Death and Dying Without Much Meaning

A few months ago I received a preview copy of American Experience’s Death and the Civil War, which will air on PBS this week.  This weekend I finally had a chance to watch it through, which seems appropriate given that we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.  I am not going to offer a comprehensive overview of the show.  For the most part I enjoyed it even if the Ken/Ric Burns format has become predictable.  The program is based largely on Drew G. Faust’s recent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which I highly recommend.  For an overview of the program check out reviews by Megan Kate Nelson at The Civil War Monitor and Michael Lynch at Past in Present.

The one aspect of the program that I found disappointing was the continued difficulty to acknowledge the ways in which Americans (mainly northerners) came to terms with their dead as part of the sacred work of preserving the Union.  The coverage of how the Civil War challenged the Victorian era idea of a “good death” is captured beautifully through images, words, and music, but just as important to Victorian America was the striving toward connecting that death and suffering to the sacred cause of Union.  American Experience bombards the viewer with the emotional and psychological toll of death, but without much in terms of redemption.  No doubt, I’ve been influenced by having recently read Frances M. Clarke’s War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North.  No other book that I know of more effectively explains how northern stories of suffering and death produced by soldiers on the front as well as on the home front galvanized sectional pride and morale throughout the war.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is a case study of the death and memory of Nathaniel Bowditch, a second lieutenant from Massachusetts, who was killed in 1863.  Nathaniel’s letters home reflect his commitment to the virtues of bravery and selflessness as well as the understanding that his actions and possible death would help to shape a crucial moment in world history.  His letters home, like those of others, would help family members to deal with the pain of loss by acknowledging that it was a meaningful death.  Nathaniel’s death is featured prominently in Death and the Civil War, specifically his father Henry’s difficulty in coming to terms with the loss of his son.  The viewer feels the emotion of Henry’s loss, but not his striving to ensure that it was a heroic death.  All we learn is that Henry eventually authored a manual that promoted the use of ambulances on the battlefield.  What we don’t learn is that almost immediately following his death, Henry sought out Nathaniel’s comrades and superior officers for any information that might assuage his family’s concerns about the way his son died on the battlefield.

Even the beautiful scrapbooks that Henry lovingly created with his son’s letters as well as those sent to him from family members and other mementos are only briefly mentioned at the very end of the program.

The memorials that they created reveal a lurking fear that battlefield deaths might come to be seen as meaningless slaughter, but they also show why such interpretations failed to gain currency at this time.  In this war, heroism held meaning insofar as a soldier displayed an admirable character that reflected well on his family and community.  To become a heroic martyr, officers had to perform conscientiously, suffer physical or emotional torments without undue complaint, exhibit moral conviction and self-control at the point of death, and embody all of those other character traits that represented with worthiness of their family and class backgrounds…. Henry Bowditch purposefully included the family’s letters to show just how much homefront support and prodding went into creating a heroic martyr.  He was proud of that fact.  He wanted to show that they held Nathaniel to a high standard of uncomplaining selflessness while expecting nothing less of themselves.  As the Bowditch parents worked so hard to prove at the moment of their greatest loss, it was both the burden and expression of a truly virtuous elite to model suffering’s inspirational potential. (p. 48)

Perhaps we are far too removed from the Victorian world to truly appreciate what seem to be overly romanticized and sappy acts of memorialization.  The other problem is that we are much too quick to allow Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to bring meaning to it all.  It’s as if Americans were just sitting around waiting for their president to utter those stirring lines and bring some level of comfort and reassurance to their households.  I am not suggesting that it didn’t, but family’s like the Bowditch’s were working to ensure that their dead did not die in vain from the beginning.  The other issue is that we still fall into the trap of seeing the war as void of meaning until emancipation comes on the scene.

Both of these themes come through loud and clear in Death and the Civil War and to that extent limit our understanding of how thousands of families struggled to come to terms with death.

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7 comments… add one

  • Barbara Gannon Sep 16, 2012

    There are 3 things going on here. 1) Academics have decided to emphasize the death and destruction of the Civil War as a statement against today’s wars. 2) Since the men and women of the Civil War refused to embrace emancipation for its own sake, not merely as a way to destroy the slave power or military necessity, they could not have died for anything worth the death and destruction discussed in part 1. Union, nation is not enough. 3) Twenty-first century Academics reject out of hand sentimental and religious language as anything but a trope that must be deconstructed. It is not sincere expression of the feelings of nineteenth-century Americans.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2012

      How much of this attitude do you think reflects a post-Vietnam suspicion of nationalist sentiment as well as disillusionment over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    • Jim Dick Sep 16, 2012

      Not necessarily. George Bancroft, a historian from the 19th century was emblematic of the use of Patriotism and Providence to explain history. Bancroft was definitely not the first to do this in America. Both Mercy Otis Warren and David Ramsay, Patriot historians who experienced the Revolution firsthand utilized the both patriotism and Divine Providence in their histories. Bancroft was heavily influenced by Romanticism which was only natural for his day.
      Modern historians are using primary sources such as the actual words of the people that lived during the Civil War. The letters of the soldiers and their families from that war speak volumes about how they viewed things. Their words are being used extensively in the histories over the last 40 years. You may say they’re being deconstructed, but those words are being placed in the context of the era.
      Also, the men and women of the era did begin to embrace emancipation as a goal of the war. Their words say that. It was not universal and there were plenty of people that opposed the idea. There were many differing opinions regarding the issues just like there are many differing opinions regarding some issues today. However, it is incorrect to say the people opposed emancipation as a blanket statement because the evidence suggests otherwise.

  • James Harrigan Sep 17, 2012

    Kevin, Barbara, et al: Have you read Gary Gallagher’s recent “The Union War”? It is the best explanation I’ve read of what “Union” meant to Northerners, and to Union Army soldiers in particular. Contra Chandra Manning, he argues that emancipation in its own right (as opposed to a war measure) was never a big motivator for white Union soldiers, even in 1864-65. What has been the reaction among professional Civil War historians to this Manning-Gallagher debate?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2012

      I’ve read it, but I really recommend reading Clarke’s War Stories, which I referenced in this post.

      I read Manning’s book when it first came out and learned a great deal. My biggest issue with the book is that Manning does not go far enough in distinguishing between Union soldiers who served in the east as opposed to western armies. Their experiences with slavery did influence many men early on, especially those in western armies, but I don’t see this as constituting a fundamental shift in the way these men viewed emancipation as trumping Union as the goal.

  • Vince Sep 17, 2012

    Really enjoyed your post about this fascinating topic, and will have to watch the documentary.

    With my nose buried in primary sources related to one specific Northern community (Lancaster, PA), placing death in the context of the Union cause was huge. It was there from the war’s beginning, but my view is that the themes started to crystallize and the rhetoric became more aggressive (i.e., anti-Copperhead) in late 1862 into early 1863 due to (1) lots of casualties starting in summer 1862, (2) mid-term elections and copperhead challenges, and (3) the formation of the Union Party.

    And it often wasn’t subtle either. One of my favorite examples is how one corporal came home from Tennessee in May 1863 on leave to visit his family after they had just buried his brother, a sergeant who had died of disease. While home, the corporal gave a lengthy and passionate speech at a large Union Party rally on the topics of sacrifice and union and copperheads, making the connections very clear for people on the home front. (http://www.lancasteratwar.com/2011/10/better-know-soldier-elias-h-witmer.html)

    • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2012

      Hey Vince, thanks for providing the link. Really interesting.

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