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Comments on the NEH-funded Documentary Death and the Civil War

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

“Lessons and Legacies: The Civil War and Veterans Today” Convocation for Veterans
Georgetown University
Washington, DC
United States

November 13, 2012

There is no more traumatizing subject than death.   By the same token there is little more uplifting than reflecting on how to live and advance a meaningful life, a subject that service to others, particularly the sacrifices of soldiers, poignantly illumines.  

In American history the Civil War, with its staggering casualties, provides painful focus.  While everyone faces mortality, sometimes countries themselves and the values that they represent face the prospect of extinction.  In the War Between the States three-quarters of a million Americans died fighting over competing senses of patriotism.   At issue were value-based perspectives.  For the North, the union was inseparable and the equality of man pledged in the Declaration of Independence immutable.  For the South, the rebellion was a states’ rights conflict, the underlying issue being whether dark skinned people could continue to be treated as property, subject to purchase and sale as slaves. 

We didn’t have cemeteries for those who died serving their country before the Civil War.  What was brought into being in the wake of battle after battle was the precept that those who died so that their country could live should be given meaningful rest.  A battlefield cemetery, symbolized by Gettysburg, is the most special kind of commemorating place, one which may be cared for by successor generations but which, as Lincoln so eloquently stated, is hallowed, indeed consecrated, by the acts of those who gave the last full measure of devotion. 

Writing a century later about the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt in Origins of Totalitarianism described a different kind of death, involving the dehumanized stuffing of box cars with human beings, the tattooing of arms with numbers, the final push into gas chambers and mass graves, and the subsequent refusal to acknowledge to kin or the world the passing of millions.  The Holocaust was not just mass murder; it was an attempt to rob death and thus life of meaning.   

The contrast between Buchenwald and the national cemetery established by Lincoln at Arlington where Confederate soldiers were buried near their union adversaries, albeit with differently shaped headstones, could not be more profound. 

This evening’s summary presentation, Death and the Civil War, the documentary film of Ric Burns based on the book by Harvard President Drew Faust, is about the death toll as it mounted so horrendously when Americans fought Americans.  It is also about the redeeming effort to honor soldiers killed in action by establishing cemeteries and marking graves.  To bring dignity to death is to provide solace and inspiration to families and fellow citizens.  It is a way to institutionalize memory and remind future generations that challenges may again require sacrifices of life and limb.

Thank you and them, all who have served to keep America free.