Civil War Reflections, by Maureen Taylor

This Republic of Suffering.bmpEvery so often I read a book that changes the way I think about something. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is one of those books.

Two of my great-great grandfathers fought in the Civil War. One served for a brief six months, returning home ill with dysentery while the other enlisted in several regiments until a ball went through his right hand causing a permanent disability. My family was one of the lucky ones. On the first page of the preface, Gilpin tallies up the numbers for us. Two percent of the population died between 1861 and 1865; in today’s terms that would amount to 6 million dead. Confederate soldiers were three times as likely to die as those in the Union forces. Soldiers and civilians died in conflicts that raged across farm lands and in our urban areas; the line between battlefield and home blurring. If a soldier was lucky enough to survive a battle, it didn’t mean disease or infection wouldn’t kill him later.

Death and dying weren’t simple matters in mid-nineteenth-century America. In pre-Civil War America when a person died they were usually surrounded by loved ones who cared for them in their last moments. During the War soldiers wrote home on the eve of battle not knowing if they’d be killed far from their family. It was important for grieving relatives to know the details of the soldier’s death and hear his last words so comrades stepped in and reported the details.

According to Gilpin, soldiers found it difficult to disassociate from the enemy. In many cases they were fighting their own brother or neighbors. There were men who’d never fought against another human being and the killing changed them forever.

With thousands of men dying on the battlefield–either directly killed or left for dead–disposing of bodies became a major problem. Burials took place but the process wasn’t consistent. Not every soldier received a proper resting place. Some were left where they died. Families with means traveled to reclaim remains. Embalming became a necessary science for transportation.

Then there was the naming of the dead. There were no modern dog tags. Lists of casualties appeared in newspapers, but collecting those names was not perfect. Soldiers like Amos Humiston died clutching a photograph. His story was reported in papers across the country and the ambrotype (a glass image) of his three small children helped identify this man.

All sorts of belongings helped identify bodies. The Sanitary Commission and United States Christian Commission tried to name the dead and mark graves.

Photographs did more than remind fighting men of home. Mathew Brady’s stunning images of wartime scenes brought death into American parlors in all its gruesome glory. Survivors had to accept death and created mourning rituals to deal with their loss. Clothing reflected a person’s status as a grieving family member–all black for a full year and some white could be worn after that. Women didn’t have to guess about appropriate attire. Fashion magazines with color illustrations were instructional. Poets, like Walt Whitman, wrote verses to express the proper sentiment. Spiritualists claimed to be able to communicate with the deceased took advantage of grieving relatives.

Years after the War, commissions tried to compile memorial books of the soldiers who died but struggled to count and identify the dead. While volumes of lists of enlisted men exist, there is no such accounting of the women and children who contributed to the effort. If a member of your family resided in America during the Civil War, pick up a copy of this volume and imagine what life must have been like for them living in a country torn asunder.

It’s easy to underestimate the way that the Civil War changed America, but Gilpin’s book reminds us that life before and after the conflict were very different worlds.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

AWJ Editor’s Note: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is currently on sale in the Ancestry Store.

Maureen Taylor’s work with family photographs was profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Contact her through her website www.photodetective.com.

18 thoughts on “Civil War Reflections, by Maureen Taylor

  1. In honor of upcoming Memorial Day, I have been posting approximately one biographical sketch per day of a Civil War veteran ancestor or sibling of an ancestor since mid-April.

    What has struck me more than anything was how many of them suffered from disease for years after the war. Dysentery (diarrhea) was the number one killer.

  2. MAUREEN,

    PLEASE EXCUSE THE CAPITAL LETTERS, BUT, I JUST HAD CATARACTS REMOVED ON THURSDAY, MAY 15.

