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.

Feeling Left Out of the Antietam Festivities?

I know the feeling.  It’s a beautiful morning here in Boston, but I would much rather be tramping along the Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg just about now.  Here are a few options for those of you looking to feel more connected today and tomorrow.  First, C-SPAN [Click here if you do not get C-SPAN 3 (10am EST)] will provide live coverage of events today at the battlefield, which include a series of talks and Q&A from James McPherson, Mark Neely, and Harold Holzer.  They will also broadcast a tour of the battlefield led by Brooks Simpson and Mark Grimsley.  I believe this is the tour they led as part of the most recent Civil War Institute back in June.  I also highly recommend checking out the Civil War Trust’s Antietam 360.  It puts you right on the battlefield and for you teachers it also makes for a great classroom application.

You might also want to check out Megan Kate Nelson’s CWI talk on the photographs of the Antietam dead.  You can find plenty of video of the two Antietam reenactments that were held last week on YouTube.  For those of you on twitter you can follow the hashtags #Antietam and #Antietam150 for additional links, pics, and commentary.

Finally, I suspect that most of you have read your fair share of Antietam books and essays.  Richard Slotkin’s new book is out.  I’ve read sections of it and it reads well, but like his recent study of the Crater, which I enjoyed , it is not built on extensive research in the archives or even the secondary literature.  My recommendation is to pre-order Scott Hartwig’s forthcoming study, To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 (Johns Hopkins University Press).  Many of us have been looking forward to this one for some time.  Scott is a dynamite historian and at 800 pages it promises to be the most thorough analysis since Joseph Harsh’s 2-volume study.  I should have an advanced copy in hand in the next few days.

That should get you started in creating your own personal Antietam 150 experience.  Enjoy.

Why Spielberg’s Lincoln Matters to Civil War Buffs

Boyd Harris of the University of Mississippi left this comment today in response to my posting of the official trailer for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie, Lincoln.

I’ve been saying for a month that this is going to be the Passion of the Christ for historians. Blocks of seats bought by academics and us browbeating our non-historian friends into seeing it again with us.

Boyd hit the nail on the head.  The trailer has been posted and re-posted by friends on Facebook and Twitter.  To say that we are all excited would be an understatement, but I suspect there is a reason for this that all of us can relate to on some level.  Let’s face it, despite a few exceptions that fell short of being major box office draws, most Civil War era movies (for lack of a better way of putting it) suck.

By the looks of it, Spielberg’s Lincoln has the potential to make it easier for all of us who self-identify as Civil War buffs or enthusiasts.  We all know these moments where we are pressed to explain our interest in this period and why we find it so compelling.  This movie has the potential to supplant Ron Maxwell’s melodramatic and juvenile movies, which are commonly tossed about as the best in Civil War era movies.

I will bring the same kind of critical stance that I bring to any Hollywood movie that attempts to interpret the past, but I will not be counting buttons, judging the accuracy of uniforms or even counting moments that deviate from what I acknowledge as mainstream Civil War historiography.  I want to see an entertaining movie that drives home what was at stake in the war and presents an intelligent and absorbing portrayal of our sixteenth president.

You Never Been a Soldier

I am close to finishing up a magazine article on Confederate camp servants.  This morning I read through a number of postwar accounts, which are always tricky to interpret.  Consider the following passage from Andrew Ward’s, The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves.

After the war, a slave named Luke would ask for a parole when his master, a Confederate colonel, surrendered to a Yankee officer in Columbia, Mississippi.  “Luke, you don’t need one,” said his master.  “You never been a soldier.”  “Yes, I has been a soldier–for four years,” Luke replied.  “Now you and that man don’t want to do me that way.”  The Yankee officer declared that Luke “made more sense” than the colonel did, and gave him his parole.

There is quite a bit to unpack here.  First, there is Luke who is passionately making his case for recognition as a soldier.  It’s not simply the status he is interested in, but the respect and acknowledgment that he had suffered and exercised the same virtues as any other man in the army.  Luke is also quite assertive in his sharp response to his master and plea that he ought to be accorded the status of soldier.  It’s hard not to see such a strong defiance as a product of his four years with the army, including some experience on the battlefield.

Luke’s master’s response speaks for itself.  He was and is not a soldier in the Confederate army.  Such an acknowledgment would have rendered the two as equals.  Slaves could not be seen as exhibiting the same martial virtues and at the same time continue to be seen as the legal extension of the master’s will.  Recognition as a solider also collapses the distinction between slave and citizen.  The service of soldiers was a function of their obligation to the state as citizens.  Slaves served their masters.

Finally, what are we to make of the Yankee officer’s decision to grant Luke a parole?  On the one hand, it is very possible that he sympathized with the slave and believed he had made his case for the official recognition.  I prefer a different interpretation.  That officer would have understood what that military document meant to Luke’s master.  In granting the parole he did something worse than acknowledge Luke’s freedom.  He acknowledged Luke as his master’s equal.