Dec/Jan 2009

Grave Doubts

Reckoning with mass mortality after the Civil War

T. J. Jackson Lears


The Civil War was by far the bloodiest war in American history. The Union and Confederate armies suffered more than 620,000 fatalities— roughly equivalent to the American dead 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 put together. Among all combatants, the death rate was six times that of World War II; among Southerners, three times that of Northerners. Noncombatants, too, were swept up in this first modern, total war: An estimated fifty thousand civilians died. The numbers can be fleshed out with images of suppurating wounds, severed limbs, and mass graves. Scholars have documented this suffering, popularizers have sensationalized it, but few retrospective accounts have sustained a focus on its moral and emotional meanings for the people who experienced it.

Most Civil War chroniclers have lifted their gazes from battlefield losses to political gains—the emancipation of African-American slaves and the emergence of the United States as a modern nation. The war, from this view, was a Christian saga of suffering and redemption. Its outcome was the “new birth of freedom” envisioned by Lincoln at Gettysburg, a more democratic society purged of the original sin of slavery. This Civil War story lies at the heart of the American political mythos; it also resonates with fundamental human longings—above all, the desire for mass death to make sense, to fit into some larger pattern of cosmic meaning. No wonder the grand narrative possesses so much staying power.

Still, this familiar story has had some disturbing (if unintended) consequences. It has brought an unwarranted coherence to our perception of war’s chaos. It has encouraged us to read retroactive purpose and direction into events that the people enmeshed in them may have found chillingly bereft of both qualities. And it has fostered the fiction of redemptive war—the dangerous fantasy that inspired war makers from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush, allowing them to wrap their imperial adventures in robes of righteousness. Perhaps most troubling, though, is the way that the myth of redemptive suffering crowds out the finer-grained subjective experience of soldiers on the battlefield. By invoking grand abstractions moving across the stage of history, redemption narratives give us too little grounding in the ways that the players who staked their lives on the outcome of a conflict tried (and often failed) to piece together meaning out of the senseless logic of mass slaughter. Historians could help us think more clearly about the Civil War—indeed, about all wars—if they could redirect our gaze from the war’s political consequences to the pain of the people who fought it.

Mark S. Schantz and Drew Gilpin Faust have made major advances in that direction. Both have addressed the human meaning of mass slaughter with courage and candor. But their emphases differ. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country persuasively documents a coherent nineteenth-century “culture of death” that shielded Civil War Americans from despair in the face of devastating loss. All religious traditions aim to make sense of a death-dealing cosmos, but the evangelical Protestant culture of the antebellum United States created more elaborate mourning rituals, more overt expressions of anguish, and more reassurances of reunion than previous generations of Americans had known. The culture of death, Schantz argues, provided the resources that encouraged soldiers to risk death and civilians to accept their disappearance. This is an important argument, but Faust deepens it in This Republic of Suffering. She acknowledges the consoling power of the culture of death but finds it weakening under the stress of the unspeakable. The first modern war, for her, was also the midwife of modern doubt. Her evidence is compelling, her interpretation subtle. A major feat of historical imagination, This Republic of Suffering casts unprecedented light on the real war—the one Walt Whitman said would “never get in the books.”

Schantz, a professor of history at Hendrix College, wants to reinstate the distance between Civil War Americans and ourselves. Part of that distance involves a familiarity with the physical fact of death. During the decades before the war, women frequently died in childbirth, children in infancy. Tuberculosis, or “consumption,” scourged adults regardless of gender. Disease epidemics swept through antebellum cities, killing thousands and filling streets with “the unburied dead.” In New Orleans in the summer of 1853, a yellow-fever epidemic left more than twelve thousand dead, their bodies (according to an observer) “lying piled on the ground, swollen and bursting their coffins, and enveloped in swarms of flies.” Similar descriptions would be written of the battlefield carnage at Shiloh and Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Cold Harbor.

But even mass death possessed religious meaning. Evangelical Protestants reaffirmed the traditional Christian notion of the “good death”: submission, resignation, acceptance. Patterns of belief cut across the sectional divide. Witnessing the hanging of John Brown in 1859, Thomas J. Jackson (later known as Stonewall) was moved by the “unflinching firmness” of the abolitionist martyr. “I was much impressed with the thought that before me stood a man, in the full vigor of health, who must in a few minutes be in eternity,” Jackson wrote his wife. “I sent up a petition [a prayer] that he might be saved.” For the Christian, eternity was ever present and salvation all but certain.

