Saturday, April 19, 2014

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2014, April 19: How was death viewed during the Civil War?

Today I'm posting about the actual Civil War. Or rather, about something on how the Civil War is remembered.

Nicholas Marshall in The Civil War Death Toll, Reconsidered New York Times 04/15/2014 explains that Civil War historiography in recent years has focused on how the level of killing during the war affected public perceptions.

This topic interests me also because it puts into perspective the still-common assumption that the level of television coverage of the Vietnam War played a key role in undermining public support for it. In the Civil War, the battles themselves were taking place at home and people near the battlefields could see the battles and the many bodies left behind after the larger ones. Yet public support in the North and the South held firmly enough to keep the carnage going for four full years.

One part of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg

James McPherson in Dark Victories New York Review of Books 04/17/2008 issue reviewed two books dealing with this aspect of the Civil War, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008) by Drew Gilpin Faust and Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (2008) by Mark Schantz. McPherson offers a contrast in the approach the two historians' books take to the understanding of and rituals around death in American culture at the time:

Drew Gilpin Faust ... in This Republic of Suffering ... contrasts the preoccupation of antebellum Americans with death to our discomfort with the subject today. But while Schantz believes that "antebellum Americans could face death with resignation and even joy because they carried in their hearts and heads a comforting and compelling vision of eternal life," Faust portrays death, however frequent, as a heart-wrenching experience for both the dying and their surviving loved ones. If there was a "culture of death," it consisted of rituals to cushion the numbing shock of loss. Faust labels the most important ritual "the concept of the Good Death." Such a death occurred at home in bed surrounded by family and friends who provided every comfort during the last hours of life. The dying person spoke last words assuring everyone that she or he was ready to depart in peace and to meet them again in the afterlife where the strife and hardships of earthly toil were unknown. "By the 1860s," Faust writes, "many elements of the Good Death" had been largely "separated from their explicitly theological roots." Assumptions about "the way to die" had "spread beyond formal religion to become a part of more general systems of belief held across the nation about life’s meaning and life’s appropriate end."

McPherson also reminds us that seeing dead bodies of soldiers scarcely leads exclusively in itself to lack of support for further war and killing:

Although few soldiers had read Saint Augustine or Hugo Grotius on the theory of "just war," they eventually developed their own version of this doctrine as applied to "Yankee vandals" or "Rebel traitors." A variety of beliefs and attitudes helped soldiers to overcome the sixth commandment, among them ideas of duty and self-defense (kill or be killed), a desire for revenge against a demonized enemy who had killed their comrades, the murderous hatred of Confederate soldiers toward black Union soldiers, and the latter's retaliation for the massacres of captured black soldiers by frenzied Confederates. Veteran soldiers became hardened to death. They were, in Faust's words, "never quite the same again after seeing fields of slaughtered bodies destroyed by men just like themselves." [my emphasis]
McPherson summarizes the significance of the two authors' interpretation this way:

For both Schantz and Faust, this loss of life and the cultural institutions Americans constructed to cope with it are the most enduring legacy of the Civil War. The "horribly luminous" reality of 620,000 war dead, writes Schantz, "worked profound transformations on American society." For Faust, "death created the modern American union" The dying and killing "transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering." The "meaning of the war had come to inhere in its cost .... The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come." [my emphasis]
McPherson doesn't buy the notion that this is "the most enduring legacy of the Civil War." For one thing, there's "its apparent morbidity." But there is also the fact that the war for all its death did produce important constructive and democratic results:

Faust makes a strong case that the creation of national cemeteries with their constituency of mourners and the slain changed “the very definition of the nation and its obligations.” But I think that the Thirteenth to Fifteenth Amendments, which defined freedom, citizenship, and equality, were even more nationalizing and transformative. Despite the war’s “harvest of death,” almost four times more soldiers survived than died. Their veterans’ reunions well into the twentieth century commemorated the sacrifices of comrades who had given their lives in the war, to be sure, but they also celebrated the achievements of the living.
Nicolas Marshall suggests that the level of the body count may also be exaggerated in terms of its affects on how the country viewed death:

Solid scholarly work exists on the central importance of death in antebellum America and the ordinary experience of death during the war, but Civil War historians have tended to sidestep this literature in order to claim the war years as exceptional. They have also underplayed the significance of the demographic realities that Americans faced before, during, and after the war. These reveal a society constantly coping with large-scale mortality. Americans throughout the period were lucky if they survived into middle age, and they recognized that life was more fragile than we do today. ...

Given these circumstances, it is important to remember that approximately two-thirds of the deaths of soldiers came as a result of disease, rather than on the battlefield. Looking back from today, these numbers are difficult to fathom, and the image conjured by them is of horrendously unsanitary conditions in military camps. After all, these deaths seem to be as much a product of war as those that resulted from wounds: soldiers in camp were there to fight the war and they died because the conditions were necessary to conduct field operations with a massive army.
He cites the variability of the death rate in different parts of the country that were differently affected by the war. Which, of course, also applies to my point about people seeing the bodies on the battlefied, something far more likely in some parts of the country than others.

Marshall also notes this:

The experience with epidemic sickness and death in other historical moments should also remind us that Americans have been much more blasé about death from sickness than they are today. During the global flu epidemic at the end of the World War I as many as 100 million worldwide, including 600,000 in the United States (roughly five times the number of American casualties in World War I and approaching the total number of deaths in the Civil War), perished over the course of just a few months. In addition, this was an unusual strain of influenza that killed mainly the healthiest cohort of the population (those in their 20s and 30s) through a violent immune response. If any event should have triggered re-evaluation of the nation’s approach to death (based solely on changes in incidence and scale, as Civil War historians often calculate), this would be it.

Yet one historian’s book on the subject is titled “America’s Forgotten Pandemic,” and he spends a significant portion of the book trying to explain why the epidemic seemed to disappear from public consciousness so soon after it waned. The answer, in part, is that well into the 20th century Americans viewed disease — and the death that came with it — as a constant, as something that had to be dealt with as part of everyday existence.
War is also one of the most long-standing practices of the human race, God help us. And there are a huge number of cultural rituals, assumptions and attitudes around war that heavily condition the larger social reaction to death in war.

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