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The Politics of the Dead

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust

(Alfred A. Knopf, 346 pp., $27.95)

The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction

By Mark E. Neely Jr.

(Harvard University Press, 277 pp., $27.95)


Dreadful as the past century has been in its carnage, Americans have--with some notable exceptions--been removed from the direct encounters. The bloody battlefields, bombed-out cities, and teeming detention camps lay elsewhere--indeed, almost everywhere else. And although Americans have suffered their share of war-related casualties, on a world scale those casualties seem to pale beside the body counts of Europeans during their more than thirty years of twentieth-century warfare, of Soviets and Chinese during their internal and external struggles of more than half a century, of Armenians at the hands of the Turks, Jews at the hands of the Nazis, Bosnians at the hands of the Serbs, and, most recently, of different ethnic and religious groups of Africans at the hands of each other.

The American government has learned, sometimes in fits and starts, to "manage" the problem of its troop casualties much as early nineteenth-century reformers learned to "manage" the punishment of social deviants: remove them from public view and institutionalize their recognition. As early as World War II, a major effort was made to keep photographs of dead and wounded American soldiers out of the media, and after televised newsreporting brought the Vietnam War "home" each night and helped to turn the American public against it, a dramatically different protocol was put in place for the first Gulf war and now for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No battle footage, bleeding soldiers, or flag-draped coffins are to be seen. Remembrances are consigned instead to the dry print and official wordings of interior newspaper pages, and assimilated to the formal occasions marking collective sacrifice: Armistice Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July. It was remarkable, and telling, that well- placed commentators could regard the attacks of September 11 as heralding an end of American "innocence."

Whatever "innocence" Americans could claim--forget, for the moment, the many atrocities committed against Indians and people of African descent since the time of European settlement--was surely lost much earlier, in the 1860s, in the hills, woods, villages, and cornfields of their own country. During those years Americans slaughtered each other in great numbers in what we have come to call the Civil War, and as a consequence they encountered dying and death on a scale never attained before or since. That encounter, Drew Gilpin Faust tells us in her moving, disturbing, suggestive, and elegant book, would not only shock, but also transform, Americans and their nation in ways that resonate to this day.

The storm of death and destruction unleashed by the Civil War is not a new discovery, however much it tends to recede in our current age of real and potential exterminisms. There were more than a million casualties and more than six hundred thousand deaths (we will never know the precise numbers) sustained by both sides during the Civil War. These numbers far overshadow any other war in which Americans have participated and roughly approximate the human costs of all other American wars combined. Yet for all that has been written about the Civil War, about its politics, battles, strategies, and consequences, we know almost nothing about the problems of death that the war forced upon North and South alike.

If for nothing else, Faust's book would be immensely valuable for taking us to this hallowed and wrenching ground; but there is much more as well. This Republic of Suffering--Faust takes these words from Frederick Law Olmsted, as he looked, aghast, over the sea of wounded and dying Union soldiers on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862--asks us to consider how soldiers and civilians, families and friends, military commanders and state officials confronted both the prospects and the logistics of what was in many respects a new type of death, and how everyone may have been changed by it. Quietly but forcefully, Faust shows that Civil War death had a social, cultural, and political history, and one that may have played a signal role in creating modern American society.

That history animates what might otherwise seem a morbidly inanimate subject, and Faust organizes her account around what she calls the "work of death." Fittingly, her chapter titles--gerunds all--remind us that human beings are active participants in death rather than passive victims of it: "Dying," "Killing," "Burying," "Naming," "Realizing," "Believing and Doubting," "Accounting," "Numbering," "Surviving." And in the Civil War, the "work" proved to be as destabilizing as it was massive.

To be sure, Americans of the antebellum decades were no strangers to death's ubiquity. Urbanization had increased mortality and morbidity and decreased life expectancy, especially in the Northeast. But having been reared in Christian traditions (the great majority were, at this point, Protestant), they also understood death as a social and spiritual process, as a reckoning and a transition, and so had been tutored in an idea of the "Good Death." Theologically rooted in what was known as the ars moriendi, or "the arts of dying," which provided rules of conduct (how to surrender one's soul, and resist the devil's temptations, and identify with Christ, and pray) since at least the fifteenth century, the "Good Death" would later find expression in sermons, religious tracts, and popular literature (Dickens, Thackeray, Stowe). By the mid-nineteenth century, it had become a feature of middle-class cultural practice more broadly, in which witness-bearing by family members proved central. After all, most Americans, especially middle- and upper-class Americans, died at home.

