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.