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

Death and the American Civil War 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 who wanted to prevent further suffering.

Death and the Civil War
Ric Burns
12 September 2012

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 during that conflict and how the war and the deaths that occurred in its wake shaped our nation for well over a century later. Like the book, the film 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 no one had ever imagined possible. And under circumstances for which the nation would prove completely unprepared.”

The American Civil War 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 American Civil War were the advent of national cemeteries, a protocol for notification of next of kin, provisions for identifying the dead, and aid for the families of those who died. At that time, no federal relief organizations, ambulance corps, or hospitals could adequately 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 there 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 American 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.” Gilpin Faust reminds us that death was constantly considered so that the citizens of the era might both live and die well.

The 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 a family reunion, and 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, and the bloodshed little.

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

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

Death and the American Civil War 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 that 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, and 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 had passed.

The battles at Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg are examined in depth in Death and the American Civil War. 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 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, memorializing the dead led to the establishment of Memorial Day, national cemeteries, and widespread acknowledgment 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.

RATING 9 / 10