A Worthy Death: How Civil War Families Made Sense of Suffering

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On the anniversary of Antietam, a new PBS documentary captures the grief of 19th century Americans but not their attitude toward redemption.

antietam.jpgA photograph by Alexander Gardner shows an unburied Confederate soldier lying next to a buried Union soldier. (Library of Congress)

In his interview with Harvard president and historian Drew G. Faust about American Experience's new documentary Death and the Civil War, Stephen Colbert laments, "You are beginning to make the Civil War sound like a downer." While it garnered a good laugh from the audience, the comment betrays an important aspect of how Americans have remembered the Civil War and the kinds of narratives that are celebrated.

Ric Burns's latest film is based largely on Faust's book This Republic of Suffering, which addresses the vast landscape of death and suffering experienced during the war years and beyond. The airing of this important program comes not just on the same week as the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam -- the single bloodiest day in American history -- but at the end of two costly and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to look at the way Americans confronted death 150 years ago without seeing just how far removed we've been from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. We all remember the controversy surrounding whether photographs of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base in 2004 could be shown to the American public.

At its core, the Civil War challenged what Americans had come to know as the "good death." Death was something that happened at home, in the presence of loved ones. The dying person's last words signaled an acknowledgment of the end and a reassurance that the soul would be at peace for all eternity. Death was all too familiar in antebellum America, but these transitional practices brought comfort to all those involved, and perhaps a conviction that the process of dying itself could be conquered.

Burns effectively conveys the tragic and sudden undoing of these sacred rites with what many fans of PBS's American Experience series have come to appreciate as the Ric/Ken Burns formula: multiple narrative voices, photographs, music, and thoughtful commentary by historians -- in this case, including J. David Hacker, Mark Schantz, David Blight, and especially Drew Faust herself.

The program brings home the scale of death during the war, as well as individual stories of suffering and grief that engage the viewer both intellectually and emotionally. We hear the voices of soldiers as they write home to tell their families of their wounding and likely death. What comes through is not simply how unprepared the military was in responding to the logistics of death, but the larger question of how the war reshaped the relationship between the individual and the state.

The one aspect of the program that falls short is its exploration of how Americans (mainly northerners) came to terms with their dead as part of the sacred work of preserving the Union. Death and the Civil War bombards the viewer with the emotional and psychological toll of death and suffering, but doesn't include much about redemption and meaning.

Consider the death of Nathaniel Bowditch, a second lieutenant from Massachusetts, who was killed in battle in 1863. The viewer feels his father's intense pain, but understands very little about what his son's death meant to him. "To become a heroic martyr, officers had to perform conscientiously," writes Frances M. Clarke in her book, War Stories, "suffer physical or emotional torments without undue complaint, exhibit moral conviction and self-control at the point of death, and embody all of those other character traits that represented with worthiness of their family and class backgrounds." Bowditch's father corresponded widely with his son's comrades to ensure that his death was a worthy one -- a death that reflected well on his family.

Such Victorian-era assumptions about an ideal battlefield death may be difficult for us to fully appreciate, but for loved ones on the home front, such news reinforced their conviction that the death was meaningful and the cause was righteous. The beautiful scrapbooks that Bowditch's father lovingly created, which include his son's letters, are referenced at the very end of the film -- not to demonstrate the father's need to frame his son's death as that of the heroic martyr, but to highlight the continued pain of his loss.

Part of the difficulty is that we are much too quick to allow Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" to bring a transcendent meaning to the war. Not surprisingly, the speech gets a full reading in the film and receives thorough analysis by the commentators. Lincoln's address is an important window into the Civil War, but Burns's focus on it leaves the viewer with the impression that Americans were helpless victims of so much death and suffering until Lincoln unburdened them at Gettysburg in November 1863. The speech was eventually embraced for providing the transcendent meaning that subsequent generations of Americans yearned for, including our own, but in 1863 the nation was already well versed in the language of death and redemption.

The film's emphasis on the lingering sectional bitterness over how to commemorate the Civil War dead serves as a fitting conclusion. Although it says nothing about the significance of Lincoln's death, it does explore the decision by the federal government to re-inter only Union dead in newly established national cemeteries, as well as efforts in the former Confederate states to honor their dead. From the viewpoint of the United States, not all dead were equal. The Civil War continues to be marketed and even interpreted through a language of reconciliation, which makes it difficult to acknowledge that it was a bloody civil war in which even the dead continued to divide Americans for years to come.

Despite these shortcomings, this film deserves a wide audience. Colbert's reference to the Civil War as a "downer" underscores the extent to which our collective memory has glossed over the horrors of war. This film may help visitors to Civil War battlefields look beyond serene and tapered landscapes, gift shops, and monuments that glorify violence, if only to catch a glimpse of them as the killing fields they once were. Ultimately, it may encourage us to take more responsibility for our own dead, from the day our country sends them into harm's way until the moment their bodies return home.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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