Friday, July 26, 2013

Death and the Civil War

I am often puzzled by my interest in the American Civil War. It is after all a war and there are few positive things that we can say about the deaths of 750,000 people.  We continue to search for meaning and validation among the ruins of our national tragedy.  This week, I watched "Death and the Civil War" which is based on This Republic of Suffering written by Drew Gilpin Faust.  The two-hour video relates the manner in which death was dealt with by the nation and serves as another reminder of the horrors of this war.

Vicksburg National Cemetery
The war, which killed 2.5% of the population, permanently changed the character of the republic, the culture of the government, and the psyche of the American people. The war devastated the cherished concept of dying at home surrounded by friends and family.  The conflict made it nearly impossible to follow the "common Christian notions of the "proper" way to die and be buried."  The armies of both sides began the war by leaving the responsibility of carrying for the dead to their families.
The Battle of First Bull Run (First Manassas) changed all that. The numbers of dead and wounded strained a system that was unprepared to deal with casualties. 

"Death and the Civil War" shows how foolish both sides were in entering what they thought would be a three-month conflict.  The Nation and the military were shocked by the numbers which grew throughout the conflict.  In 1864, the casualties were greater than the combination of other war years.

The video treats the governments of both sides rather gently on their treatment of the common soldier.  In fact, the actions of Union and Confederate officials shows a callous indifference to the well-being of these men and their families.  The crimes go far beyond the care of the dead.  They began the day the soldiers enlisted.  Poor sanitation, incompetent officers, lack of pay, bad food, and absence of weapons greeted the men.  Shocked civilians led the efforts to remedy these conditions.

With such little concern for the living, it is not surprising that both sides were "woefully unprepared for the monumental work of burying and accounting for the dead."  Before the war, "America had no national cemeteries; no provisions for identifying or burying the dead, notifying the next of kin, or providing aid to the suffering families of dead veterans; no federal relief organizations; no effective ambulance corps; no adequate federal hospitals." The enemy dead were buried in mass graves or left to rot on the battlefield.  This was in stark contrast with accepted traditions and forced grieving families to deal with their loss and the desecration of loved one's body.

Likewise, the governments failed to provide information on the dead. There were no "dog tags" to identify the bodies and nearly half of those killed were never identified.  The grieving families would never find out what happened to sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers. The war that killed their loved ones continued to haunt their families.

After the war ended in  April 1865, the "work of death had only just begun." Tens of thousands of soldiers were still unburied and their bones littered battlefields, many were buried in mass graves, some were buried near where they died with simple markers and notes describing the site, some enemy graves had been desecrated by hateful civilians, and hundreds of thousands remained unidentified.

Drew Gilpin Faust said: "After the Civil War, the United States thought constantly about the dead, this constituency that was no longer there, and yet was so powerful in the influence it has on our nation, because the nation had to live up to the sacrifice that these individuals represented."

African American Soldier's
Grave at Vicksburg 
Congress passed legislation to establish and protect national cemeteries in February 1867. The $4 million program would re-inter the bodies of only the Union Soldiers in 74 national cemeteries. As they were treated in the Union Army, the 30,000 African American soldiers were buried in separate areas designated "colored." White southerners channeled their deep feelings of grief, loss, rage and doubt into reclaiming the bodies of hundreds of thousands of their dead loved ones. The refusal of the victorious North to attend to the vanquished southern dead was another aspect of Reconstruction that left hateful feelings for future generations.

Decoration Day rituals to honor the Civil War by placing seasonal flowers on graves sites began  around the country. In the spring of 1868, General John Logan, officially designated May 30 "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country." But in the South, which had begun Decoration Day programs before the federal holiday, states celebrated on various days from Jackson's death to Jeff Davis' birthday. Many southern states continue to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on a different date from the nationwide holiday, reflecting persistent sectional differences among both the living and the dead.

The Americans who survived the Civil War lived the rest of their lives with grief and loss. Some continued to search for information about their missing loved ones. Others were never able to resume life after the cruel deaths of sons, husbands, or dear friends and lived in perpetual mourning. They struggled, as we do today, to find meaning and validation to the deaths.

Perhaps my interest in the American Civil War is to search for such validation.

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