Every so often I read a book that changes the way I think about something. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faustâ€™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 todayâ€™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 didnâ€™t mean disease or infection wouldnâ€™t kill him later.
Death and dying werenâ€™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 theyâ€™d be killed far from their family. It was important for grieving relatives to know the details of the soldierâ€™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 whoâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 Bradyâ€™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 personâ€™s status as a grieving family member–all black for a full year and some white could be worn after that. Women didnâ€™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.
Itâ€™s easy to underestimate the way that the Civil War changed America, but Gilpinâ€™s book reminds us that life before and after the conflict were very different worlds.
AWJ Editor’s Note: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil WarÂ is currently on sale in the Ancestry Store.
Maureen Taylorâ€™s work with family photographs was profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Contact her through her website www.photodetective.com.