Between the years 1861 and 1865, the United States engaged in a civil war, one of the most significant military confrontations in the young republic's life. The conflict dramatically altered the course of American society, eradicating the institution of slavery from the land and accelerating a number of social, economic, and political trends originating in other regions of the country. It also made lasting cultural impressions across imaginative and material American landscapes, including the gradual growth of a complex tourist industry built upon memory, patriotism, and consumerism, and the immediate expression of a deeply rooted, though politically sensitive, religious attachment to a distinctly southern way of life.
The Civil War, however, was a major turning point in American history for another reason as well: it transformed attitudes toward death and practices surrounding the corpse in the United States. While antebellum America demonstrated marked preoccupations with the reality of death in literature, material culture, religion, diaries and letters, and early medicine, the war led to the extreme escalation of certain tendencies emerging on the social scene, as well as to the production of entirely new views on death and the dead. The incredible numbers of young men who died during the war, the problems associated with disposal of their bodies, and the rhetorical and symbolic efforts to make sense of the lives lost had profound consequences for American sensibilities and institutional structures.
The Presence of Death
During the war years, death was a pervasive element of social life in both the northern and southern sections of the country. Up until the war, Americans were quite familiar with the presence of death, intimate with its consequences in their own homes and local communities. Some estimates suggest that in the North, where more accurate records of the period are available, the crude death rate in the antebellum period was around 15 per 1,000 in rural areas, and between 20 and 40 per 1,000 in more populated cities. Most people lived into their late thirties if they survived the exceedingly dangerous early years of life. Chances of dying in childhood were also quite high, according to many studies. Infant mortality hovered around 200 per 1,000 live births, and roughly 10 percent of individuals between one year and twenty-one years died from a wide range of causes.
Despite this close and personal awareness of human mortality, Americans during the Civil War had a radically different set of experiences with death than previously. First and foremost, this conflict produced more deaths than any other war in U.S. history. The total number of deaths for both the North and the South, in the four-year period, was over 600,000. World War II is the only other major conflict that comes close to this number, when over 400,000 individuals died in battles across the ocean.
More demographic information is available for the Northern armies than for the Confederacy, which did not have the resources to keep accurate records on soldiers. According to some historians, roughly one out of sixteen white males in the North between the ages of sixteen and forty-three lost his life during the war. Even more astonishing than the overall mortality rates for the entire conflict are the number for particular battles: During the three-day battle at Gettysburg, for example, 3,155 Union soldiers died; at Antietam, during one day of fighting, the Union lost over 2,000 young men.
The carnage left on these and other sites, for both sides, boggles the mind, and must have been overwhelming to Americans viewing photographs, visiting battlefields, or reading detailed accounts in newspapers. Another significant difference between this war and other wars after the Revolution is the proximity of the battles to American communities. The Civil War not only took place on American soil, it pitted neighbor against neighbor, family against family, countrymen against countrymen.
More threatening to American soldiers during the war than mortal wounds on the battlefield was the presence of disease and infection, which had the potential to seriously reduce the number of fighters on both sides. Nearly twice as many men died as a result of poor health in camps and hospitals than from wounds inflicted during combat. What did soldiers die from? Afflictions such as diarrhea, malaria, smallpox, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and measles wiped out large numbers of men on both sides of the conflict. The deadly power of disease swept through the ranks because of the incredibly poor conditions in camps, resulting from inadequate shelter, contaminated water supplies, unhealthy diet, and a limited knowledge about proper sanitation and safe hygienic practices. As the war progressed, the Union forces worked especially hard to improve the living conditions of soldiers and patients—death became an urgent public health issue that could be combated with sound, rational decisions about such simple things as clean water, healthy food, and adequate sanitation.
Under wartime conditions, Americans in general, and soldiers in particular, acquired a unique familiarity with human mortality. Regardless of the formidable presence of death in life during the antebellum years, the Civil War posed a series of new challenges for those affected by the carnage— which is to say nearly every American at the time— and produced new attitudes that reflected distinct modifications in how these Americans made sense of death and disposed of their dead. In the midst of war, unorthodox views on death and the dead body emerged out of the entirely unparalleled experience with human violence, suffering, and mortality in U.S. history. On the other hand, some perspectives demonstrated a degree of continuity with more traditional views on the meaning of death, and reinforced deeply rooted religious sensibilities circulating before the onset of the conflict.