In the 1850s, the afterlife itself had been reconstructed in accordance with romantic sensibility. Schantz charts the growing popularity of Emanuel Swedenborg, whose views encouraged “the emergence of a modern heaven” even among orthodox Protestants who did not embrace his theology. The modern heaven also reflected the broad influence of a Victorian sensibility: It was material, domestic, and near. Most important, it was the scene of “blessed reunions” between parents and children, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters. Belief in the resurrection of the body undergirded such hopes of reunion—while also promising to restore wholeness in the next world to bodies that in this one had lost arms or legs or been blown to bits.

In the end, Schantz finds, white Americans were able to contain the horror of the Civil War in Victorian conventions of death. Photographers were used to posing the corpses of the recently deceased with their family members. The war photographs of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner were more anonymous but still carefully composed. When Brady exhibited his photographs of the aftermath of Antietam in his New York gallery, visitors showed few signs of distress. In our own time, viewers would probably be far more disturbed by compositions of mass carnage from an ongoing war, but Schantz says Civil War photographers knew their audience and skillfully “manicured battlefield scenes for public consumption.”

Faust, who became president of Harvard in 2007, is less certain that the tidier conventions of the Victorian culture of death held up so well before the unprecedented, anonymous slaughter. In This Republic of Suffering —newly released in paperback after a surprise tour on the best-seller list—Faust argues that Americans of the Civil War era were hardly unfamiliar with death, but they were unfamiliar with the mass death of young men in good health. As a eulogist at a Boston funeral put it, “the blow seems heaviest when it strikes down those who are in the morning of life.” And the scale of the strike was simply staggering. Civil War Americans had spent their lives imagining death as “the great change” (to use the nineteenth-century Christian phrase)—not as a cessation, but as a transition to an afterlife. Now they were confronted repeatedly with the sight of corpses that had been thrown into pits “in bunches, just like dead chickens,” as one observer reported. Human beings with immortal souls were being treated like barnyard animals. No wonder “the work of death,” as Faust writes, “was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.”

Against the specter of mass extinction, moralists sustained the tradition of the ars moriendi—the art of dying well. But the good death, serene and surrounded by family, was more easily imagined than achieved on the battlefield. Dying far from home, men searched for surrogate companions. A dead Union infantryman at Gettysburg was found with an ambrotype of his three children “tightly clasped in his hands.” Soldiers begged for their mothers and their sisters, their wives and their sweethearts. Sympathetic nurses and fellow soldiers sometimes stood in for absent family, comforting the delirious with a hand on the brow, composing condolence letters for the folks back home. The letters were often formulaic fictions that evoked the rituals of the good death: the last words, the assurance of life everlasting, the readiness to die.

All this is fascinating and well told, but Faust’s boldest and most illuminating arguments arise from her recognition of the pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty concerning who had lived and who had died. Forty percent of dead Yankees and a far higher percentage of dead Confederates were identified only by “the significant word unknown” (in Whitman’s phrase). Before battle, soldiers scribbled their names on scraps of paper and pinned them to their uniforms, hoping there would be enough left of their bodies to be returned to their families. Some battlefield casualties were “blown to atoms,” as a soldier recalled. The impact of heavy artillery on flesh meant that some men “actually vanished,” Faust writes, “their bodies vaporized by the firepower of this first modern war.” While civilians found this hard to imagine, combat veterans “understood all too well the reality of men instantly transformed into nothing.” They could hardly confront a more disturbing challenge to their taken-for-granted sense of being in the world.

For many Civil War Americans, coming to terms with death meant coming to terms with nothingness. “Realizing” death, the Victorian term for embracing its full reality, was not an easy task. Consolation and mourning for lost comrades, said a Louisiana soldier, were “more trying than to face the battle’s rage.” Citing Freud’s classic essay on grief, Faust argues that the endless piling up of corpses— combined with the paucity of public information about war casualties and other circumstances of battle—prevented the process of mourning from ever coming to an end and kept many Americans in a state of prolonged melancholia, which could harden into numbness. “My heart became flint,” wrote Kate Foster of Mississippi after her brother’s death. “I am almost afraid to love too dearly anyone now.” A Tennessee minister, the Reverend Joseph Cross, reassured his congregation that “it is no crime to feel our loss”—religion sanctified it but did not remove it. Still, he worried about “excess of sorrow.”

