I realized that it had been awhile since I posted anything on the blog, so here is a paper I wrote covering the suffering that occurred during the American Civil War:
The American Civil War is, to this day, the bloodiest war that America has ever been involved in. It claimed the lives of approximately 620,000 Americans between the years of 1861 and 1865. According to Drew Gilpin Faust, this number is equal to the total number of American casualties in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. In the battle of Shiloh alone, 24,000 fatalities occurred. Such astounding losses would, in fact, change the face of our young nation. There were many challenges and changes that Americans faced during this time of trial. The first of which would be overcoming the barrier for one to die a “Good Death” (Faust).
During the 19th century, it was expected that when an individual’s time to leave this world came, he/she would be surrounded by friends and family. This allowed the departing to expose their spiritual state to assure their loved ones that they would pass out of this world into the safe arms of The LORD. By doing so, the family would be comforted (Faust).
The Civil War, however, disrupted this tradition. Young men would suddenly die on the battlefield with no one to comfort them in their transition from this world to the next. To compensate this feeling of loneliness, the dying would remove pictures of their family members to speak their last words to. Some soldiers would write a letter to their family in advance and carry it with them to be forwarded after they died (Faust).
Comrades of the departed soldier did their best to reenact the scene to the family to assure them of his spiritual state. These letters would comfort the grieving a little, but nothing could replace the satisfaction of being there at the moment of passing. Families would be left to imagine their loved one’s last moments, never really knowing for sure if their loved one was safe in the arms of Jesus (Faust).
Unlike today where many cower at the thought of dying, soldiers during the Civil War faced death with courage. They were willing to die for the cause of “masculinity, patriotism, and religion.” As Faust says in her book:
“Soldier,” a confederate chaplain reminded his troops in 1863, “your business is to die.” Men in the Civil War America went to war talking of glory and conquest, of saving or creating a nation, and of routing the enemy. But at the heart of the soldier’s understanding of his duty rested the notion of sacrifice. E.G. Abbot was far from alone when he explained his motivation for entering the Union army. “I came into this war,” he wrote, “to lay down my life. As a Confederate soldier prayed, “my first desire should be not that I might escape death but that my death should help the cause of the right to triumph.” (Faust)
Another difficulty that Americans were forced to overcome was that of killing. How could an individual who claimed to be a Christian go to battle and kill other humans? This was the question that many Americans faced. Some tried to explain this feeling away by saying that the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” did not apply to the killing that occurred during war. Still soldiers struggled to grope with this concept. It has been suggested that the aversion to kill could be the cause of 24,000 loaded rifles that were found on the battlefield after Gettysburg. This conviction also resulted in one Confederate soldier’s refusal to kill. Faust elaborates:
Instead of aiming at the enemy, he shot straight up into the air while “praying as lustily as ever one of Cromwell’s Roundhead’s prayed.” When his captain threatened to shoot him, a comrade reported his reply: “You can kill me if you want to, but I am not going to appear before my God with the blood of my fellow man on my soul.” Willing to remain “exposed to every volley of the enemy’s fire,” the soldier was ready to give his life rather than take that of another. (Faust)
Other soldiers convinced themselves that killing was acceptable, using the excuse that it was in self-defense or vengeance. The Union was attacking in vengeance for slavery, while the Confederates were defending their rights. For others, it became a game of sorts. Faust explains:
Frank Coker of Georgia tried to explain to his wife how despite battle’s horrors, “there is an excitement, a charm, an inspiration in it that makes on wish to be where it is going on.” For some men from rural areas, battle took on the character of the hunt, with its sense of sport and pleasure. A Texas officer exulted as the enemy fell before him, “Oh this is fun to lie here and shoot them down.” To a Union soldier near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, in 1862, battle “seemed like play for we would be laughing and talking to each other yelling and firing away. One fellow would say ‘Watch me pop that fellow.’ Another fellow said, ‘I dropped a six foot secesh.’ (Faust)
Still yet, another method of excusing all of the killing was by dehumanization. For example, blacks were not recognized as humans, therefore it was okay to kill them. In fact, this belief was taken to the point of not burying the blacks who were killed, but rather, they left them on the battlefield to rot. This only fueled the black’s excuse for the killing: to be seen as human beings, not mere property (Faust).
With so much killing, the question of what to do with the dead remains became of significance to Americans. Obviously, it was near impossible to bury each man individually. There were several different attempts to solve this problem.
Friends and comrades of the deceased would do their best to provide a proper burial for the deceased. A barrier would be placed between the corpse and body when burial took place to distinguish the fact that their friend was a human, not a mere animal. They would do their best to provide markers for the burial plot. Most of the time, these markers were made of trees, wood, or stones (Faust).
Those who came from wealthy families were privileged to be sent home to be buried. It was during this time that embalmment became a popular method of preserving the body to allow the family to have closure. Other methods of preservation such as refrigeration was used during this time. However, this method proved to be unsuccessful (Faust).
The dead and dying that were left on the field after a battle was left to the responsibility of the victor. Generally, deceased officers of the defeated army would be traded for the remains of their own officers from previous battles. However, privates were not so privileged (Faust).
One way of disposal of the corpses was by forcing prisoners of war to bury their own dead. This allowed the victor the enjoyment of seeing the captives squirm as they buried their dead friends and comrades (Faust).
Probably the most common method of disposal was by digging a pit and throwing the corpses from the opposing army into it. However, this created an almost impossible task of later accounting for the dead (Faust).
This is what led to Congress passing an act containing standards for dealing with the corpses. Special graves registration units were sent out to record where men were buried. This would allow families to come and retrieve the remains of their loved ones when the war was over (Faust).
