The Living and the Dead

September 21st, 2012

Earlier this week, PBS premiered a new documentary film on the Civil War: “Death and the Civil War.” Produced by Ric Burns (the brother of Ken Burns), the documentary explores just how overwhelming the death toll of the Civil War was, in which an estimated 750,000 Americans were killed. Reviewing the film for the New York Times, Neil Genzlinger writes:

“Death and the Civil War” isn’t just a chronicle of how the nation eventually got its act together and learned the bookkeeping of mass-casualty warfare. It explores how the war’s death toll helped define the government’s side of the contract between state and populace: If we’re going to ask you to die for your country, we have certain obligations to you and your survivors. And the program makes you appreciate the deep psychological transformation that all this must have brought about in the nation as a whole.

“When death is done in such a horrific way as in the Civil War, it shakes a culture at its sort of fundamental basis, and we have to create new ways to think about it,” Thomas Lynch, the author and undertaker, says. “I think in many ways that the age of our disbelief began sometime around the Civil War.”

Writing in the Humanities journal, David Skinner describes the documentary:

Prior to this moment in the nation’s history, war and death took place on a totally different scale. About 25,000 Americans died in the Revolutionary War; a few thousand in the War of 1812. The most recent war, against Mexico, had cost another 13,000 American lives. About 750 corpses from the war against Mexico, Faust says in her book, were reinterred in 1850, two years after the end of that conflict, in an American cemetery in Mexico City. The U.S. government otherwise assumed little responsibility for the bodies of the men who had sacrificed their lives on behalf of the nation. And this practice continued during the Civil War, writes Faust, when “no effective or formal system of reporting casualties operated on either side.”

The associated burdens of a soldier’s passing remained private despite their public context and the war’s national significance. Faust quotes a number of soldiers who took pen in hand to narrate their own last moments and issue last words of “a good death,” as it was called in the Victorian era. Wrote one soldier hopefully: “Remember me as one who always showed his worst side and who was perhaps better than he seemed.” When a fallen soldier could not write his own message, others often wrote on his behalf. “Tell my mother,” one soldier dictated to his friend, “I have stood before the enemy fighting in a great and glorious cause.”

Death and the Civil War is keyed, inevitably, to the mood of an old-fashioned dirge, and it opens with just such a letter. Dying from a shoulder wound, James Robert Montgomery of Mississippi writes to his father, saying that he realizes “death is near and that I will die far from home.” After describing where he rests should his father want to come gather his remains, Montgomery stoically says that “I would like to rest in the graveyard with my dear mother and brothers, but it’s a matter of minor importance.”

To the nation and its government the soldier offered, in Lincoln’s singular phrase, “the full measure of devotion”; in return countless families received not even a letter saying when and where their son, brother, or father met his end. A fortunate few learned enough to be able to rush to the deathbeds of fallen relatives, not only to witness their final moments but to make arrangements for the disposition of their physical remains. The large majority of fallen soldiers died unattended and anonymous. During the war, burial was haphazard and improvisational. Soldiers buried soldiers, or not, and frequently en masse, especially if they were enemy corpses, the graves so shallow that a change in weather might quickly exhume the remains. Embalming and shipping bodies became a brisk business, and the bodies of officers fared better than those of common grunts. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had traveled south after Antietam in search of his son, noted, “The slain of higher condition, ‘embalmed’ and iron cased, were sliding off the railways to their far homes; the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and hastily committed to the earth.” […]

Death and the Civil War, like [Drew Gilpin] Faust’s book [This Republic of Suffering, upon which the documentary is based], seeks to suggest what can hardly be imagined: The presence of death on a scale that translated into modern population totals would equal seven million fatalities. But the mind reels at such a number. It is easier, of course, to consider the loss of one person. Take James Joyce’s novella, The Dead, in which Gretta Conroy, a woman with every reason to be taking pleasure in life—in the rituals of a large dinner party, with her fine husband acting as master of ceremonies and every little thing just so—is found to be haunted and forever distraught by the loss, many years back, of a sensitive young man she had loved. Now imagine a whole society of Gretta Conroys, practically no one spared from the lingering agony of missing someone who is gone. As William Faulkner once said about the past not even being past, in the aftermath of the Civil War the dead were not even dead.

Watch Burns’s film “Death and the Civil War” online at PBS.

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