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The Living and the Dead

The Civil War divided Americans into two kinds of people.

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, September/October 2012 | Volume 33, Number 5

David W. Blight tells an amazing story on camera in Death and the Civil War. It’s about the origins of Memorial Day, a story that Blight, one of several historians interviewed in this documentary, told in his 2001 book, Race and Reunion.

The year was 1865 and Charleston, South Carolina—where the war had begun four years earlier—was bombed out and abandoned. In February, the last of the city’s white residents had left, and so missed the sight of the Twenty-first U.S. Colored Regiment marching through town and singing victory songs as their commander formally accepted the city’s surrender.

With the coming spring, something else was happening at the nearby Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, an establishment formerly as elegant as the Charleston aristocracy for whom it was built. During the war, the infield had become an open-air prison for Union soldiers, with many dying as a result of its brutal conditions. According to Blight, “at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the former judge’s stand.” But, with the end of the war, a small group of black women unearthed the bodies and gave each a proper burial. Local men built a fence around the cemetery and even constructed an archway over the entrance, inscribed with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

And then there was a parade.

First came some three thousand black school children carrying roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” Next up were hundreds of black women carrying more flowers and wreaths and crosses. They were followed by the men, marching in cadence, followed by soldiers and yet more people, black and white.

Blight described the scene: “As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a children’s choir sang ‘We’ll Rally around the Flag,’ the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rang out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: ‘For it Is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you . . . in the year of this jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession.’”

Afterward, the many people in attendance picnicked around the cemetery. The end of the war that delivered black Americans from slavery and bondage was celebrated with food and companionship. This was the first so-called Decoration Day, a Civil-War-specific holiday that developed into the more general Memorial Day.

The two-hour Death and the Civil War is directed by Ric Burns and based on This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, and Blight’s story is very near the heavy heart of Faust’s deeply researched history of carnage and remembrance. It is a credit to this film and its casting choices—George F. Will adds something extra, as does undertaker- essayist Thomas Lynch—that it never seems excessive, given its morbid subject.

Even after the casualties of the twentieth century’s warfare, the Civil War remains extraordinary for its death toll. More Americans—some 750,000—were killed in the Civil War than in all of America’s other wars combined. And yet this grisly historical passage of mass graves and mass deaths also marks the beginning of several reforms affirming the importance of individual lives, all of which we now take for granted.

Prior to this moment in the nation’s history, war and death took place on a totally different scale. About 25,000 Americans died in the Revolutionary War; a few thousand in the War of 1812. The most recent war, against Mexico, had cost another 13,000 American lives. About 750 corpses from the war against Mexico, Faust says in her book, were reinterred in 1850, two years after the end of that conflict, in an American cemetery in Mexico City. The U.S. government otherwise assumed little responsibility for the bodies of the men who had sacrificed their lives on behalf of the nation. And this practice continued during the Civil War, writes Faust, when “no effective or formal system of reporting casualties operated on either side.”

The associated burdens of a soldier’s passing remained private despite their public context and the war’s national significance. Faust quotes a number of soldiers who took pen in hand to narrate their own last moments and issue last words of “a good death,” as it was called in the Victorian era. Wrote one soldier hopefully: “Remember me as one who always showed his worst side and who was perhaps better than he seemed.” When a fallen soldier could not write his own message, others often wrote on his behalf. “Tell my mother,” one soldier dictated to his friend, “I have stood before the enemy fighting in a great and glorious cause.”

Death and the Civil War is keyed, inevitably, to the mood of an old-fashioned dirge, and it opens with just such a letter. Dying from a shoulder wound, James Robert Montgomery of Mississippi writes to his father, saying that he realizes “death is near and that I will die far from home.” After describing where he rests should his father want to come gather his remains, Montgomery stoically says that “I would like to rest in the graveyard with my dear mother and brothers, but it’s a matter of minor importance.”

To the nation and its government the soldier offered, in Lincoln’s singular phrase, “the full measure of devotion”; in return countless families received not even a letter saying when and where their son, brother, or father met his end. A fortunate few learned enough to be able to rush to the deathbeds of fallen relatives, not only to witness their final moments but to make arrangements for the disposition of their physical remains. The large majority of fallen soldiers died unattended and anonymous. During the war, burial was haphazard and improvisational. Soldiers buried soldiers, or not, and frequently en masse, especially if they were enemy corpses, the graves so shallow that a change in weather might quickly exhume the remains. Embalming and shipping bodies became a brisk business, and the bodies of officers fared better than those of common grunts. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had traveled south after Antietam in search of his son, noted, “The slain of higher condition, ‘embalmed’ and iron cased, were sliding off the railways to their far homes; the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and hastily committed to the earth.”