Disposing of the Dead
The Civil War forced Americans to reconsider what counts as appropriate treatment of the dead, as well as to reconceptualize the symbolic meanings of the dead body. The confrontation, with brutally slaughtered masses of bodies or hopelessly diseased soldiers dying in hospitals or camps, upset conventional patterns of disposal, as well as established attitudes about communal duties, religious rituals, and personal respect in the face of death. What counted as proper and appropriate action to usher the dead from the land of the living in an earlier time often proved impossible during the conflict, though in some cases efforts were made to treat the dead with a dignity that evoked prewar sensibilities.
In both the Union and Confederate armies, soldiers attempted to provide some kind of burial for fallen comrades who perished during a battle, even if this meant simply covering bodies with dirt, or placing the dead in common graves. The details of burial depended on a variety of circumstances, including which side won a particular battle, and which unit was assigned burial duty. Victors had the luxury of attending to their own dead with more care and attention, if time permitted. On the other hand, the losing side had to retreat from the battlefield, which meant leaving the fate of the dead and wounded to the winning side, who treated them as most enemies are treated, with indifference and disrespect.
If the Union forces controlled the field after a fight, for example, the dead were often buried without ceremony somewhere on or near the site, either individually in separate graves or collectively in common graves. In many cases, those assigned to burial duty—often African Americans, who performed a variety of noxious duties for the Union army—left the dead in their uniforms or placed a blanket around them before interment. If such resources as pine coffins or burial containers were available, and time permitted, soldiers would be placed in them before being put in the ground, a procedure that rarely occurred in the early years of the war. Many soldiers on both sides expressed a great deal of fear that their bodies would be left to the enemy, which was understood as a fate worse than death.
The federal government and Union soldiers themselves tried to ensure that bodies were identified with at least a name, a desire that led some soldiers to go into battle with their names and positions pinned onto their uniform (foreshadowing the popular use of dog tags in subsequent wars). Again, when time allowed and when burial units were available, Union forces made an effort to avoid anonymous burial, identify graves, and keep records of who died during a battle, an effort that grew increasingly more sophisticated as the war dragged on.
In contrast to the lack of ceremony surrounding the disposition of the dead on or near fields of battle, conditions in Union camps and hospitals allowed for more conventional burial practices that maintained older traditions. Reasons for this difference had nothing to do with smaller numbers of dying soldiers in these settings. More men died from disease than wounds inflicted in battle, so there were ample corpses in these locations. Camps and hospitals simply had more resources, personnel, and time to take care of these matters. Many also had space singled out for use as cemeteries, which provided a readily available and organized location for disposal.
General hospitals in larger towns seemed to be settings where more formal funeral observances could be carried out, especially for the Union. In addition to the presence of hospital nurses in these locations, members of the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission made burial of the dead more humane, respectful, and ritually satisfying. According to some firsthand accounts of Union hospitals in Virginia and elsewhere, the dead were given proper burials, which included religious services, the use of a coffin, a military escort from the hospital, the firing of arms, and an individual headboard with information about the deceased.
Regimental hospitals much closer to battlefields, on the other hand, could not offer the kind of attention that larger hospitals provided the dead. Descriptions of death and dying in these locations can be found in a number of soldiers' letters and diaries, anticipating the shifting scenery of expiration from home to hospital. The presence of corpses, as well as other reminders of human mortality like piles of amputated limbs, did not evoke images of order and solemnity. Instead, death and burial had many of the same characteristics as found on fields of battle, though a rudimentary graveyard next to these hospitals allowed for a slightly more organized space for disposing of remains.
In addition to hospitals and battlefields, another location where Civil War dead could be buried included prisons. According to one account of prison burials by a Union soldier incarcerated in Georgia's Andersonville Prison, treatment of the dead followed a fairly regimented set of procedures. These procedures included pinning the name of the deceased on his shirt, transportation to the prison "dead-house," placement on a wagon with twenty to thirty other bodies, and then transferal to the cemetery, where a superintendent overseeing the burial ground would assume responsibilities for ensuring as adequate a burial as possible. Dead prisoners were placed in trenches, usually without any covering, and buried under prison dirt. The location of each body was then marked with a stake at the head identifying the soldier and the date of death.
