Review of Death and the Civil War

I would like to take this opportunity to remind you all that American Experience on PBS will be airing a documentary by Ric Burns (younger brother of filmmaker Ken Burns) entitled Death and the Civil War on Tuesday, September 18 at 8:00PM Eastern Time. The airing is timely, as it will be just after the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with the Battle of Antietam on September 17.

This film, based upon Drew Gilpin Faust’s landmark work This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), illustrated how the Civil War changed how Americans on both sides of the conflict perceived death. Prior to the war, influenced by the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening, people believed in the concept of a “good death”, which involved dying at home, surrounded by loved ones, at peace and ready to go, and possibly and offering of last words to friends and family. This death was rooted in Christian tradition emerging in the nation through the early 19th century, where a new belief in a corporeal heaven, gained wide acceptance by the eve of war. This belief held that the deceased will gain a renewed body upon entering heaven and will reunite with loved ones who passed on before them, as well as the surviving relatives and friends when they die, with all living in everlasting peace and harmony with God.

As the war’s cruel reality shattered notions of a short, relatively bloodless conflict, Americans faced a new concept of death, as hundreds, and soon thousands, of young men were slaughtered in their prime, unable to enjoy the tranquility and dignity of a “good death”. Soldiers soon adapted to this changing circumstance and created the same conditions, in a modified fashion, for their dying comrades. The men were surrounded by photographs of loved ones, their army friends, and were able, when possible, die in relative peace. The deceased’s comrades also took on the unenviable task of notifying loved ones of the demise of the soldier, as well as arranging for shipment of effects and, if able, the body.

This documentary did an outstanding job of analyzing the harsh situation facing the nation in the early years of the war, that stands in stark contrast to how our nation treats the war dead today. Before and during the early years of the war, the federal government did not bear responsibility for identifying, accounting for, and treating its war dead. The result was that many dead were not identified initially, being buried in graves marked “Unknown”. Further, the government had no way of effective notification of casualties, with relatives relying upon the casualty reports in local papers, which could be inaccurate, creating increased anxiety among people as to the fate of their loved one serving, whether they were dead or not. Death was exacerbated by the lack of an ambulance corps, preventing early evacuation of wounded, which caused many to linger on the battlefield, dying of their wounds, without the comfort of the “good death”.

The film revolved around several themes: dying, burial, emotions around death, memorializing, identifying, and slavery. Each of these themes was well treated. Slavery was quite interesting, as the African-American experience with death was quite different through the horrors of slavery, which created a higher mortality possibility for them than whites. They created their own concept of the “good death”, which involved dying in the struggle for freedom. What was interesting to consider was that the historians involved in the film argued that contraband camps, where escaped slaves were initially housed, represented one of the first American examples of refugee camps, where conditions were quite harsh and fostered a higher mortality.

Beyond the overall content of the documentary, there were several things that stood out for me in this piece. One was the early mention of the casualty figure of 750,000, which is based upon new research that appeared in the journal Civil War History (December 2011), that is still gaining acceptance in the scholarly community and will take years to gain full recognition. The use of the figure will go far in terms of generating wider acceptance of the new calculations of just how many died in the war.

In addition to the use of new casualty figures, the story of 19th century methods of embalming and the role photographers played in bringing the savagery of death on the battlefield to Americans’ homes. Further, commemorating the dead, both through establishing national cemeteries and creating Memorial Day (on both sides of the Mason-Dixon) was an important subject. It was quite interesting to consider that without the Civil War, we likely would not have the system of national cemeteries, let alone an accounting of our war dead, at least as we know it. The story of Charleston blacks burying deceased Union POW’s from the racetrack prison camp and leading a commemoration ceremony and parade with Union forces in early May 1865 represented one of the earliest occurrences of what we know as Memorial Day.

With an all-star cast of historians and commentators, including Drew Gilpin Faust, Vincent Brown, David W. Blight, and George Will among others, Ric Burns has crafted a masterful documentary in the vein of his brother’s The Civil War. It combines the use of photographs, filmed scenes, and stirring narration, including powerful and emotional examples from the primary sources of the war, the writings of the people experiencing the war themselves. While Faust’s book is an important read and I urge everyone to read it, Death and the Civil War is a must-see documentary that illustrates the transformative effect of the war on our nation in the midst of its 150th anniversary.

Recent adventures in reenacting

The past two weekends have been quite fun for me, as I participated in Pipestone Civil War Days 2012 from August 10-12, (we didn’t get back to Grand Forks until Monday evening due to a car problem, but made the best of it) and then set up a Civil War living history display as part of East Grand Forks Heritage Days on August 18-19. I also did a display at the Hubbard County Museum in Park Rapids, Minnesota on July 29, which was fun.

For Pipestone, I fell in with the 1st South Carolina, Company H, which was my one time this season doing a Confederate impression. It was a good time seeing old friends and we took in a concert with the 97th Regimental String Band, who played period music.  The battles were good, though we surrendered on the second day. I also experienced the fun of firing my musket in damp conditions, resulting in two incidences of unintentionally firing a double charge, as the first charge did not discharge, making the kick and flash quite noticeable. Here are some pictures from Pipestone. The best part of the weekend was the chance to have a tintype made of me using a period photograph by Dave Rambow, who I have met at several other events.

