’s sacrifice, become the vehicle of salvation, the means a terrestrial, political redemption. Civil War carnage transformed the mid-nineteenth century’s growing sense of religious doubt into a crisis of belief that propelled many Americans to redefine or even reject their faith in a benevolent and responsive deity. But Civil War death and devastation also planted seeds of a more profound doubt about human ability to know and to understand. In an environment in which man seemed already increasingly undifferentiated from animals, the failure of the uniquely human capacity of language represented another assault upon the foundations of the self. The Civil War compelled Americans to ask with intensified urgency, “What is Death?” and in answering to find themselves wondering why is death, what is life? And can we ever hope to know? We have continued to wonder ever since.
The reburial program represented an extraordinary departure for the federal government, an indication of the very different sort of nation that had emerged as a result of civil war. The program’s extensiveness, its cost, its location in national rather than state government, and its connection with the most personal dimensions of individuals’ lives all 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. “Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment Whitman observed, “the world has never witnessed.” Honor to the dead required the continuing defense of Confederate principles, which had been “defeated, not necessarily lost.” Only vindication of the original purposes of the conflict could ensure the meaning of so many men’s sacrifice. The Confederacy would not live on as a nation, but its dead would in some sense become its corporeal and corporate representation, not only a symbol of what once was but a summons to what must be. Neither northern nor southern participants in the commemoration and reburial movement were “simply… mourners for the dead.” Instead, they became in a very real sense the instruments of the dead’s immortality. Gathered together in mass cemeteries with graves marshaled in ranks like soldiers on the field of battle, the dead became a living reality, a force in their very presence and visibility. They were also, paradoxically, a force in their anonymity. The establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries created the Civil War Dead as a category, as a collective that represented something more and something different from the many thousands of individual deaths that it comprised. It also separated the Dead from the memories of living individuals mourning their own very particular losses. 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. The reburial movement created a constituency of the slain, insistent in both its existence and its silence, men whose very absence from American life made them a presence that could not be ignored.
The effort to count the Civil War dead was only in part about numbers and casualty reports, only in part about the duties of a nation to its citizens. Numbering the dead was also about more transcendent questions that extended beyond the state and its policies and obligations. As William Fox observed, “Every story, even a statistical one, has a moral.” The rhetoric of Civil War mortality statistics provided the language for a meditation on the deeper human meaning of the conflict and its unprecedented destructiveness, as well as for the exploration of the place of the individual in a world of mass—and increasingly mechanized—slaughter. It was about what counted in a world transformed.
But even as the Civil War brought new humanity—new attentiveness to “sentiment”—in the management of death, so too it introduced a level of carnage that foreshadowed the wars of the century to come. Even as individuals and their fates assumed new significance, so those individuals threatened to disappear into the bureaucracy and mass slaughter of modern warfare. We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world. We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists. The Civil War generation glimpsed the fear that still defines us—the sense that death is the only end. We still work to live with the riddle that they—the Civil War dead and their survivors alike—had to solve so long ago.
A highly recommended historical read, with many enduring lessons.