Soldiers knew that it was possible that in the possibility of dying, there was a possibility of never being identified. Thieves would scurry over a battlefield in search of valuables. Opposing soldiers would strip the dead of much needed clothing. Sometimes, it would just be impossible to identify a corpse due to the extent of wounds received. In an effort to secure their identity, soldiers came up with some ingenious methods of identification (Faust).
Soldier identification badges were first introduced during this time. Those who could not afford these badges would scribble their names on a piece of scrap paper and pin it to their clothing before a battle. Some wrote out who they were after being wounded, as was the case with Captain O.W. Holmes. If the soldier was unable to write their own name, nurses would accomplish this task for them (Faust).
However, these methods did not stop the inevitability that some would go unidentified. This created terror in the hearts of those with sons, brothers, and husbands in the war. The knowledge of not knowing anything about their loved one’s well-being was sometimes unbearable. As a result, families would put advertisements in the paper in hopes of hearing news, any news (Faust).
However, these searches were not always fruitful. Some men were never identified, given the term that is used for so many men who died during the Civil War, “Unknown.” Other men were blown to pieces by the advancing weaponry used during the war. This made it impossible for the body to be recovered, leaving the family innocent of their loved one’s state of being (Faust).
Sometimes, bodies would not be identified, if identified at all, until after the war. Faust expounds in the following section:
Official policy toward the dead evolved slowly over the next several years, but immediate action seemed imperative, as a matter of both decency and expediency. The longer the bodies were left without proper burial, the more vulnerable they became to depredation and the less likely they were to be identifiable. Military commanders improvised in the face of need and opportunity. In June 1965 Captain James Moore, an assistant quartermaster who had been active in fledgling graces registration efforts during the war, was ordered to the Wilderness and Spotsylvania “for the purpose of superintending the interments of the remains of Union soldiers yet unburied and marking their burial-places for future identification.” Moore found hundreds of unmarked graves, as well as skeletons that had been left for more than two years without the dignity of burial. “By exposure to the weather,” he reported, “all traces of their identity were entirely obliterated.” Summer head and “the unpleasant odor from decayed matter” prevented him from removing all bodies to a central location, but he made sure all were carefully interred, with remains appropriately “hidden from view.” On these two fields he estimated that he oversaw the burial of fifteen hundred men, although the scattering of so many bones made an exact count impossible. Solders of the U.S. Colored Troops, no yet mustered out of service, did the often repellent work. Moore reported that 785 tablets were erected over named graves, and he submitted a list of the officers and men he had identified (Faust).
This brings us to another difficulty that families would face. How does one grieve for the sudden loss of a son, brother, or husband? People used many different ways to cope with this devastation. Some never got over it, literally grieving themselves to death. Others threw themselves into finding evidence of their loved one’s death. Some carried small memoriums, such as buttons cut from the deceased’s clothing, or the bullet that killed their loved one. Others began work to improve the medical environment in the army, as was the case with Henry Bowditch after his son died from a wound that could not be properly cared for (Faust).
Women, especially, were notorious of going into mourning. To show this, they would dress in black, moving to the lighter colors of lavender or gray for around 2 years after the death of one they were close to. Some never gave into believing that their loved ones were really dead, but continually hoped that they would come home someday. Public displays became a popular method of saying goodbye. The object from which most found comfort from would be their faith (Faust).
Up to the Civil War, Heaven was depicted as a place where the saints all gathered around The Throne of GOD and ceaselessly sang praises to HIM. However, in the face of the sudden traumatic losses, people began to form a new idea of what Heaven may be like. It was no longer picturized as an on-going church service, but, rather, it was pictured as a perfected earth. It became a symbol of reuniting with loved ones who had gone on before them (Faust).
Those who were not so dedicated to their faith turned to more secular ways of confirming the happiness of their loved ones. Séances became much more popular. By being able to communicate with the dead, those still on earth could rest easy knowing that the departed was in a better place. They viewed death as merely passing through a veil into an invisible world (Faust).
Although people turned to different venues to comfort their doubts, there was still a nagging question in the hearts of many: Why did these soldiers die? What was the purpose in their death? Lincoln addressed this issue during his Second Inaugural Address in March of 1865:
…it was God, not man, who gave it [death of soldiers] meaning. An Old Testament God of justice is avenging the sins of slavery. The Civil War and its deaths are not so much sacrifice as atonement. “Yet if God wills that it continue until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether (Faust).’”
Not only were these lives sacrificed in revenge for slavery, but it was also seen as a cost for victory. As Faust says, “Death was not loss, but both the instrument and the substance of victory.”
Overall, I think that the best word to describe the book, This Republic of Suffering, is sobering. Death during the American Civil War is a grievous subject. It had never really occurred to me that through the death of so many, there would need to be a way to dispose of the corpses. Nor had I thought about the psychology behind Christians killing other human beings. I found these chapters most fascinating.
I was deeply moved in reading of the sacrifice of so many for a cause they believed in. I believe that this should be required reading in every American history class, as it sheds a new light on issues that we face today.
Many Americans nowadays claim that the African Americans are due special liberties because they were forced to suffer under slavery. They say that payment needs to be made. However, after reading this book, I believe that payment has been made. Over 600,000 American lives were sacrificed during a war that ended slavery.
Whether the Civil War could have been prevented or not, no one will ever know for certain. History cannot be rewritten. The lives of those men were snuffed forever. Granted, I believe that if the federal government had just stayed out of the state’s business, slavery would have sooner or later waned as it did in European countries. However, the legacy that the American Civil War holds today cannot be forgotten. Not only does it inspire America to overcome the struggles that we face in modern times, but it also changed to face of the Nation.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Print.