Skip to main content.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

“We shall never any of us be the same as we have been.”
Lucy Beck

If you’ve paid attention to Touch the Elbow for any length of time then you know I've spent a lot of time writing about dead people and visits to graves. I suppose that anyone who deals with any facet of the Civil War, from the historian, to the author, to the blogger, to the reenactor, to those who have Regimental Web sites, to those who work in National Battlefield parks, are all, in part, in league with the dead. I was trying to do a count in my head as to the number of National Cemeteries I’ve visited where Civil War dead are buried and came up with 16. I probably missed one or two along the way. So, I’ll give you one guess as to what I thought of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. Suffice it to say, this is my type of book. Judging from some other reviews I’ve read it’s clearly not everyone’s proverbial cup of tea.

This book became very personalized for me. There was something in every chapter that I could relate to from the research we’ve completed on the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, from the concept of the “good death” Gilpin writes about in the first chapter, to “shared national loss” and the “dimension of the war’s sacrifice” discussed in the final chapter, to the laboring entailed in identifying the seemingly unidentifiable which comprises the bulk of the fourth chapter.

Like no other war before or since, the number of dead in the Civil War was then, as now, simply staggering. The accepted number of Union deaths is 360,222, while the Confederate dead is estimated at 258,000. Translate that to an equivalent percentage of the current population of the United States and it equals six million. Try visualizing that number and it becomes almost impossible, until you think about the entire state of Massachusetts being depopulated.

Americans didn’t purposely set out to slaughter Americans in volume. A little bloodletting perhaps, in another dandy little war with one side or the other crying “Uncle” within ninety days or less, fought by generals who embraced Winfield Scott’s philosophy that your army only took as many casualties as was absolutely necessary to gain your objective. George B. McClellan and Joseph Johnston understood that and also understood you didn’t involve civilians. By war’s end the gloves were off and anything and everything went, with men killing men with the same regard they held for a pig, perhaps less because they could at least eat a pig.

In the beginning, when there was less carnage, there was time for comrades or nurses to write letters to surviving family members describing the deceased’s final moments among the living. Invariably the writer would follow a Protestant tradition of ars moriendi that dated from the 1600’s by attesting to the decedent’s preparedness for death. In the absence of family gathered around a death bed, those writing sought to provide consolation to the reader, whether it was to reassure the family that peace had been made with God or that their father, son, or brother had died as a man, nobly, and for a cause they believed in.

In 1860 four times as many Americans attended Sunday church services as voted in the Presidential election. Of those forty per cent leaned toward evangelical worship. Clerics had to convey to those seated in pews and camps that killing in a “just war,” was acceptable to God. In the aftermath of battle those camps were filled with men who wrestled with lifelong religious teachings and the realization they had violated the Fifth Commandment. As the scale of the battles grew, dwarfing earlier actions at First Bull Run and Big Bethel, conscience took a back seat. Men became inured to the slaughter, became more and more like automatons, while more and more took pleasure in the killing. For African-Americans the war helped them to establish their manhood and find their “humanity through killing.”

When the numbers were small greater care was extended to the dead through burials in marked graves or by embalming and shipping the bodies home. All had a fear of burial far from hearth and home. When the numbers grew corpses were left exposed for days on the battlefield. Long trenches replaced individual graves. More and more the responsibility for burial fell to those who held the ground. Kindness and respect did not rule. Coffinless bodies laid head to heel covered by a foot of earth, not even a blanket for a shroud, bodies that would rise to the surface when the first good rainstorm swept through. One example Gilpin Faust cites regarding callous disregard for the enemy's dead is that of 50 Confederates who were simply thrown down a well.

When the numbers grew there were still instances of comrades locating another’s body and providing it with a decent burial, as well as efforts to return soldiers home. Companies and regiments literally passed the hat seeking to raise funds for that purpose. Pennsylvania was the first government entity to step forward and assume responsibility for its fallen when it offered to pay transportation costs home for its Gettysburg dead. Where governments took a hands off approach embalmers stepped in the meet the desire of grieving families to have their loved ones buried in familiar soil. Offering services such as battlefield recovery and refrigerated coffins their work was often shoddy and fees were suggestive of extortion.

More than forty per cent of the Union and an even greater percentage of the Confederate dead are classified as unknown. Record keeping by the opposing armies was shoddy at best. Chaplains had been assigned the duty of compiling lists of the dead, however fewer than half of the Confederate regiments had one assigned, while forty per cent of Union regiments lacked one. Newspapers filled the void and for many civilians their first notification was from those sources. Both the Christian and Sanitary Commissions later took on the role of notification, identification of burial sites, and requests for information from relatives. By 1864 the U.S. Congress began to recognize it’s obligation to its citizen soldiers and, even though the Act was later abandoned, a new organization was formed for the handling of battle casualties including grave registration. The seeds were planted then that the government had an obligation to record the names and burial sites of those killed. In the Post-Civil War era the government would embark on an enormous project involving reinternment and identification, the forerunner to the current military edict “leave no comrade behind” and its continuing efforts to identify and recover bodies in both Korea and Southeast Asia.

Ninety days turned to a year, a year to two, two to three, and on into a fourth. The icy hand of the God of War north and south of the Mason-Dixon line had touched virtually every family. People sought to make sense of the numbing and the senseless, to find purpose in this wide sweep of death. Who’s side was God on? Both sides claimed God’s beneficence and providence. Carnage and suffering could only be explained by God’s offer of something more beatific in a world after a world. Old interpretations of heaven gave way to new visions of an afterlife, where limbless men became whole again, where an ultimate reunion of family awaited those who believed. Eternal sunshine and pastures of plenty were the promise. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps would author a novel in 1868, The Gates Ajar, that would in its 55 reprints offer this ideal of heaven, a heaven populated by trees, mountains, books, pianos, and fully preserved individuals.

Civil War death needed to be “purposeful.” Those surviving demanded it, or at the least needed it to hold meaning. Lincoln himself dwelt on it, looked to whatever God he embraced and came to the realization that the Almighty was avenging the wrongs of slavery, seeking sacrifice and atonement through the treadmill of slaughter. The people of the South believed they were being subjected to a “profound test of faith,” that redemption could only be achieved through “suffering and sacrifice.”

When surrender came Southerners came to a sad realization that their sacrifices were purposeless. While they flocked to and churches underwent enormous growth in the post-war era it was the theory of the Lost Cause that gave them purpose and provided answers while God remained silent.

The American cemeteries in Normandy and the vast majority of those laid to rest at Arlington and other national cemeteries trace this recognition of a nation grateful for sacrifice to a Federal government that made a monumental and concerted effort after peace was restored in 1865 to identify and rebury its dead. By 1871 303,356 Union soldiers were buried in 74 national cemeteries with, and this in an era preceding dog tags, an astounding 54 per cent identified by name.

Counting the dead gave grasp to the magnitude of the nation’s sorrow. Naming “individualized the dead…The two impulses served opposite yet co-existing needs, marking the paradox inherent in coming to terms with Civil War death.”


No comments yet

Add Comment