    I READ YOUR COMMENTS ABOVE AND RIGHT AWAY I THOUGHT OF MY GGG GRANDFATHER ISAAC LITTLE. HE WAS IN THE TN. CALVARY. HE JOINED IN 1862 AND DIED 4 MAR. 1864 IN THE GERMANTOWN HOSPITAL OF CONGESTIAL LUNG PROBLEMS. ( I THINK TODAY, THAT WOULD BE CALLED THE FLU. )

    HE WAS ONE OF THE LUCKY ONE’S THAT YOU DISCRIBED ABOVE. HE DIED IN A HOSPITAL, SO THEY NEW HIS NAME.

    AS YOU KNOW, THE US GOVERNMENT BUILT THE VETERANS NATIONAL CEMETERY IN NORTHEAST MEMPHIS,TN.

    EVEN THOUGH HE DIED IN 1964, HIS BODY ALONG WITH SEVERAL THOUSANDS OF OTHERS ( OVER 6,000 UNKOWN ) WERE MOVED TO THAT CEMETERY.

    I TRAVELED OVER 2,00O MILES ON THE 17TH OF OCT. 2005, FROM BELLINGHAM, WASHINGTON TO MEMPHIS JUST TO SEE HIS GRAVE AND HAVE MY WIFE LEE ANN TAKE A PHOTO OF ME WITH MY HAND ON ISAAC’S TOMBSTONE.

    I AM JUST GLAD THAT HE WAS NOT ONE OF UNKOWN’S. MANY OF THE UNKNOWN’S ORGINAL GRAVES WERE UNMARKED OR THEIR ORIGINAL WOODEN MARKERS HAD BEEN USED AS FIREWOOD, WASHED OR BLOWN AWAY.

    WHEN THE GOVERNMENT WAS LOOKING FOR GRAVES, THEY WOULD ASK THE PEOPLE LIVING IN AN AREA WHERE THERE HAD BEEN A BATTLE, DID THEY REMEMBER ANY LOCATIOINS OF GRAVES OR DID THEY ACTUALLY BURY SOLDIERS.

    THIS WAS HOW MANY UNKNOWN’S OF THE UNKNOWN BODIES WERE FOUND.

    I REALLY ENJOYED READING YOUR COMMENTS.

    WALLY CAVINESS

  3. I have just read your article–with great interest, and will be ordering this book immediately. I am new at researching my Civil War ancestors and have been much saddened as I thnk of what they endured. From what I can discover, it seems that my Archibald Dabney family had 5 sons and 1 son-in-law who enlisted in the Union forces, with only 1 returning home alive. Thank you for your reflections! I am eager to learn more. Joan Leach

  4. I’ve just finished your article and had to comment. Several of my family members served in the Civil War. One died of disease in camp. From letters and other documents, one thing that struck me was how unhappy they were, even though they were doing their duty as they saw it. The other thing was that the suffering did not stop when the war ended. My GG Grandfather served, entering the Army in his 40′s. He never even received his full bounty payment, let alone pay, etc. Ever. His widow was still trying years after his death. The letters they wrote in this attempt were pitiful, and point up the difficulty, not only of their lives, but of their friends and neighbors, after the war.

  5. Marilyn,

    I, too, had two g-g-grandfathers who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. One, an infantryman died attacking Fort Gilmer, one of the ring of Confederate forts surrounding Richmond near Petersburg. His remains were never recovered by his unit and his captain wrote his wife that he went missing when his company retired from the field of battle. I have visited the fort several times and discovered a small cemetery nearby where many of the gravestones read “ 6 unknown Union soldiers buried here” or “ 5 unknown Confederate soldiers buried here.” I assume that my John Wheeler is buried in that cemetery or one similar to it.

    My second g-g-grandfather was an artillaryman and was discharged after being wounded in his right hand. He might have been used as an infantryman at the time he was wounded. When loading powder and ball into a musket the soldier, lying down, had to reach up to inset the ramrod into the musket barrel and quite possibly been shot in his hand at that time. This could have happened to your ancester also.