Mourners turned to visions of the afterlife to fend off such “excesses.” The modern heaven, compatible with Victorian conventions of familial warmth, no doubt offered more consolation to Civil War Americans than did the austere Calvinist version described with some asperity by Emily Dickinson: “I don’t like Paradise—Because it’s Sunday—all the time.” This renovated heaven, in contrast, was a place of domestic intimacy, as well as the restored wholeness of the resurrected body. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Gates Ajar (1868), an exemplary piece of consolation literature, charts the transformation of the bereaved Mary Cabot from resistance (“I am not resigned”) to acceptance as she comes to understand the comforts that await her in the next world. Other seekers wanted more immediate connection with the dead; spiritualism thrived, even in the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln’s efforts to contact her departed son were only the best known of innumerable such projects. The voices that séances summoned from the grave brought the same message as orthodox Christianity: “I still live.”

Yet as the death toll mounted, it became harder to murmur “God’s will be done”—or even to proclaim it eloquently, as Lincoln did in his second Inaugural Address. “How does God have the heart to allow it?” asked the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier. A Union song drew on the sentiments of Reverend John Sweet of Massachusetts to echo that lament: “Oh great God! What means this carnage . . . ?” Such grave questions deserved sustained reflection.

Yet they could not be left unanswered long. Some public figures knew perfectly well what the carnage meant, or thought they did. Three months after Appomattox, the Reverend Horace Bushnell, like many other prominent Northern ministers, detected the hand of God in the Union victory. God’s design, he said, had been fulfilled by “our acres of dead.” Like Christianity, history “must feed itself on blood,” and the United States now “may be said to have gotten a history.” The nation was “no more a mere creature of our human will, but a grandly moral affair”—“hallowed” by “rivers of blood.” “Government is now become Providential,” Bushnell concluded. This divination of the state was idolatry masquerading as Christianity, a masquerade common to romantic nationalism and all too familiar in our own time as well. As Faust suggests, Bushnell “could talk so enthusiastically about blood because he had spent the war in Connecticut, distant from the battlefields ‘black with dead’ that he described. But Providence had favored him, and he could thus claim its purposes as his own.”

With his comfortable moralism and his celebration of war at a distance, Bushnell makes a fitting ancestor for contemporary militarist intellectuals. He epitomized the public assimilation of mass death to narratives of national redemption. This would become the dominant pattern of remembering the Civil War, even among Southerners. Indeed, by 1900, the white South and the white North would reunite under the banner of nationalism and Anglo-Saxon supremacy; the former rebels would become superpatriots, plus royaliste que le roi. This is a well-known theme in the rich history of American self-congratulation.

But beyond the official public utterances, Faust discovers a private world of doubt. It includes outsiders like Dickinson, Ambrose Bierce, and Herman Melville. Faust’s discussion of Dickinson is especially perceptive. Like Bierce and Melville, she brought a “dark enlightenment” to her work, which is “filled with the language of battle” and the loss of friends to “sharp and early” death. Their absence led her to feel “a brittle love—of more alarm, than peace,” and to recognize that “All but Death, can be Adjusted.”

Confronted with the unadjustable reality of mass death, combat survivors found it impossible to communicate what they had experienced. Groping for words to characterize his first battle, John Casler of the Stonewall Brigade finally gave up. “I have not power to describe the scene,” he wrote his parents. “It beggars all description.” The inadequacy of language suggested a profounder inadequacy of consciousness. Under the impact of the slaughter, Civil War Americans began to doubt man as well as God—to question the human ability to understand, as well as the divine capacity for benevolence. It was not only terminal skeptics like Bierce who found themselves “sentenced to life” after the Civil War. Lanier, himself a combat veteran and former prisoner of war, wrote in 1875 that for most of his “generation in the South since the War, pretty much the whole of life has been not-dying.” Where Schantz insists on the durability of the Victorian culture of death after the crucible of the war, Faust suggests that its mass slaughter created a far more contingent, and entirely less comforting, cultural legacy.

As she points out, the silence of the men who fought parallels the blankness of their resting places. Civil War cemeteries were “unlike any graveyards Americans had ever seen,” she writes. They were “a force in their anonymity,” presenting “row after row of humble identical markers, . . . [which] represented not so much the sorrow or particularity of a lost loved one as the enormous and all but unfathomable cost of the war.” The war’s cost may be unfathomable, but Faust has descended more deeply into its human meaning than all but a few of her predecessors. At this historical moment, when our leaders continue to plan one good war after another, Faust’s scholarship bears an urgent message: War is still war, however fortunate its outcome and however benign its makers’ intentions. The dead and the maimed can still call the living to account. And the living may still have some explaining to do.

T. J. Jackson Lears is editor in chief of Raritan: A Quarterly Review and the author, most recently, of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877– 1920, forthcoming in 2009 from HarperCollins.

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