Heritage Days was good this year, as we had a bigger display and had Den Bolda and Mike Larson from Fargo join us on Sunday. Saturday, Joe, Stuart, Ethan Brazee (who was trying out reenacting for the first time), and I met several people and we figured almost 150 stopped by our display that day. We may have gained some new recruits. It was a great time and thanks to Drs. Doug and Laura Munski for providing some of the pictures on both days.

Here are the photos from all the events.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Presents Death and the Civil War

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Presents Death and the Civil War

Premieres Tuesday, September 18, 2012

8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS

From acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns, Death and the Civil War explores an essential but largely overlooked aspect of the most pivotal event in American history: the transformation of the nation by the death of an estimated 750,000 men – nearly two and a half percent of the population – in four dark and searing years from 1861 to 1865. With the coming of the Civil War, and the staggering and completely unprecedented casualties it ushered in, death entered the experience of the American people as it never had before – on a scale and in a manner no one had ever imagined possible, and under circumstances for which the nation would prove completely unprepared. The impact would permanently alter the character of the republic, the culture of the government and the psyche of the American people – down to this day.

“Transpose the percentage of dead that mid-19th-century America faced into our own time – seven million dead, if we had the same percentage,” says author Drew Gilpin Faust, on whose groundbreaking book, This Republic of Suffering, the film is based. “What would we as a nation today be like if we faced the loss of seven million individuals?”

Death and the Civil War tracks the increasingly lethal arc of the war, from the bloodless opening in 1861, through the chaos of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and the unspeakable carnage of 1864 – down through the struggle, in the aftermath of the war, to cope with an American landscape littered with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many unburied, most unidentified. The work of contending with death on this scale would propel extraordinary changes in the inner and outer life of all Americans – posing challenges for which there were no ready answers when the war began – challenges that called forth remarkable and eventually heroic efforts on the part of individuals, groups and the government – as Americans worked to improvise new solutions, new institutions, new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale.

Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries in America. No provisions for identifying the dead, or for notifying next of kin, or for providing aid to the suffering families of dead veterans. No federal relief organizations, no effective ambulance corps, no adequate federal hospitals, no federal provisions for burying the dead. No Arlington Cemetery. No Memorial Day. Death and the Civil War will premiere on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 from 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam – to this day, the single bloodiest day in American history.

RIC BURNS (Producer/Director)

Ric Burns is best known for his acclaimed series New York: A Documentary Film, a sweeping chronicle of the city’s history, which garnered several honors, including two Emmy Awards and an Alfred I. DuPont- Columbia Award. Burns’ career began with the celebrated series The Civil War, which he produced with his brother, Ken Burns, and co-wrote with Geoffrey C. Ward. In 1991, Ric founded Steeplechase Films and has since written and directed a number of award winning films for PBS, including Coney Island, The Donner Party, The Way West, Eugene O’Neill, and Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. Most recently, for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, Burns wrote, produced, and co-directed Tecumseh’s Vision, part two of the groundbreaking five-part miniseries We Shall Remain, and a film about the history of the whaling industry,

Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. A graduate of Columbia University and Cambridge University, Burns lives in New York City.

DREW GILPIN FAUST (Author, This Republic of Suffering) took office as Harvard University’s 28th president on July 1, 2007. A historian of the U.S. Civil War and the American South, Faust is also the Lincoln Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She previously served as founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (2001-2007). Before coming to Radcliffe, Faust was the Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of six books, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (January, 2008), which was awarded the 2009 Bancroft Prize, the New-York Historical Society 2009 American History Book Prize, and recognized by The New York Times as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2008.” Faust’s honors include awards in 1982 and 1996 for distinguished teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994 and the American Philosophical Society in 2004. She received her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr in 1968, magna cum laude with honors in history, and master’s (1971) and doctoral (1975) degrees in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania.

About AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

Television’s most-watched history series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been hailed as “peerless” (Wall Street Journal), “the most consistently enriching program on television” (Chicago Tribune), and “a beacon of intelligence and purpose” (Houston Chronicle). On air and online, the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 14 George Foster Peabody Awards, four DuPont-Columbia Awards, and 30 Emmy Awards, including, most recently, Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking for Freedom Riders. Exclusive corporate funding for American Experience is provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance. Major funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Major funding for Death and the Civil War provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. Additional Funding provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Dedicated To Strengthening America’s Future Through Education; the Nordblom Family Foundation and the Gretchen Stone Cook Charitable Foundation, members of the Documentary Investment Group; and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Television

Viewers. American Experience is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.

Publicity Contacts:

CaraMar Publicity

Mary Lugo   770-623-8190  lugo@negia.net

Cara White  843-881-1480  cara.white@mac.com

Abbe Harris 908-233-7990  abbe@caramar.net

For further info and photos visit http://www.pbs.org/pressroom

Material culture and Civil War soldiers

In light of Den Bolda’s great inaugural post on Union uniform coats, I thought I would share a paper I wrote for a class I took on material culture a couple years ago that dealt with Civil War soldiers. Being involved in reenacting since then, I have a greater appreciation for the objects and materials that constituted a soldier’s life and person during the war. On Friday, I head to Fort Sisseton for their history festival, so I will be absent from the blog for the weekend, but will post soon after I return on the fun of the weekend.

