'Death and the Civil War' Is an Excellent Account of How America Learned to Handle Death

A vivid adaptation of Drew Gilpin Faust’s acclaimed book This Republic of Suffering, this nearly two-hour documentary is among the best of its kind.

American Experience: Death and the Civil War

Distributor: PBS
Cast: Oliver Platt, Drew Gilpin Faust, Keith David, Stark Sands
Release date: 2012-09-18

Based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s acclaimed This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, this Ric Burns-directed documentary examines how Americans understood death in the time of that conflict, and how the war and the deaths that occurred in its wake shaped our nation for well over a century later. The film, like the book, is meticulous in its examination, tireless in its efforts, and one of the more necessary examinations of American life.

The dead numbered around 750,000––the percentage of the total population would be seven million on the scale of today’s population. The sheer presence of death demanded that the population not only pay attention but also learn to cope with and account for this long looming specter.

As narrator Oliver Platt tells us, with the onset of this conflict, “Death would enter the experience of the American people and the body politic of the American nation as it never had before. On a scale and in a manner”, he adds, “no one had ever imagined possible. And under circumstances for which the nation would prove completely unprepared.”

It was, according to historian David Bright, a confrontation between “old eighteenth and nineteenth century values with modern warfare”, culminating in a “mass slaughter that is harder and harder for anyone to explain––even to themselves”.

Among the specific changes brought about by the Civil War were the advent of national cemeteries, a protocol in notification of next of kin, provisions for identifying the dead, and aid for the families of those who died. At that time there were no federal relief organizations, no ambulance corps, and no federal hospitals that were adequate enough to treat those in need. “The United States,” says Gilpin Faust, “embarked on a new relationship with death”–––the sheer survival of the nation depended upon the death of the soldiers, but their was also the sheer bureaucracy of death––the reburial of the dead, the pension system, both would change the role of the federal government.

There were, naturally, transformations for individuals, as well. In the South, 20 percent of white men who were of military age would die. Virtually, Gilpin Faust adds, everyone had lost a loved one. Moreover, the names and numbers of the dead were often unknown, leaving fear, doubt, and dread among members of the general population who knew not the fate of their loved ones.

At the dawn of the Civil War, the nation was deeply religious with a series of “... almost universally held assumptions and beliefs about the meaning of death and dying, about the nature of God and the afterlife, and about what constituted a good death––and the right way to die.” Death, Glipin reminds us, was thought about constantly so that the citizens of the era might both live and die well.

Home was central to death––the majority of people died at home, surrounded by family, with their last words held in high regard. The afterlife would bring about a reunion of the family and a great happiness could be achieved in that new world. That young men would die––in great numbers––away from home and away from their loved ones could not help but transform how the population understood death. There were also dashed hopes about the war itself––early indications suggested that the conflict would be quickly resolved, the casualties few, the blood shed, little.

But by early 1862, at Shiloh, a different picture had emerged; this would be a war that would be slow-moving, with high casualties, high numbers of men mobilized, and new technologies that changed how men fought, killed, and died. There was no way to be prepared for the numbers who would die, nor was there preparation for the disease that came with war and its own means to main and kill.

And with no way to identify the dead, with no way in place to get them home, the idea of the good death was compromised. After Shiloh, bodies were left on the battlefield, subject to the elements and subject to animals and the indignities that such a scene can visit upon the dead.

This documentary follows the progression from the belief in the good death to the realities of the bad death, from the helpless suffering on the battlefield to those––Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, Frederick Law Olmsted of the U.S. Sanitary Commission––who wanted to mobilize to prevent further suffering. From a government that was transformed from one which did not have adequate ways of dealing with its dead to one that did.

The identification of the dead was also problematic––according to Gilpin Faust, nearly half of the estimated 750,000 killed were never identified. The story of these deaths, the last words, the preparations for departure to that corporeal afterlife, remained––frustratingly––unknown. Some, she adds, held on to the idea that their loved one might still appear––in some cases even after half a decade or more hand passed.

Examined in depth are Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The bloodiest casualties came after 1863 as the war became, in the words of one historian, a war of attrition and a war of human morale. The increasingly higher casualties became a test of faith for the families of the North and South, and dissent began to grow as those families witnessed increasingly diminished numbers. The realities of death and dying began to erode the image of the good death and the existing narratives about the pleasant afterlife that many had previously would await them.

In reaction to these problems, Clara Barton established the Missing Soldiers Office, which cleared some of the dead. In all, she helped account for more than 20,000 soldiers. She asked for governmental oversight of the identification of the dead, pleading that it was of great humanitarian import that this be done.

Eventually, the memorializing of the dead led to the establishment of Memorial Day, the establishment of national cemeteries, and widespread acknowledgement of how transformative the Civil War was to the nation.

This nearly two hour documentary almost perfectly adapts Gilpin Faust’s text for the screen and captures the viewer’s imagination, attention, and empathy. It's an approach to the topic that deserves our attention and understanding and now, as then, our reflection upon the human costs of military conflict.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.