Tidewater Review - May 2008

Grief Under a Scholar's Microscope


Anne Stinson

    Of all the wars our country has been involved in, none has created such infinite dissection as the Civil War. In the ensuing century and a half, thousands, nay, tens of thousands of books have examined every facet of that terrible conflict. One might have thought there were no more bones to pick, what with memoirs of participants, from generals to ordinary soldiers and their camp followers.
     There are tomes on economic conditions in both North and South, before and after the war, and the effect of emancipation on pre-war fortunes in cotton. No battle or skirmish has been ignored; tactics and what-ifs are endlessly studied, criticized and second-guessed. Women’s roles, international reaction, trade and commerce - the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and racial attitudes - all are part of the national obsession that almost rent the nation in two.
     To our grateful edification, it turns out that there are, indeed, more bones to pick. Quite literally, in fact, as a new book addresses a topic synonymous with war. The subject is death.
     This Republic of Suffering, by Drew Gilpin Faust. Alfred A. Knopf, 346 pages. $23.99.
     The raw, bleeding number of military deaths during the Civil War has not been uncounted or neglected in previous accounts of the war. It has been calculated - as far as possible in such a widespread and lengthy conflict - at 620,000. To put that huge number in perspective, Faust writes that it is approximately equal to the total fatalities of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined.
     This total - more than half a million - does not include the thousands more who died as what we would today call “collateral deaths.” In field hospitals all over the North and South local townswomen often volunteered to tend the wounded as well as those stricken with disease. The reward for their compassion was sometimes to infect a whole village, resulting in many officially uncounted deaths as casualties of war. Battles erupted over farm fields and through towns, killing civilians with stray bullets and artillery explosions.
     In the aftermath of so much carnage and grief, one thing united both sides in combat. They shared a realization of the finality of death and the fragility of human life. What they had in common was sorrow. Some offered forgiveness to families of opposing armies. Some, however, remained bitter. The great orator and Talbot County son Frederick Douglass was one of them. In a Decoration Day speech in 1883, “Whatever else I may forget,” the aging abolitionist declared, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.”
     Faust, a historian and teacher, now president of Harvard University, has arranged the book like a lesson plan for readers of all ages. She’s illustrated her chapters with contemporary artwork that illuminated the avid audience for news about encounters. Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper kept artists busy for their editions, and photographers took portable studios to camps and battlefields. The pictorial record brings the awful reality of the chapters to life.
    “The book sounds too depressing,” said a young woman with whom I discussed what I had just read. A list of chapter headings confirms that impression, which is actually misleading. True, the subject is grim, but also fascinating. Faust has managed to distill the Victorian view of death with its very different attitudes and contrast them with our 21st century customs.
     Chapter 1. Dying. “To Lay Down My Life” begins the cycle. Nothing better proves the adage Be Careful What You Wish For than the secessionists’ attack on Fort Sumter. They believed, Faust writes, that “northerners would never mobilize to halt national division or that they would mount nothing more than brief and ineffective resistance.” Both sides were certain that it would be of short duration.
     It turned out to be something quite different. It was unlike any previous war. Technology altered the whole operation - trains could now move troops that in previous wars had had to ride horses or march. New firearms could shoot more accurately, reload faster, and were deadly at longer distances. Ironically, even advances in medicine made dying more likely. Chloroform and ether made battlefield surgery more plausible, but physicians and surgeons spread infection with unclean instruments and dressings.
    “After the Battle of Perryville in 1862, water was so scarce that Union surgeons performing amputations almost around the clock did not wash their hands for two days” Faust writes. There were many ways to die, and most soldiers soon accepted the prevailing belief. They were prepared to die. The rush of excitement that came with bands and notions of glory and heroism wore off in the face of the real thing. Sobriety focused on a peculiar hunger for “a Good Death.”
     The elements of this ritual came out of the religious fervor that swept the country in the early 19th century. More important than any other factor in the movement was to be ready to die at any moment, willing to obey God’s call to heaven and to have lived a godly life to earn passage thereto. The steps in this approval became almost formulaic. To console the wife, sister or parents of a fallen comrade, surviving officers, chaplains or buddies wrote condolence letters with nearly identical messages. Included were testimonials that the deceased had expressed a willingness to die for his cause, he was looking forward to being with God, and they would all meet again in heaven.
     The piles of amputated arms and legs outside the surgeon’s tent created sneaking concerns among some believers who thought it was going to be awkward for men to greet their families without all their limbs in the afterlife, but it was obviously too delicate a matter to discuss.
     It was universally accepted that a Good Death was a passport to a reunion in the hereafter and a comfort to the family’s grief.
     Dying required courage, but Chapter 2. Killing. “ The Greater Courage” poses a huge challenge. Despite the clergy’s citations of biblical permission to kill in a just war, religion also exhorts us Thou Shalt Not Kill. It was considered a prohibition that divided civilized man from the animals. Not surprisingly, most soldiers became so numbed by the entire inhumanity of war that they did it as thoughtlessly as any other routine job.
     Something very ugly emerges in Faust’s account of the transformation of men who grew to love killing. First-person reports and newspaper battle dispatches cite many appalling instances like the following from a New York Tribune reporter at Shiloh: “Men lost their semblance of humanity,” he wrote, “and the spirit of the demon shone in their faces. There was but one desire and that was to destroy.”
     Chapter 3. Burying. “New Lessons Caring for the Dead” explores a problem not seen before in wars of such magnitude. Neither army was prepared for corpses on such a scale. At fields like Antietam and Gettysburg, the living were nearly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of dead and dying. At a lull in the battle, comrades sometimes buried them where they fell, making a crude drawing to mark the spot and finding a scrap of wood from an ammunition box to carve the deceased’s name and regiment for later retrieval. The victors buried their dead first, leaving the foes’ remains to be dispatched by prisoners of war or by Negro troops. Chaplains and surgeons were exhorted to keep records, but they were too busy or dispirited to do it with efficiency.
     Embalming was in its infancy and was often inadequate to preserve a body when money was forwarded to ship a loved one home for burial. A shortage of wooden coffins meant that many soldiers went to shallow, bare ground graves. Almost half of those who perished and were disinterred for newly formed veterans’ cemeteries were identified only as “Unknown” on their markers.
     The following chapter, Naming “The Significant Word, Unknown” reveals just how ill-prepared not only the armies but the civilian population were for this calamity. When spotty, insufficient record keeping could find no mention of a soldier, pain for families was almost intolerable. Few were willing to believe their beloved had been blown to bits with nothing left to bury, but that could have been the case. Bodily disintegration also blew into shreds the hope of reunion in heaven.
     A Union chaplain at Gettysburg described in the aftermath of the battle “little fragments so as hardly to be recognizable as any part of a man.” Faust writes that “not just names, but whole bodies were obliterated.” She goes on to show how survivors coped with the task of mourning, the challenges to religious comfort and the meaning of the carnage and the subsequent military response to its responsibility for the men it encouraged into harm’s way.
     The book is at once dispassionate and wrenching, infuriating in its characters’ stupidity, and inspiring in their gallantry, not least among the so-called fair sex.
     Men marched off in what they envisaged as a game of bravado and glory, only to die for their idiocy. Women coped with cleaning up their mess. They nursed the sick and wounded, and worried about their missing men who suffered and died, leaving a devastated country and starving children.
     There will be no end to Civil War histories. The folly and disaster were too immense to comprehend. Yes, the Union was kept intact. Yes, slavery was made unlawful, but justice has yet to be served on that score.
     Drew Gilpin Faust has added an invaluable piece to the puzzle. Highly recommended.