Yankee Uniforms

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Civil War soldiers are commonly thought to wear blue or gray, for North and South; however that was not always the case, especially in the beginning of the war.  Although many Northern militia units wore gray uniforms early in the war, a variety of uniforms were issued by federal and state governments.  Generally, the federal government issued three standard types of uniform jackets.  Those would be the frock coat, shell jacket, and the sack coat.  There are too many exceptions to include in this brief introduction, so please know that the information provided here is very basic.  This thread will cover a fraction of the uniforms worn by Union soldiers.

The federal frock coat was primarily issued to soldiers in the infantry and heavy artillery.  The frock coat has nine buttons down the front, two on the back and two on each sleeve. They had piping on the collar and cuffs which identified the soldier’s job.  Red piping meant that the soldier was in the artillery, while light blue piping (shown below)  meant that the soldier was in the infantry.  The frock coat was the fanciest coat that a Union soldier might be issued.  It was considered to be a dress or parade jacket.  The frock coat was quilted on the front inside lining.  The quilting added weight and bulk to add to the soldier’s prestige.  Unfortunately, it also added heat on hot Southern days.  It had one inside pocket and two pockets in the tail.

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The shell jacket was usually issued to mounted troops, or troops who rode horses.  This meant that cavalry and artillery soldiers wore this.  Just like the frock coat, it had nine buttons and had trim that identified the soldier’s occupation.  The soldier was an artilleryman if the shell jacket had red piping, but the trim would be yellow if he was a cavalry trooper .  These jackets were shorter than the frock coat because they were more comfortable to wear when riding a horse.  The jacket was quilted on the inside front lining.  Also, the shell jacket had two small “pillows” on the back which are very useful for keeping the army service belt in place!  It had one inside pocket.

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The final jacket mentioned above is the sack coat.  This jacket was made to be a fatigue blouse, or a work jacket.  It was not glamorous in any way.  It was shapeless and made of thin material.  Although almost all Union jackets were made of heavy wool, the sack coat was made of much lighter wool.  This jacket was supposed to be used by the troops when they were on fatigue duty.  By the end of the war the sack coat was used by Union infantry, cavalry, and artillery on all occasions.  It became the standard Union army coat.  The sack coat did not have any kind of color trim and only used four buttons.  It was usually lined with wool flannel or cotton.  It had one inside pocket.

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One addition that I would like to mention is the state jacket.  Many Northern states produced uniforms at their own expense.  The state jackets varied in design from state to state but they were all very similar.  Many people identify the state jacket with New York, but Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and other states also distributed these jackets.  Although they were very common earlier in the war, photographic evidence has shown several examples in service later on.  State jackets did not have piping but were usually of high quality.  They were made short like a shell jacket, so that they could be issued to mounted and foot soldiers indiscriminately.  They were almost always quilted and lined with one inside pocket.  State jackets sometimes had shoulder straps.  Image

Fun at Fort Abercrombie

To aid the Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, Stuart, Joe, and I headed down on Saturday to do some living history for the day. We met the new supervisor, Thomas Casler, who is quite enthusiastic and interested in reenacting as well. We put out a bit of equipment and set ourselves up in the guard-house. Though the day started slow and rainy, it eventually picked up. We did pass the time as soldiers might have (although illegally) by playing cards (our pot was coffee beans). About thirty people came out throughout the day, including one couple who traveled all the way from Philadelphia, coming to North Dakota to visit forts and the Badlands.

Several youngsters came with their parents and we demonstrated the sequence for firing the weapons and talked about our gear. We also raised and lowered the flag over the post. Overall, it was a good day, despite the iffy weather, and we had a good time helping them commemorate Memorial Weekend. Our next trip will be to historic Fort Sisseton in South Dakota to take part in their annual historic festival. Below are some pictures (courtesy of Thomas Casler) from our day at Abercrombie.

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Bringing the Civil War to Ellen Hopkins Elementary School

On Wednesday, May 16, members of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry (Joe Camisa, Stuart Lawrence, Den Bolda, and I), also known as the Fort Abercrombie Garrison, brought some of our gear and presented on the Civil War to an eager group of fifth grade students at Ellen Hopkins Elementary School in Moorhead, MN. Special thanks to Mrs. Cheri Puetz for allowing us the opportunity to come and talk with her students. It was a beautiful day and we were situated in the shade. We set up a tent, as well as our colors, and a small ground cloth with some soldier equipment on display. We also dressed and wore some of our gear. It was a lot of fun and we had kids from the lower grades coming up to us and asking us questions for an hour after school let out, which was really awesome. They were really excited by our stuff and if we did not need to return to Grand Forks so soon, we would have stayed longer. There were some good questions posed and the students came away with a great introduction to their study on the war. Below are photos taken from that day, courtesy of Mrs. Puetz.

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