But what would it mean for husbands, sons, and other relations to die many miles away, without the presence of family, with no last words to be heard or physical countenance to be observed, and with no sure knowledge (as was increasingly the case) as to where, when, and under what circumstances death had occurred? The burdens fell first on the soldiers themselves, who needed to prepare as much (if not more) for dying as for killing. And although they turned to the cultural prescriptions of manhood, patriotism, and religion to steer them emotionally, they also had to improvise on the ground so that some semblance of a Good Death might be attained. Many soldiers looked for friends and fighting mates to assume the responsibility for writing to their next of kin, not simply to provide news of death and words of sympathy, but also to include information about the experience of death itself: about their awareness and acceptance, their belief in God and their own salvation, and their final thoughts. More than a few soldiers asked company companions to forward letters that they had already composed in anticipation of their demise.

Improvisation also characterized the response of both the Union and Confederate armies to the tasks of accounting for and then burying their dead. Although some efforts were made early on to establish a set of procedures, for the sake of public health if nothing else, the scale of death and the uncertainties of war quickly rendered them moot. Neither side had regular burial details or grave registration, and until 1864 the Union did not even have a comprehensive ambulance service. When possible, companies and regiments buried their fallen comrades on their own and did their best to enact rituals of respect. But as Faust writes, "practical realities" meant either that burials had to be organized more hastily and impersonally or that "retreating armies ... had to depend on the humanity of their opponents, who predictably gave precedence to their own casualties." While officers generally received more privileged treatment, ordinary foot soldiers would likely be interred individually in shallow, often unmarked graves--that is, if their own side buried them. If left to the handling of the enemy, they would probably be dumped with other fallen soldiers into large pits. As a consequence, nearly half of the Union dead and far more of the Confederate could be identified only, as Walt Whitman would note, "by the significant word UNKNOWN." Not until World War I would American soldiers wear "dog tags."

How, then, would families at home determine the fates and the whereabouts of loved ones in the field? How would they struggle not only to learn whether loved ones were alive or dead, but also to comprehend--to "realize," as they put it in their letters and diaries--the fact of death without its physical embodiment, its visibility? Improvisation, together with enormous energy, was required here as well. Sources of "official" information--reports of field commanders, casualty lists in newspapers--were few, and they were often unreliable or inadequate. "You may have heard before you read this that I was killed or wounded," one New York soldier, anticipating Mark Twain's famous quip, could write his sister after the Battle of the Wilderness, "but allow me to contradict the report."

Hospital nurses and visitors, Whitman best known among them, tried to notify kin of soldiers' fates, and an entrepreneurial cohort of paid agents emerged in the Union and the Confederacy offering to find missing soldiers for a fee. But family members often had to take matters into their own hands, running personal advertisements or--like Whitman initially did in search of his brother George-- traveling to hospitals and battlefields in desperate hope of news. By the middle of the war, the United States Sanitary Commission began to organize the work of information collection and dissemination, not to mention of handling the dead, for those in the North--a harbinger of death's bureaucratic and state- building manifestations. Yet for all this, as Faust poignantly observes, it was quite possible for an individual soldier to be "entirely lost--a circumstance many civilians found difficult to fathom."


Most of the soldiers who died during the Civil War succumbed to disease rather than to battle wounds. Still, the body counts (killed and wounded) after battles and campaigns seem staggering and ever escalating: 3,600 at the First Bull Run, 20,000 at Shiloh, 30,000 during the Seven Days, 23,000 at Antietam, as many as 51,000 at Gettysburg, almost 70,000 during the Virginia campaigns in the spring of 1864. Greater firepower and accuracy, chiefly through the advent of muzzle-loading rifles, help to explain the new lethality of battle; so, too, do the intimacy and ferocity of the battlefields, where soldiers fought and shot their way through woods, thickets, and scrub at relatively close range. The overwhelming majority of those killed or wounded (more than 90 percent, Faust tells us) were hit by mini-balls, some shot from the rifles of sharpshooters who gained reputations as cold-blooded murderers. Although many soldiers struggled with the necessity of killing--this was part of the "work" of death, too, demanding, as Orestes Brownson put it, "the harder courage" and posing a number of cultural problems (and there is some evidence of soldiers failing to discharge their weapons), "vengeance came to play an ever more important role, joining principles of duty and self-defense in legitimating violence."

