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.

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