A moving work of social history, detailing how the Civil War changed perceptions and behaviors about death.
Harvard president and historian Faust (Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, 1996, etc.) begins with a recitation of some telling facts: The number of soldiers who died in the Civil War, about 620,000, equals those felled from the American Revolution to the Korean War; if it occurred today, proportionally, six million Americans would die. “Confederate men,” she adds, “died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one of five white southern men of military age did not survive the Civil War.” Faust demonstrates that the war brought about a small industrial revolution of remembrance involving statues, memorials and national cemeteries. The last were undertaken, so to speak, soon after the war’s end, for throughout the South a stiff rainstorm would disinter the corpses of the fallen. As Faust recounts, at Shiloh “there were even reports of coffins floating like little boats down the Mississippi toward the sea.” Embodying old notions of honor and duty, the war also brought the notion of the “good death” to the forefront, even as Americans on both sides, confronted with appalling casualties, began to doubt that their sacrifices had any meaning. They also became inured to the sight of corpse-covered fields, and some even delighted in them. There are war-lovers in every war, of course, but this revelation was new: As one Vermont private wrote, “The more we get used to being killed, the better we like it.” Grief came privately, of course, but more profoundly in mass displays such as followed the deaths of Stonewall Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.
An illuminating study, well deserving of a place alongside Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991).