Monday, August 3, 2015

"This Republic of Suffering": Death and the Civil War

This is a portmanteau review and I'm afraid it's a little mixed up in its combination, because I'm reviewing a television documentary and a book. I'm looking at the same subject via two different media and I'm going back and forth between the two.

First, I watched the PBS documentary, Death and the Civil War, written and directed by Ric Burns (he and his brother Ken Burns produced The Civil War--cue the "Ashokan Farewell") on the PBS Roku station. Then I bought the book upon which the documentary was made, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust, the current president of Harvard University.

At first I thought I had made a mistake, that the documentary had recreated the book so exactly that I did not need to read the book. But the documentary did not include everything that is in the book, including Faust's examination of the literary responses of Ambrose Bierce, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville, the influence of Swedenborgianism and spiritualism after the Civil War, and the popularity of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Gates Ajar, which was the second best-selling book of the nineteenth century (after Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin). Faust comments that if the latter, according to Lincoln, "helped to cause the war, Phelps's work dealt with the war's consequences." The novel offered comfort beyond commonplace religious generalities, Faust notes, offering a vision of Heaven as an eternal Earth, with all the comforts of home: "Victorian family and domesticity are immortalized, and death all but disappears."

The documentary had all the hallmarks of a Burns' film: the use of photographs (some of which were in the book); the reading of letters and other first-hand accounts (drawn directly from the book), so I was still in the multimedia, documentary experience as I read the book, especially in the early chapters. Both the documentary and the book convey how much both the North and the South failed to prepare for the casualties of the War Between the States. Both sides thought that the military conflict between the remaining United States of America and the Confederate States of America would be over quickly: Lincoln first called for soldiers to serve only 90 days--no one realized how bloody and long the Civil War would be; how many would die on so many battlefields; how little everyone was prepared to deal with 620,000 (estimated) dead.

There were no dog tags, no ambulance corps, no cemeteries, no administrative structure to notify relatives--no infrastructure at the local, state, or federal level to deal with the numbers of dead or wounded. The first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) was a shock--not just because the South won the first engagement, but because: "Nine hundred men in all had been killed and 2,700 wounded -- nearly half the battlefield deaths of the entire two-year long Mexican War -- in just 12 hours." (Documentary transcript)

Because of the Civil War, the United States federal government had to develop some of these processes, although even during westward expansion, the U.S. Army did not implement the use of dog tags--not until World War I.


Faust points out that even counting the wounded and dead after a battle had a strategic purpose: The main reason to count the dead and wounded is to know how many soldiers you have for the next battle. Robert E. Lee warned against over-estimating casualties because it gave the enemy too much information. George McClellan, to the frustration of Abraham Lincoln, over-estimated his own loses and under-estimated Lee's: that's why he so often held back from pursuing the Confederate army even when he had won a battle. Survivors and the soldiers facing death began to press for greater care of the dead, who were giving their lives for the cause: both book and documentary cover this story very well, the struggles, the monumental task, the role of the women and the Black soldiers in the efforts to find, identify, and bury the dead, etc.

In both the book and the documentary there is a discussion about how this process changed the federal government and the relationship between the citizen and the federal government--rather parallel to the commentary at the end of The Civil War series: before the war, people would say "the United States of America ARE"; after the war, they would say "the United States of America IS". One of commentators, historian Mark S. Schantz, who has written his own book on this theme,  states that:
Certainly, as we think about the obligation of citizens to the state, and what the state owes its citizens -- particularly with regard to the thing that we, in some sense, is the only thing we really own, which is our own body and our own mortality. The Civil War made us rethink that definition as a country, and as a people. What do governments owe to their bodies -- to the bodies that make them up? And that becomes a central question in the war. In the Civil War, I think we come as a nation to the insistence that citizenship is predicated on the willingness of people to lay down their lives for the state. That's the absolute bottom line.
and later he comments, after the discussion of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:
What the war does is take notions of immortality that had been previously located in heaven -- in some afterworld (sic) -- you know, you'll be reconstituted -- and shift that sort of eternal frame to the state. And that your eternity, your lasting contribution, will be to the body politic -- and to the nation now that this new birth of freedom in America is based on the sacrifice -- and, literally, the martyrdom -- of Union troops; of American troops. That those deaths are redemptive. And they serve a theological purpose, but now they serve a political and civic end, too. They are literally rebuilding -- remaking -- reconstituting -- the American civic order.
And those sections were rather disquieting to me--the state taking over for heaven? The citizen dies for the state? I always think of the soldier dying for his country. I think Schantz overstates his argument: if it was true today, we would have mandatory military or social services for each citizen and not a volunteer armed forces.

In her book Faust doesn't speak that way about the change in how Americans thought about death in the service of country before and after the Civil War, but she does address how religious--how Christian--how overwhelmingly Protestant--America was in the nineteenth century and how the Civil War experience of death on such a huge scale affected that religiosity. She highlights how popular Jeremy Taylor's Holy Dying was and how there was a firm idea of what constituted a good death: in one's own home, in the presence of family, with some statement of the hope of Heaven, the hope that the dying will soon see other family members, and will be in a better place, etc. 

I think Faust's consideration of America's religious attitudes before and after the Civil War may be the weakest points of the book. She needed to give more detailed attention to the orthodox Protestant thought at that time re: the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell), and the variety of beliefs. Did some Protestants in antebellum America believe in Christian mortalism, that the souls of the dead sleep until the Second Coming, the Last Judgement, and the Resurrection of the Dead? If they were looking forward to reunion with family and friends on the other side immediately after dying, they seem to have rejected a crucial Lutheran and Calvinist teaching (cited for example by William Tyndale against Thomas More when the latter defended Catholic teaching on Purgatory and prayer for the dead). She passes over these issues with a brushing reference to a certain "Protestant ecumenism" that Catholics and even Jews who served in the war accepted. But the Catholic idea of a good and holy death required more than a peaceful, comfortable death at home: the presence of a priest, the sacramental confession and forgiveness of sins, the reception of Viaticum, and Extreme Unction, then thought of as the anointing sacrament of the dying, and the promise of prayer for the soul after death. I think that Faust ignores some of this complexity.

Her discussion of growing uncertainty in these orthodoxies after the war--including the practice of spiritualism with seances and other efforts to contact the dead, particularly to find out how the body of the dead in Heaven can be reunited with its severed limbs (before the Resurrection of the Dead?)--also has to be in some ways superficial. Faust would have to choose to write the companion to Owen Chadwick's The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century--quite a Faustian choice!--to explore the influence of the Civil War experience on religious belief about death and the hereafter. 

These weaknesses aside, I recommend both the documentary and the book if you want to explore another view of the American Civil War. 

I'm off now to explore Mark A. Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and St. Robert Bellarmine's The Art of Dying Well. By the way, did you know that St. Thomas More and his daughter Margaret worked on a study of the Four Last Things together? We have only part of More's examination of Death.

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