"Especially in the heat of combat," Faust writes, soldiers "could seem almost possessed by the urge to kill." Small wonder that historians have used the terms "brutal," "cruel," "merciless," and "ruthless" to characterize the Civil War. But was it really that bad? This is the question Mark E. Neely Jr. asks us to ponder in his interesting yet rather tendentious book. Neely believes that historians, almost without exception, have taken the war out of historical context and sensationalized its human costs, effectively equating battle tolls with the nature of the fighting. Without denying or making light of the casualties and suffering inflicted by civil warfare, he is nonetheless impressed by the relative restraint exercised on both sides: more specifically, by the reluctance of Union and Confederate soldiers and their commanders to engage in wanton destruction or commit atrocities.

To make his case, Neely compares the character of the fighting during the Civil War with other military engagements of the time, while also taking us to episodes during the war itself when the prospects for ruthlessness and brutality seemed most auspicious. He begins with the Mexican-American War, which has been attracting much-needed scholarly attention these days, and shows that American soldiers, especially the volunteers, engaged in such widespread and heinous depredations that their own officers bitterly denounced them. "Our militia & volunteers," General Winfield Scott told the secretary of war in early 1847, "have committed atrocities--horrors--in Mexico, sufficient to make Heaven weep, & make every American of Christian morals blush for his country. Murder, robbery, & rape on mothers & daughters, in the presence of the tied up males of the family, have been common all along the Rio Grande."

A decade and a half later, overlapping in part the Civil War itself, Mexico was rent by yet another political and military struggle, this one provoked by a French invasion and the installation (with the aid of Mexican conservatives) of the Archduke Maximilian as emperor. In an effort to consolidate his power and to weaken the liberal opposition, Maximilian issued a "Black Decree," promising execution to anyone forming or supporting armed bands or groups "without legal authority, whether or not they proclaim a political pretext." The decree effectively codified practices that were already in use, which had led to brutal and summary punishments and provoked retaliations in kind. As many as five thousand Mexican prisoners may have been shot under the emperor's order. But while few Americans had come to think any better of Mexico and Mexicans since the late 1840s, they seemed to have developed little taste for guerrilla war and regarded the Black Decree (if they learned of it) as an infamous measure.

Even the bloody massacre of Cheyennes and Arapahos at the hands of Colorado volunteers at Sand Creek in 1864, only a "particularly egregious" example of what had come to be accepted in conflicts with Indians, brought rebukes and condemnations from both Congress and the press. Neely's point in all this is to suggest that by the time of the Civil War notions of civilized conduct in warfare had been embraced in official circles; that Civil War generals rarely had to describe their own soldiers--including volunteers--as Winfield Scott in Mexico had to describe his own troops; that Lincoln never took the opportunity to move against Confederates in the way that Maximilian moved against the liberal forces in Mexico (he offered them amnesty instead); and that some Americans "now realized ... that time-honored cruelties indulged in fighting 'barbarians' and 'savages' were hardly acceptable to humanity."

Indeed, while all the materials, experiences, methods, languages, and justifications for "total war" were readily available for Yankees and Confederates alike, Neely insists that they were generally rejected. When, for example, Confederate General Sterling Price rode with his bedraggled troops into Missouri in 1864, he might have expected a taste of the medicine that the grisly fighting between Union soldiers and pro-Confederate guerrillas had produced there: murders, executions, and other atrocities that led Jefferson Davis to complain of the "savage ferocity" of the enemy. Instead Price's raid saw "the return of traditional combat situations." "Union generals fought Confederate generals one way and guerrillas another," Neely observes, arguing against the notion that the brutality of guerrilla warfare in Missouri set the larger direction for "total war."

Around the same time, Union General Philip Sheridan began a campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia that has been likened in its brutality to General William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea through Georgia. Aiming to destroy the valley as a "breadbasket" for the Confederacy, Sheridan is supposed to have scorched it. But Neely finds much exaggeration and myth-making in the accounts of Sheridan's campaign. Sheridan, it appears, looked chiefly to eliminate the valley's agricultural surplus, not its basic subsistence; and he ordered that farm dwellings be spared unless the inhabitants were guerrillas, in which case all restraint was to be relaxed. The distinction between "civilized" warfare and "savage" warfare was again in play, and the dynamic of "total war" consequently contained.

