The World Never Saw Such a War

A review of Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Originally published January 13, 2008, The San Francisco Chronicle

by Ian Garrick Mason


In 1860, the United States was a different country. Its federal government was small and circumscribed in scope; its military had experience in only limited wars; its populace was self-reliant and pious. In this other country, death was a private affair, a matter of reconciling oneself with God in the presence of dear friends and relatives, and of following as closely as possible the centuries-old tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying. Enacting the so-called "good death" reassured kin that the deceased's soul was in the keeping of God and offered, in the form of dying words, important moral guidance for those left behind.

In 1861, however, "the United States embarked on a new relationship with death." So writes historian (and now president of Harvard University) Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Author of several books on the antebellum South, including the prize-winning Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, Faust is particularly qualified to identify and explain the complex social and political implications of the changing nature of death as America's internecine conflict attained its full dimensions.

"The world never saw such a war," said a South Carolinian in 1863 - and no one had expected to see it, either. Three million men were mobilized and armed with muzzle-loading rifles of increasing range and accuracy. Industry churned out ammunition and provisions at enormous volumes, transported efficiently by rail, keeping armies in the field for unprecedentedly long periods.

Naturally, with increased scale of operations came increased casualties. On the battlefield, men were shot, stabbed and blown into pieces; fatal diseases ran rampant in Army camps and nearby towns. Civil War soldiers, in Faust's pithy phrase, "had many opportunities to die and a variety of ways in which to do so." With more than 600,000 military deaths in a population of little more than 30 million, the Civil War's per-capita death rate was six times higher than the U.S. death rate in World War II. By the spring of 1864, Gen. Ulysses Grant was taking nearly 50,000 casualties (both killed and wounded) a month. Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle of the war, saw 23,000 men killed or wounded on the field - nine times as many as on D-Day - its dead still unburied a week afterward. After the Seven Days Battles around Richmond, one soldier wrote his wife, "The dead and dying actually stink upon the hills."

Amid all this carnage, soldiers and families struggled to hang onto the idea of the "good death." Dying men breathed last words into comrades' ears for eventual transmittal home, while nurses and doctors acted as unofficial proxies for friends and families at the bedsides of the mortally wounded. Families found consolation in letters, often written by a dead man's fellow soldier, informing them that their son died bravely and as a Christian.

Good deaths were not the norm, however. Huge numbers of families faced the awful and indefinite uncertainty of having a son or husband simply go missing. Forty percent of Union dead, and a much greater proportion of Confederate dead, could not be identified, even after the end of the war. The military's small bureaucracy could not keep pace. "The sheer numbers of bodies requiring disposal after a Shiloh, an Antietam, or a Gettysburg defied both administrative imagination and logistical capacity," writes Faust. Field hospitals quickly became overloaded during battle, making accurate records almost impossible to keep. Officers had to quickly reconstitute their units after battle and prepare to move again, leaving little time for writing after-action reports or identifying the dead. And even if time had been available, the increased power of contemporary ordnance often smashed soldiers into "little fragments so as hardly to be recognizable as any part of a man," as one chaplain observed at Gettysburg.

The displacement of death from its natural family context worked a strange social and civic alchemy. Average citizens who had never known the deceased began to show up at Confederate funerals; "[t]he emergence of this impersonal connection with the dead, one independent of any direct ties of kin or friendship, was a critical evolution in the understanding of war's carnage," writes Faust. A soldier's death was no longer solely a private tragedy, and the dead no longer belonged exclusively to their families. They had become the nation's dead, too.

Given this evolution, it was inevitable that public opinion would conclude that the dead deserved to be identified and properly buried. The federal government sponsored a huge reburial program that created national cemeteries near the sites of significant battles, and the Army created a dedicated graves registration unit. Such new obligations toward the dead, and toward living relatives through the medium of pensions, required a marked expansion in the U.S. government's information-collection and management capabilities. The dead had to be identified, moved, counted. Arbitrating pension claims required the creation of combined service records that summarized the most important details of a soldier's military career. Never before had the government found itself involved in and responsible for such a range of formerly private matters. The relationship of American citizens to the American state had changed forever.

The carnage also encouraged a development that was less tangible but even more powerful: a feeling that the war needed higher aims to justify its fearsome cost. Lincoln, for example, saw the killing as atonement for the sin of slavery; God would be right if he chose to extend the war, he said, "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." The Union saw divine sanction in its victory in the war, and extended this to justify a manifest destiny of expansion. For the losers in the conflict, the "Confederate Dead" provided a different meaning, giving birth to the cult of the Lost Cause and acting as a focal point for the continuation of sectionalism and defiance.

One possible lesson of the war, alas, was all but smothered by such visions of destiny and glory. Championed by no politicians and trumpeted by no newspapers, it was expressed simply and eloquently by a common soldier writing to his parents in the aftermath of a battle in Kentucky: "The battlefield at midnight will bring one to a realizing sense of war. I never want to see such a sight again. ... Tell Mrs Diggins not to let her boy enlist."

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