A Worthy Death: A Review of Death and the Civil War

After writing two short posts about American Experience’s Death and the Civil War I decided to write up something a bit more comprehensive for the Atlantic.  You can read it here in its entirety.

In his interview with Harvard president and historian Drew G. Faust about American Experience‘s new documentary Death and the Civil War, Stephen Colbert laments, “You are beginning to make the Civil War sound like a downer.” While it garnered a good laugh from the audience, the comment betrays an important aspect of how Americans have remembered the Civil War and the kinds of narratives that are celebrated.

Ric Burns’s latest film is based largely on Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which addresses the vast landscape of death and suffering experienced during the war years and beyond. The airing of this important program comes not just on the same week as the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam — the single bloodiest day in American history — but at the end of two costly and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to look at the way Americans confronted death 150 years ago without seeing just how far removed we’ve been from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. We all remember the controversy surrounding whether photographs of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base in 2004 could be shown to the American public.

Click to continue

Remembering Antietam’s Dead

One of the features of American Experience’s documentary Death and the Civil War that I really like is its emphasis on the lingering bitterness over how to commemorate the Civil War dead.  Although the film says nothing about the significance of Lincoln’s death it does explore the decision by the federal government to re-inter only Union dead in newly established national cemeteries.  We would do well to remember this on the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.

One of the most frequent questions that I use to get from my students at the national cemetery in Fredericksburg was why it only included Union dead.  I suspect that this question is ultimately a reflection of the power of reunion and reconciliation as well as the loss of any sense that our civil war was a rebellion.  Newspaper and radio coverage today is long on vivid descriptions of the violence at Antietam and how that a victory allowed Lincoln to finally issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  That decision is almost always coupled with the observation that the turn toward emancipation made it possible to shift wartime goals in the direction of something meaningful.  Over the past few days we’ve been told how important it is to remember, but surely we’ve lost sight of something significant about our history.

No, I will not be spending the day re-fighting the Civil War, but as I’ve stated before on this blog I am not a disinterested observer.  I am grateful that United States soldiers were successful in pushing back the Confederacy’s offensive into Maryland, not because it led to emancipation, but because it ultimately brought this country one step closer to winning the war.  This is not meant to downplay the importance of emancipation, but as a reminder that the preservation of this nation mattered to these men, just as it matters to all of us today. It is a stance that reflects my identification not as a northerner or southerner, Republican or Democrat, but as a citizen of the United States.

There is a reason why the overwhelming number of monuments on the Antietam battlefield were placed to honor the sacrifice of this nation’s citizen soldiers.  The same holds for the dead who rest on the battlefield’s national cemetery.  It should be a reminder to each of us today that the deaths of these men is part of a much larger history of men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.

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.

If By Pro-Union You Mean, Pro-America

Richard Williams believes that I run a pro-Union blog, which I assume stands in contrast with a pro-Confederate blog.  It’s kind of funny to be labeled in a way that suggests that I am somehow still fighting the war.  On the other hand, I do not claim objectivity when it comes to this history.  Who could possibly do so given the issues involved and the scale of violence and destruction wrought.  No, I do not believe that the Union was wholly good and the Confederacy evil – that would be to apply an overly simplistic moral formula to a very complex subject.

So, if you have any doubt as to where I stand let me lay it out for you on a fourth-grade level:

  • I do not believe that secession was justified given the reasons presented. [I am speaking specifically of the lower South states.]
  • I also do not believe that secession was constitutional.
  • Abraham Lincoln was justified in using military force to suppress the rebellion of the southern states.
  • Lincoln and Congress were justified in going against slavery as a means to save the Union.
  • The abolition of slavery was a good thing for the entire nation.
  • The preservation of the Union was a good thing for the entire nation. [The right side won the war.]
  • The outcome of the war placed this country on track to becoming the leader of the free world.

I was born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey.  I was not raised on a pro-Confederate or pro-Union interpretation of the war; in fact, I don’t remember learning anything about the Civil War until I was well into my 20s.  If what I listed above makes me pro-Union than so be it.  It seems to me to be a pretty mainstream/uncontroversial view.

Rather than a pro-Union blog I prefer to see it as a pro-America blog.  Enjoy the increased traffic today, Richard.

Union and Civil War Memory

Today Brooks Simpson is asking his readers for their understanding of why white northerners resisted secession and disunion in 1861.  It’s a good question and one that is rarely discussed or taken seriously.  I’ve learned a great deal from reading Russell McClintock’s Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession.

Brooks’s question is a good one, but I think we can extend it south of the Mason-Dixon Line as well.  Paul Quigley does a brilliant job in his new book of analyzing how white southerners negotiated their own deep ties to union during this period, including those who remained loyal and those who came to identify closely with the Confederacy.

My question is a slightly different one.  Why do we find it so difficult to appreciate the concept of union for millions of Americans (north and south) in 1861?  It’s also challenging to teach it and as I contemplate my own return to the classroom in a few weeks I look forward to the opportunity to take another crack at it.  In the meantime here is a lecture by Gary Gallagher in which he explores some of these questions based on his latest book, The Union War.