The war inspired a great efflorescence of private and governmental efforts to address the need to identify, bury, and account for the dead. The Sanitary Commission in 1862 began collecting information on every soldier admitted to a Union hospital as it responded to 13,000 requests for information on the whereabouts of missing soldiers. By war’s end, more than one million soldiers’ names and conditions were recorded, as commission agents crossed battlefields just as the fighting subsided to collect information on the dead.

Officers and generals saw the need for better reporting on the names and locations of fallen soldiers, recognizing an obligation that far exceeded general orders to “as far as possible” and “when practicable” identify the dead pursuant to battle. Families of the dead also noticed. As Henry Bowditch, the father of a fallen Union soldier, observed in a pamphlet that argued successfully for the establishment of an ambulance corps for the army of the United States: “If any government under Heaven ought to be paternal, the United States authority, deriving, as it does, all its powers from the people, should surely be such, and should dispense that power, in full streams of benignant mercy upon its soldiers.” The idea that democracy should beget paternalism is not at all obvious, except that what Bowditch called paternal we now assume as a minimal obligation of a government to its soldiers and citizenry.

As with the war itself, the turning point for the “burial rights” of the American soldier came at Gettysburg, where local residents were recruited to assist in burying thousands of soldiers who had perished. Townspeople applied peppermint oil above their upper lips to mitigate the stench which, months later, still hung in the air but then, finally, some action was being taken. A lawyer, using contributions from all of the northern states that had lost soldiers in the battle, purchased a portion of the battlefield, and it eventually became property of the U.S. government and one of its national cemeteries. At its consecration, Lincoln, of course, spoke, saying that “in a larger sense, we can not dedicate— we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” Then he honored the dead by hailing their immortal purpose: “a new birth of freedom.”

After the war, Clara Barton, who had contributed so greatly to the medical care for wounded soldiers, established the Missing Soldiers Office, to assist families searching for their loved ones. She also led an expedition to the Andersonville prison in Georgia, where Union prisoner Dorence Atwater had kept secret records of where more than 13,000 men were buried. Barton soon called on the U.S. government, in the name of “common humanity,” to account for all the soldiers who had died. As a result, Edmund Burke Whitman and others were assigned to conduct an “exhaustive survey” of Union graves, wherever they may be. In response to his requests for information about the dead, Whitman was, says Faust, “inundated” with information from veterans, families, and passersby. “There had been thousands of record-keepers who,” Faust remarks in the documentary, “without knowing why they were keeping the records or who would ever be the recipient of this information, had collected information on these bodies during the war.”

Whitman, with the help of black troops and information from many black people in the South, located more than 100,000 graves. In February 1867, Congress passed legislation for a vast system of national cemeteries. Efforts to identify the Confederate dead were even less systematic; and postwar efforts to collect and rebury rebel soldiers would lag those on behalf of Union soldiers by many years. But the idea that government should act in loco parentis, as Whitman said, came to seem unexceptional. In World War I, soldiers began to wear badges and then dog tags for the purpose of identification and notification. Today, the U.S. government spends more than a hundred million dollars a year seeking information to recover the bodies of American soldiers from around the world.

Death and the Civil War, like Faust’s book, seeks to suggest what can hardly be imagined: The presence of death on a scale that translated into modern population totals would equal seven million fatalities. But the mind reels at such a number. It is easier, of course, to consider the loss of one person. Take James Joyce’s novella, The Dead, in which Gretta Conroy, a woman with every reason to be taking pleasure in life—in the rituals of a large dinner party, with her fine husband acting as master of ceremonies and every little thing just so—is found to be haunted and forever distraught by the loss, many years back, of a sensitive young man she had loved. Now imagine a whole society of Gretta Conroys, practically no one spared from the lingering agony of missing someone who is gone. As William Faulkner once said about the past not even being past, in the aftermath of the Civil War the dead were not even dead.

About the Author

David Skinner is editor of HUMANITIES  magazine.

Funding Information

WGBH received $600,000 from NEH to produce Death and the Civil War, which will be shown as part of the American Experience series on public television, September 18. David W. Blight is the recipient of an NEH fellowship to do research on Frederick Douglass and the Civil War, and Drew Gilpin Faust was NEH’s 2011 Jefferson Lecturer.