Yet what would happen if either side learned of significant atrocities committed against its soldiers? Would the "limits of destruction" then be traversed? News of the shocking treatment of Union prisoners at the infamous Andersonville prison camp, where almost 13,000 eventually perished, created just such a situation. Calls for retaliation reverberated across the North, and especially in the halls of Congress. "Now sir," an Indiana Republican thundered, "if this is to be a war of extermination, let not the extermination be all upon one side." In the end, however, the retaliatory impulse failed to generate action. Opposition came, as might be expected, from northern Democrats and conservative Republicans who were eager to repair the divisions of Civil War- era America. More surprisingly, it came also from Radical Republicans such as Charles Sumner--not to mention from Lincoln himself, who, according to Neely, never really believed in retaliation. Only the superintendent of Andersonville, Henry Wirz, suffered punishment; he was hanged in November, 1865.

Retaliations and atrocities against soldiers in uniform did occur, but the targets were mostly African Americans who had enlisted in the Union Army. The Battle of Fort Pillow, in which scores of black soldiers who had surrendered to the Confederates were summarily executed, is only the most notorious of many examples. And although Neely does not give much attention to this, it supports his overarching conclusion that "racial belief" and "racial identity" were the most important factors in limiting the war's destructiveness. When white soldiers faced each other, they seemed to observe the rules of "civilized" war- making; when they faced the racial "other," whether black, Mexican, or Indian, no rules applied.


What are we to make of Neely's claims? And how can all the historians who have come to regard the Civil War as "brutal," "cruel," "ruthless," and "merciless" have been so mistaken? Neely is at his most challenging when he suggests how casualty figures can be misleading, especially in comparative perspective. After all, the 620,000 who died during the Civil War (that is the widely accepted figure) were, theoretically, soldiers of two countries, not one. The Union dead totaled only 360,000; the Confederate dead only 260,000. In neither case did they equal the 407,000 American soldiers who died during World War II. What is more, the death toll during the Crimean War in 1853-1856 has been placed at 640,000, most of it coming during a two-year period, surpassing the deaths in the Union and Confederacy combined over a period of four years. Drew Faust might say that 620,000 dead in America during the 1860s would be equivalent to 5,500,000 dead in America today; and Neely might respond that Faust's reasoning typifies the sensationalizing disposition among historians.

Let us grant for a moment that historians have been disposed to "sensationalize" Civil War casualties (though I am not sure what is to be gained by this, since the readership for histories of this war has always been robust), and that we ought to interrogate our assumptions about the war's destructiveness. Where does this leave us? The Civil War witnessed a remarkable and unprecedented mobilization of resources on each side. Between half and three-quarters of all men of military age served at some point during the conflict. (There was a higher proportion in the Confederacy than in the Union, but impressive in either case.) The federal government's authority and capacity expanded dramatically, and a Confederate state was created from scratch, with remarkable results. Thousands of slaves were impressed to work on Confederate fortifications and in Confederate war industries. Both the Union and the Confederacy enacted military conscription, printed currency, imposed taxes, and centralized power. And the Union embraced the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy as its war goal. The Civil War, in other words, assumed many of the features of "total war," even if it was, in effect, a set of domestic rebellions or insurrections.

What makes the Civil War--the War of the Rebellion, as it was known at the time, at least in the North--interesting is its political character and the political transformations it brought into being. And these Neely appears to ignore in his effort to confound the conventional wisdom. Neely might regard the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow as a racist sidebar to the main, and relatively restrained, action. But in truth Fort Pillow captures far more of the central dynamic of the conflict. The war, let us remember, was provoked by a rebellion of Southern slaveholders against the authority of the federal government. The Lincoln administration regarded the rebellion as a treasonous act that it aimed to suppress militarily, and never officially recognized the Confederacy's existence (nor did any other nation). The slaveholders' rebellion and the Union invasion of the South in turn provoked a rebellion of growing numbers of slaves, who fled from their plantations and farms, headed to Union lines in the expectation of finding freedom, and signed up to fight their owners as soon as the Lincoln administration allowed them to do so.

The Confederates did not take the slaves' actions lightly. They considered black soldiers to be slaves in rebellion and ordered that, if captured, they be treated as such: re-enslaved or executed by the authorities of the states to which they belonged. General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate commander at Fort Pillow (and later one of the organizers of the Ku Klux Klan), simply short-circuited the process. "It was understood among us," one Confederate soldier wrote in 1864 from North Carolina, "that we take no negro prisoners." By the end of the war, black soldiers composed about 10 percent of the Union Army, and in some departments close to half of it. In this, as in so many other areas of meaning, African Americans seemed to have understood better than their white counterparts the social transformations that the wartime struggles portended, and the need to debilitate if not to destroy the enemy. The intensity of their military engagements captured a political essence of the war, and foreshadowed the bloody encounters of the postwar period.

