Union vs. Confederate in Death and the Civil War

A number of people have pointed out at various places that Death and the Civil War spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on northern soldiers and their communities.  A few people have argued that this was done intentionally and to the detriment of the Confederacy and to those who are dedicated to keep its memory alive.  It goes without saying that this was not their goal.

While I think it’s a fair observation I have to wonder whether it extends beyond the relatively small community of Civil War enthusiasts.  In other words, I wonder whether the average viewer picked up on this.  Here is a bit from Executive Producer Mark Samels on what this film is about:

Death and the Civil War is really about things that we take for granted and how they came to be. We take for granted that there are national cemeteries for our soldiers who have fallen in war; we take for granted that we’re going to honor those soldiers, and that we’re going to bring them back no matter how much effort has to go into bringing them back.

It’s a story about how individuals, from the bottom up, really addressed this cataclysmic event; how they struggled even just to name the soldiers who were being killed in the battlefields; how they struggled to get them back to their families, get them properly identified, get them buried. And underlying all of this is a conception of what death actually meant in the nineteenth century to Americans. And it’s different than today.

Ultimately, the film attempts to transcend Union and Confederate altogether to speak to an audience that self-identifies as citizens of the United States.  The demographic that likely viewed this film has experienced WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the war in Afghanistan.  The sacrifice of so many brave men and women in the course of these wars and how we remember them fits into a broader history that extends back to a United States at war with itself in the 1860s.  It’s Lincoln’s words that continue to give meaning to the sacrifice of the Civil War dead and every war since and it is in national cemeteries, established by the United States government, where we are expected to reflect on that sacrifice.  From this perspective the whole question of balance between Union and Confederate or North and South misses the point entirely.

The gathering and memorialization of Confederate dead is acknowledged toward the end of the film as part of the historical narrative, but we are not being asked to reflect on their meaning as citizens of a Confederate States of America.  Ultimately, this film is about the men who died in an attempt to preserve our United States as well as the obligations that this government and each of us incurred as a result.

12 thoughts on “Union vs. Confederate in Death and the Civil War

  1. Emmanuel Dabney

    You may find it ironic that it was one of my thoughts that the documentary became a reflection on (primarily white) Union dead. There was some good information within the film but I knew it wasn’t intentional. Heck the film opens with a gripping Southen letter.

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  2. Gbrasher

    I did notice it myself, but I think your remarks are valid and dead on. But I will be more blunt and add this: if people want a glorification of the Confederacy and its causes, don’t expect to find it in scholarly works (a documentary based on an academic history book). Go watch “God’s and Generals” again.

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  3. Barbara Marshall

    I watched “Death and the Civil War” and I certainly picked up the “one-sided” stories of the Union versus the South. Two of my great grandfathers served in the Civil War from two different North Carolina Regiments (the 1st and the 21st Infantry). One great grandfather was James Madison Hilton who served alongside General Stonewall Jackson and when Stonewall was shot accidently by some of his own men my Pappy Hilton led a detail of soldiers to clear the debri and stones to make way for the wagon carrying him to the field hospital 15 miles away. Pappy enlisted in the 1st North Carolin Infantry in July, 1862 and on September 17, 1862 he was captured at Antietam. He was later released and went on to fight other battles including Gettysburg. Captured again in Spottsylvania he was sent to the POW Camp in Elmira, New York. Upon release he WALKED home to North Carolina where my great grandmother saw him coming, met him and stripped him of his clothes and burned them, and made him take a bath in lye soap water. She had heard about the lice in the POW camps and she was not about to have lice in her house. Pappy lived to be 93 years old and shared the horrors of war with my grandparents who passed along some of the treasured stories with me.

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  4. Andy Hall

    The film did indeed focus more on the North than the South, but then (as far as I can tell) the story there is more complex. The Union developed a number of different ways of dealing with the mass numbers of casualties, including national cemeteries, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the ambulance corps, Clara Barton’s work at Andersonville, Edmund Whitman’s reburial program, and so on. None of these, I think, had parallels in the Confederacy, at least on the same scale; telling the story of how Americans dealt with and responded to the dead would, inevitably, deal more with the more varied Northern examples than with the South, where practices seem not to have evolved much during the four years of wholesale carnage.

    The only complaints I’ve heard about the balance, though, are from those who are perennially on the lookout for evidence of Yankee bias, political correctness and Lincoln idolatry. They have gotten very good at it through long practice, though, as they are able to detect it even where no one else can.

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    1. Emmanuel Dabney

      Except me, Andy. I just wished more of Caroline Janney’s work had also been incorporated and again I love Drew Faust’s research.

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        They did acknowledge the LMA in Richmond toward the end, but your point is well taken. They could have explored the cultural significance of the “Death of Latane” or the death of Stonewall Jackson to explore the Confederacy in more depth. It makes me think that there was a reason behind the lack of balance.

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        1. GBrasher

          But I am not sure that you could really deal with the Southern angle without getting into how commemoration of the dead was a vital element in the creation of the Lost Cause myth. Which would be great stuff (especially with Janney as a commentator), but wouldn’t that anger the southern heritage crowd even more? Not sure there would be any way to avoid offending them short of glorifying the Confederacy. Hence my original point.

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  5. Rob Baker

    I felt that the Union aspect of death definitely held the forefront in the documentary. The South’s story seemed a bit scattered. However, I will say that although some Southern narrative might be sacrificed, it is for the best in this representation. The United States and the Union of 1861-’65 set a mark and a precursor for the way the USA deals with casualties of war; even today. Not the CSA.

    On a side note, I watched the documentary with the SHPG page open on my laptop to see their comments in real time. It was like going to a funeral with “Looney Tunes” on in the background.

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  6. Robert Hawkins

    You’ll find that even persons who would heartily embrace the notion of “transcending” balk somewhat when it diminishes the sacrifice of their ancestors. If you’re not comfy with remembering the southern dead as Confederates, here’s a radical notion – how about remembering them as Americans? Isn’t that in accordance with Lincoln’s expressed wishes?
    Sidenote: I enjoyed Mrs. Faust’s book and through it quite good in some regards, but..how does a book about death, which consequently explores the story of national cemeteries in general and Arlington National Cemetery in particular…utterly ignore the sad and sordid story of how Arlington was established? How could death, burial and remembrance be discussed without Montgomery Meigs getting the pages he so richly deserved?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      If you’re not comfy with remembering the southern dead as Confederates, here’s a radical notion – how about remembering them as Americans? Isn’t that in accordance with Lincoln’s expressed wishes?

      I see your point, but I think one of the points the film tried to make was to remind us that in the period immediately following the war they were not remembered as Americans.

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  7. Robert Hawkins

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    But they were ALL Americans, that was Lincoln’s point. Considering that occupation and reconstruction were ongoing, it understandably took time for the amalgamation to be accomplished. For years, many locales in the western and trans-mississippi theaters didn’t celebrate the 4th of July because they identified the date with the surrender of Vicksburg, but that attitude blended and faded as well, especially after other wars and crises came along.

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