For family members and friends in the North, the prospect of loved ones dying far away from home, and being interred in what most considered to be profane Southern soil, led to a great deal of anguish and outrage. Indeed, many Northerners were deeply disturbed by this prospect because it upset normal social scripts ingrained in American culture when a family experienced a death. In normal times, death occurred in the home, people had a chance to view the body before it disappeared forever, and burial took place in a familiar space, which usually included previously deceased family members and neighbors. These were not normal times for sure, so some families, particularly the more affluent families in the North, would do whatever they could to bring the body of a loved family member's home, either by making the trip south on their own, or paying someone to locate, retrieve, and ship the body north.
As a result of these desires—to maintain familial control over the final resting place and, if possible, to have one last look before the body vanished—a new form of treating the dead appeared on the social scene, and paved the way for the birth of an entirely modern funeral industry. Undertakers who contracted with Northern families began to experiment with innovative means to preserve bodies that had to be shipped long distances on train cars, often during the hot summer months. The revolutionary practice that emerged in this context, embalming, provided both the military and Northern communities with a scientific, sanitary, and sensible way to move bodies across the land.
Making Sense of Death
In peaceful times, death is often experienced as a painful, disruptive, and confusing moment that requires individuals to draw on strongly held religious convictions about the meaning of life, the fate of the soul, and the stability of an ordered cosmos. During war, when individuals are called to sacrifice their lives for the good of the nation and prepare for an early, violent end, the religion of nationalism makes a distinctive mark on meaningmaking efforts circulating throughout public culture. Indeed, the religion of nationalism becomes an integral frame of reference when war breaks out, setting earthly, political conflicts in a cosmic realm of ultimate good battling ultimate evil. In the Civil War, two conflicting visions of American national life came into sharp relief against the backdrop of fields of bloodied bodies and widespread social anguish over the loss of sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands fighting for God and country.
Both Northerners and the Southerners believed God was on their side, and the nation envisioned by each a fulfillment of distinctive Christian commitments and values. Indeed, the blood of martyrs dying in the fight over slavery, and their sacrifices for the preservation of a sacred moral order ordained by God, had curative powers in the mind of many leading figures precisely because the nationalist ideologies of each side relied on Christian imagery and doctrine to justify killing, and being killed, in the service of a higher good. Although certain dead heroic figures had been intimately linked to the destiny of the nation from the Revolutionary War to the attack on Fort Sumter, the U.S. Civil War dramatically altered that linkage, and established a context for imagining innovative ways of making sense of death in American culture.
One concrete example of this innovation was the creation of military cemeteries, a new form of sacred space that gave material expression to religious sensibilities tied to both Christianity and nationalism. First established during the war by the federal government, military cemeteries gave order to death by placing bodies of fallen soldiers in a tidy, permanent, and sacrosanct space that glorified both the war effort and the Christian virtues associated with it. In the midst of the war and in the immediate aftermath these cemeteries made profoundly political statements about Northern power, resources, and determination.
After Congress approved the purchase of land by the government in 1862, twelve new cemeteries located on or near major battlefields, Union camps and hospitals, and other military sites were authorized. Most of them, including Robert E. Lee's estate near the Potomac, were on Southern soil, thereby enhancing the political and sacral weight of each. President Abraham Lincoln articulated the essential meanings undergirding these cemeteries during his dedication speech at Gettysburg. Here Lincoln transformed the bloodied ground and buried lifeless bodies into the rich symbolic soil nourishing Union ideology and American traditions. In the brief speech, Lincoln successfully integrated the fallen soldiers into American mythology, giving them a permanent, holy spot in the physical landscape and assigning them a pivotal, transcendent role in the unfolding of American history. He also gave voice to the incalculable national debt living American citizens owed to the dead.
After the war, the victorious federal government began to ensure that as many Union soldiers as possible were identified and interred in the sacred space of national cemeteries. One of the first postwar national cemeteries was established on the grounds of Andersonville, a site that held profound symbolic meaning for Northerners who, by the end of the war, were outraged by the treatment of federal soldiers there. More than sixty cemeteries owned and operated by the government appeared across the North and South, and within the next decade nearly 300,000 bodies were reinterred. Trumpeting republican values and Christian morality, these cemeteries provided American citizens with an accessible space—in time, many became popular tourist destinations— that imposed a victorious national identity and promoted collective revitalization.