At all events, it would appear to matter less whether the body counts were as uniquely high as we have thought them to be, or whether the fighting was quite as ruthless as we had imagined, than that Americans, white and black, fought to the death over the future of slavery and, by extension, the future of their country. The "limits of destruction" may in fact have been most consequential not on the fields of war but on the fields of peace, when the federal government exercised restraint and refused to punish Confederate leaders and their supporters as traitors deserved to be.

Although she devotes relatively few pages to it, Faust does not regard the butchering of black troops as marginal to the Civil War fighting or as merely a product of racism. She sees enslavement--its experience, requirements, and political logic--at the very center. Black soldiers, Faust argues, approached the prospects of violence very differently than did most white Americans, not only because of their sense of the war's righteousness but also because of their collective suffering under slavery. As one African American at the time explained, "To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death ... and grieved to death ... would be the greatest ignorance under the sun." African Americans never imagined that the slavery question could be settled amicably. Most of them relished the opportunity to take up arms against their masters. And as black soldiers learned that the Confederates would give them no quarter, and as they suffered more and more brutality, they necessarily fought with even greater ferocity. "There is," one northern observer reported, "death to the rebel in every black mans [sic] eyes."

Yet just as the black experience of Civil War fighting encapsulated the social direction that the war was taking, so too did the black experience with Civil War death. African Americans risked their lives on many more fronts than did white Yankees or Rebels. They took flight from plantations in the face of double-barreled shotguns, and they could be hunted down in the woods and the swamps by armed Home Guards. They entered Union lines and contraband camps--men, women, and children among them--in the many hundreds, and lived in conditions that bred life-threatening illnesses. Those who enlisted in the Union Army died in dramatic numbers, overwhelmingly of disease. Of the 180,000 who served at some point in the war, one in five would perish.

Among the riskiest activities in which black soldiers engaged was retrieving and burying the Union war dead. When the war ended, they were heavily involved not only in the army of occupation that began to "reconstruct" the former Confederate South, but also in a massive reburial program that the federal government undertook. That program, Faust remarks, like Reconstruction more broadly, "represented an extraordinary departure" and "an indication of the very different sort of nation that had emerged as a result of civil war."

Although This Republic of Suffering would seem to be focused chiefly on wartime death, many of its most arresting and brilliantly conceived interventions illuminate the ways in which the Civil War dead reshaped the consciousness, the practices, and the structures of postwar America. With great insight and subtlety, Faust demonstrates how mass death raised profound spiritual and intellectual questions for many Americans, the pursuit of which led in a number of directions: to serious doubts about God's benevolence and agency; to new ideas of the relation of heaven and earth; to crises of belief that pointed, in the writings of Emily Dickinson, Ambrose Bierce, and Herman Melville, to modernist disillusionment; and, especially among defeated white southerners, to religious and political energies that simultaneously anticipated the emergence of the Bible Belt and promoted the Cult of the Lost Cause.

Most striking, perhaps, was the process of state-building that the work of Civil War death advanced. Well before the Confederate surrender, Congress and the War Department provided for the establishment of national cemeteries, the most famous at Gettysburg, where, in a departure from custom, every grave was of equal status regardless of military rank or social station. Thereafter, responding to news of the desecration of Union graves and bodies and to a growing demand for action, the federal government created additional cemeteries and, even more importantly, assumed responsibility for those who died in its service. After four years and more than $4 million in expenditures, the bodies of 303,536 Union soldiers had been gathered and reburied in seventy-four national cemeteries--an extraordinary effort at the time, and one that deepened a sense of the new citizenship that the Fourteenth Amendment had etched into the Constitution.

Of the federal burial grounds that Civil War death brought into being, one in particular seemed to capture especially well the great transformations of the era. It covered not a battleground but rather the estate of the family of Robert E. Lee, the southern slaveholder and federal officer turned Confederate general, who had been driven out shortly after hostilities had commenced. For a time the estate served as Union Army headquarters, then as a contraband camp and a freedmen's village. Finally it became a national cemetery, consecrating a newly sovereign nation-state on a landscape where slaveholding sovereigns once claimed to rule, and taking the name of the estate itself: Arlington. But there as elsewhere, black soldiers were laid to rest in a separate and segregated section, testimony both to their role in remaking America and to the distance the country had yet to travel to fulfill its ideals.

Steven Hahn is the author of A Nation Under Our Feet (Harvard University Press). His new book, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, will be published next year.

By Steven Hahn