National Life After Death

Civil War carnage and the quest for American identity.

The devastating death figures for the American Civil War are well-known. On the two sides, at least 620,000 soldiers died from diseases and wounds; that is equivalent to 2 percent of the entire population. Two percent of Americans today equals 6 million people. Southerners perished disproportionately: In the Confederacy, at least 18 percent of white males of military age died between 1861 and 1865, three times the rate at which Northern white men died. “The young [white] men of South Carolina were annihilated,” the state’s governor told Northern minister Henry Ward Beecher in April 1865. In many places in the state, he said, there were no white men left between the ages of 20 and 50.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University since 2007 and for decades a leading historian of the American South, provides plenty of numbers that are less well-known. Thirty thousand Northerners and 26,000 Southerners died in prisoner-of-war camps—almost 10 percent of all Civil War fatalities. As many as 50,000 civilians perished from war-related causes. And the dead, civilian as well as military, were black as well as white. About 35,000 of the 180,000 black soldiers who served the Union lost their lives, for the most part to disease. “Contraband camps” set up by the Union Army for African-Americans fleeing slavery (especially for women, children, and the elderly) experienced mortality rates up to 25 percent. 

Most stunning of all: About half of the soldiers who died during the war—over 40 percent of the Yankees and a majority of Confederates—died as “unknown soldiers.”  These were often “men thrown by the hundreds into burial trenches; soldiers stripped of every identifying object before being abandoned on the field; bloated corpses hurried into hastily dug graves; nameless victims of dysentery or typhoid interred beside military hospitals; men blown to pieces by artillery shells; bodies hidden by woods or ravines, left to the depredations of hogs or wolves or time.” The two armies’ record-keeping—and even their interest in identifying individuals no longer capable of fighting—lagged far behind their firepower. Americans reeled at the number of deaths, but also at the threat sudden wartime death posed to individual identity. They were sickened by the prospect that young men might “die like dogs,” as one woman volunteer put it, without the communal recognition of a marked grave symbolizing their departure for an eternal life with God.

The assault on identity, and the quest to recover it, is the fascinating theme Faust tackles as she digs into the archives for evidence of Americans’ experiences of death, including their own postwar efforts to unearth and rebury their soldiers. As a historian who came of age in the 1970s—the era of a “new social history” placing women, laborers, and minorities center stage—she naturally highlights differences of gender, class, and race, along with region, but she also sees more at work in the postwar memorializing that consumed so much American energy. Faust astutely argues that in spite of their many differences, Northerners and Southerners, male and female, black and white, experienced a deep cultural unity through their common rituals and beliefs concerning death. This common culture of death did not prevent regional animosities—in effect, dueling nationalisms—from persisting after Appomattox. And glaring inequalities persisted, even as Southern women found a new public role in the reburial endeavor. The memory of the 35,000 dead black Union soldiers faded all too quickly from Northern white consciousness. At the end of the century, it was Northern and Southern whites who had joined hands in hailing their fallen ancestors, thereby creating a new overarching American nationalism.

Nineteenth-century death practices could hardly have been more radically disrupted than they were in the 1860s. Americans expected dying family members to expire at home, not in hospitals, and certainly not in other states. Adapting as best they could to the general yearning for final sentiments, comrades and nurses on the battlefield and in camps and hospitals promised to relay last words to dying men’s families. If a soldier died without a terminal act of reflection, friends might even try to infer his final state of mind from his facial expression, letting the body speak for the soul. Embalmers trooping through the battlefields with newly effective chemical solutions offered to preserve the “natural” facial expressions of the dead and to ship them back to families for ex-post-facto deathbed vigils. Slaves, too, played a role as preservers, risking their lives to minister to their masters’ bodies, even when they were dead.

At Gettysburg, for example, where 7,000 men lay dead after three days of fighting, thousands of Northerners soon arrived to hunt for their missing men. As many as 1,500 Yankee dead were embalmed and sent home when lucky relatives with sufficient means managed first to find them, then to locate a metallic coffin required for shipment. The national cemetery dedicated by Lincoln four months later arranged the dead democratically, not by rank, but the bodies of many officers from well-to-do families had already been expressed home rather than left for burial with the mass of soldiers. As for the Confederate fallen, the luckier of them, too, were not left to molder. Faust notes that as Robert E. Lee’s forces retreated in haste, some of the 6,000 African-Americans who had accompanied the troops to the Pennsylvania battlefield managed to retrieve their masters’ bodies and shepherd them at least part of the way home.Even when they took social inequality for granted, Faust implies, Americans of all backgrounds still shared identical expectations about the proper deathbed experience, the decent burial, and the hoped-for heavenly destination. 

Over the last generation, professional historians downplayed the Civil War as the key pivot point in 19th-century American development, stressing instead the growth of industrialism before the war and the rise of large-scale organizations and nationally based professional identities (like that of historians themselves) after the war. Political and military events took a back seat to social change. Having always kept the war in her own scholarly sights, Faust offers a compelling reassertion of its basic importance in society and politics alike. Civil War death so profoundly challenged conventional rituals and identities, she argues, that it helped spark political and cultural support for the larger organizations, public and private, of the late-19th century. In the process, the federal government “assumed the unprecedented role of the citizen’s friend,” as the nation built up a new sense of unity out of the memory of young men’s sacrificial deaths. In the North, Clara Barton’s “Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army” was soon joined by a major government initiative to identify and rebury the dead in national cemeteries—perhaps, writes Faust, “the most elaborate federal program undertaken in nearly a century of American nationhood.”

At the same time, as Faust subtly shows, Northerners and Southerners kept on building separate collective identities, after the fighting stopped, as they honored their fallen men. Each region kept revitalizing its own nationalism in counterpoise with the other. Lacking the material resources commanded by Northerners, Southern white women in cities and towns alike mobilized to rebury the Confederate dead. In Winchester, a town in northern Virginia that had seen numerous battles throughout the war, women took the lead in gathering 2,500 bodies that lay within a 15-mile radius of the town and placing them in Stonewall Cemetery, built adjacent to a national cemetery for Yankee dead. They succeeded in identifying almost 1,700 men; the remaining 800 were buried together in a central mound encircled by the marked graves. Through this symbolically powerful public work, Southern women helped create the mythic Confederate nation that grew out of the ashes of the actual Confederacy.

The Civil War ended slavery and formally reunited the country, but as This Republic of Suffering makes abundantly clear, a more or less unified white American identity could follow only a generation later. Northern and Southern whites had to embark first upon their separate quests to memorialize their dead—campaigns based upon the same cultural assumptions about death but vastly different organizational strategies and resources. And before Northern whites could reconcile themselves with a post-Reconstruction, segregated South, they needed to forget the tens of thousands of African-American soldiers who had died for liberty and union too. That process required time, since black veterans did all they could after the war to remind the nation of their service. The irony is that the fallen white soldiers whom both sides had labored so tirelessly to identify and rebury as individuals passed into 20th-century American memory as collectivities of white Southern and white Northern heroes, sacrificed for a politically rejoined yet still racially divided nation.