Northern and Southern leaders also gave meaning to the war dead through public pronouncements, in religious services, and by glorifying individual stories of heroism and sacrifice during and after the conflict. Unprecedented levels of social grief and mourning throughout American communities required extraordinary efforts at meaning-making that spoke to the profound emotional pain of individual citizens as well as created a shared sense of loss that could only be overcome through ultimate victory.
Many saw the battle in apocalyptic terms, with the very salvation of American society, and indeed the entire world, at stake. Millennial notions about the impending return of Christ, the role of the nation in this momentous event, and the demonization of the enemy transformed the blood of fallen soldiers into a potent source of social regeneration that would eventually purify the sins of the nation. Leaders on both sides, for example, publicly encouraged citizens to keep the cosmic implications of the war in mind, rather than stay focused on the tragedy of individual deaths on the battlefield. In this rhetorical context, mass death became meaningful because it forcefully brought home a critical realization about the life and destiny of the nation: It occasionally requires the blood of its citizens to fertilize the life-sustaining spirit of patriotism.
On the other hand, however, Northerners committed to democratic ideals and individual rights also took great pains to glorify, and sentimentalize, the deaths of certain soldiers who embodied at the time of their death national virtues like courage in the face of injustice, spiritual preparedness with an eye toward heavenly rewards, and concern about stability at home with one foot in the grave. Numerous accounts of individuals dying a heroic death on the battlefield or in hospitals were anchored with abundantly rich symbol systems relating to Jesus Christ, America, and home. Indeed, whether death became meaningful in collective or personal terms, a reinterpretation of what it meant to die triumphantly and heroically took place over the course of the war, and was animated by one, two, or all three of these symbolic systems.
Both Northerners and Southerners kept certain deaths in mind and used them as a symbolic and inspirational resource throughout the fighting. For the Confederacy, one of the critical figures in the pantheon of heroic leaders was Stonewall Jackson. A paragon of Christian virtue and piety, Southern honor and pride, Jackson died after being accidentally wounded by one of his own men at the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. The example of his death, with a chaplain close at hand, his wife singing hymns, and a calm, peaceful demeanor during his last hours, aroused many downhearted Confederates and, in time, attained mythological standing in Southern culture. After the war, Jackson, along with other venerated Southern heroes who eventually passed on like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, played an important role in the creation of a cultural system of meaning that transformed defeat into the basis for a regionally distinctive southern identity. The southern historian Charles Reagan Wilson argues that this identity embodies a peculiar religious system, the religion of the Lost Cause. This cultural religion, still vital and strong in the twenty-first century, can be characterized as a cult of the dead since much of its mythological and ritual dimensions focus on deceased Southern martyrs who died during the war.
While many responses to the Civil War conveyed a belief in the regenerative powers of violent death, and that redemption of both the individual and society followed in the wake of mass sacrifices by young men, some grew hardened to the savagery and suffering taking place on American soil. For these people, including soldiers themselves who witnessed fighting firsthand, the meaning of death had nothing to do with religious notions like regeneration or redemption. Rather than being swept away by the emotional resonance of responses that glorified the dead and focused on the life of the spirit, certain individuals grew more and more disenchanted with the symbolism of death. Soldiers on the battlefield, military and political leaders guiding the troops, and citizens back home reading eyewitness accounts or seeing visual depictions of the fighting assumed a more pragmatic, disengaged posture, and became indifferent to scenes of human carnage and the deaths of individual men. The question first raised by these attitudes—Does overexposure to death and violence lead to desensitization?—continues to plague twenty-first-century American society.
Advances in Weaponry
Finally, one of the more long-lasting social changes associated with American experiences in the Civil War has to do with the emergence of a particularly strong cultural and political obsession with guns. During the war, technological advances in weaponry, and the wide distribution of rifles and pistols among the male population, transformed the way Americans related to their guns. After the war, a gun culture took shape that to this day remains anchored by both the mythic and social power of owning a weapon, threatening to use it in the face of perceived danger (a danger often understood as jeopardizing the three symbol systems mentioned earlier, Christian virtues, national security, or more commonly, home life), and using it as an expression of power. This fascination with guns, coupled with an ingrained historical tendency to experience violence as a form of social and religious regeneration, has contributed to making violent death in America a common feature of daily life.
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Image: Union soldiers prepare to bury dead soldiers that are underneath tarps. Excluding the Vietnam War, Civil War deaths nearly equaled the number of deaths in all otherwars in U.S. history combined.