    John J. Wheeler

  6. My grandfather, A. B. Pardue, born in 1833 in SC left home headed for TX and ended in AL, joined the CSA at age 25 and served as James Longstreet’s artificer and unit blacksmith for the duration of that horrible experience. He was at Appomatox at General Lee’s surrender. Needing to get back to Society Hill, AL and no available “transportation” he found a mule and rode it from Appomatox to AL. He then married his childhood sweetheart and together they had 17 children, the next to the youngest of them was my father. My grandfather was a farmer and blacksmith and worked until he died in 1918. I buy the book

  7. My g-g grandfather also was in the Civil War. He served 3 yrs. and returned home just as his oldest son (10 yrs.) died. He kept a diary during the war that I remember reading as a child. When my grandmother sold her home the diary disappeared. I always hope some day it may “magically” be found. His name was Solomon D Grimes. A g-g-g grandfather also fought. He suffered sunstroke and was taken to a field hospital where he contracted dysentery. He remained in a hospital until his enlistment was up 3 mos. later. He returned to Maine but his health was ruined and he had a hard time supporting his family. His pension file is full of letters from neighbors testifying to his ill health and difficulty working. He fought many years to gat a pension. He died at 52.

  8. Excellent article. Being a living historian since 1991, I enjoy any and all materials concerning the American Civil War. Keep up the good work!!!!!

  9. I have tried to buy the book from the Ancestry store, but without success. That has been disappointing. Joan Leach

  10. My Great grandfather fought in the Civil War and was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, so your article was of great interest to me.

  11. I have 4 direct ancestors who served in the Confederate Army. My g-g grandfather died from measles after he joined the Army. His brother was killed in battle. My g-g grandmother (his wife) had 2 brothers who were killed in battle, along with 2 nephews. My husband had 5 direct ancestors who fought in the Confederate Army. One died from a gunshot wound through the heart at Gettysburg. I didn’t know any of this information before I became interested in genealogy.

  12. What is known about the Ladies Home Hospital in New York City? My great grandfather was wounded in the shoulder in the battle of The Wilderness 5-5-1864 and was sent to this hospital (by train?). Was this a special hospital for surgery following musket wounds? I can find little info about it. He did recover and by fall was back in the infantry.

  13. This article really struck a cord with the Ancestry community! Thank you for all your comments. You’ve turned this into an online wall of honor for our Civil War ancestors.

  14. corrected copy substitutes Faust for Gibbs. (Sorry)

    “My great grandfather was a Confederate surgeon who took part in 18 major engagements, including Gettysburg, replete with extreme carnage and despoiling of sacred things. In the early 1880′s he relocated with his family from Mississippi to Oregon, there becoming a celebrated mayor, college vice president, co-founder of a Christian church, and still other things. Then, precipitately, he careened into a steep personal descent that ended in murder/suicide. Family history was not to be talked about for decades to come. Faust’s superbly researched and written volume has helped me immeasurably to better understand the tragic human dimensions of that cataclysmic conflict and its aftermath.”

  15. We must never forget that there was a generation of young women who remained spinsters all their lives because so many of the would-have-been husbands were killed during the war.

  16. “Republic of Suffering” sounds intriguing. Haven’t read it yet–wondered if the author investigated how many soldiers died in prisoner of war camps. My g-g-grandfather, George Jefferson Slack of Fayette County, Texas, died in a Union camp in Alton, IL. Records were kept there recording the name and rank of the soldier as well as the cause of death. The story of the camp, an old prison that was reopened as a POW facility, is available on the website of the city of Alton. Conditions in both Union and Confederate camps were autrocious–what a lonely death that would have been.

  17. I’m a bit late in reading this article, but it made me want to get the book! My GGG-Grandfather died at Andersonville Prison, Ga. He was in the NY 111th Vol. Infantry. I have been fortunate to find some records on him, and there is a grave marker at Andersonville with his name on it. Some records say he died of pneumonia and others of dysentary. Either way, I know he must have suffered so. His wife did get a pension from his service, but it was several years after before that happened. If you want to see an enactment of Andersonville, get your hands on an old video entitled “Andersonville”. I cried through nearly the entire movie just knowing my relative was a part of that.

  18. Is there any way I can find out how many people, in the US, are still living who had a grandparent who fought in the Civil War?

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