A Prayer for the Dying

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Reviewed by Stephen Budiansky
Sunday, February 24, 2008


Death and the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust

Knopf. 346 pp. $27.95

Professional military men of the late 19th century were generally unimpressed by America's Civil War. "A contest in which huge armed rabbles chased each other around a vast wilderness," Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke contemptuously sniffed, concluding there was nothing for the world's armies to learn from such an unmilitary spectacle that had so little to do with the established art of war.

But in 1901 a young member of the British Parliament accurately read the war's central and overwhelming implication -- one that would be borne out all too well in the bloody century of industrialized slaughter to come. "The wars of peoples," warned the 26-year-old Winston Churchill, "will be more terrible than those of kings."

The American Civil War was the first "war of peoples," and as Drew Gilpin Faust vividly demonstrates, the unprecedented carnage of this first modern war overwhelmed society's traditional ways of dealing with death. The customs, religion, rhetoric, logistics -- even statistical methods -- of mid-19th century America were unequal to slaughter on such a scale. How American society attempted to come to terms with death that broke all the rules about dying, and how the nation ultimately did -- and did not -- face up to this new reality of war are Faust's haunting and powerful themes. If nothing else, this finely written book is a powerful corrective to all the romantic claptrap that still envelops a war that took as many American lives, 620,000, as all other wars from the Revolution to Korea combined.

The extent to which the Civil War found America unprepared to deal with its carnage at the most basic levels is fascinatingly horrifying. "As late as Second Bull Run, in August 1862, a Union division took the field without a single ambulance available for removal of casualties," Faust writes. "Burying the dead after a Civil War battle seemed always to be an act of improvisation." Two and a half weeks after Antietam, unfathomable numbers of corpses lay unburied, stacked in rows a thousand long or still scattered about the field. Coffins were practically unheard of; no provision of any kind had been made by military authorities. A Union surgeon who took upon himself responsibility for burying "those he could not save" after Gettysburg had to send out a foraging party to locate a shovel.

Nor had provision been made for notifying families of the deaths of husbands, sons, brothers. The chaotic record-keeping led to many heartrending incidents of survivors of battles erroneously reported dead, or vice versa. "I read my own obituary," recalled a Confederate soldier. Union private Henry Struble, misidentified as a soldier killed and buried at Antietam, laid flowers on the grave of the unknown soldier occupying his place every year afterward on Memorial Day.

Charitable organizations attempted to fill the information void but were overwhelmed by the task. After the bloody battles in Virginia in the spring of 1864, the Washington "Directory Office" of the volunteer Sanitary Commission was besieged day after day by distraught families and friends seeking to learn the fate and whereabouts of loved ones.

The increasingly helpless efforts of comrades, chaplains, families and compassionate onlookers to maintain the customary forms of solace and dignified treatment of the dead are the poignant backdrop to Faust's exploration of the byways of death in wartime. "I insisted upon attending every dead soldier to the grave and reading over him a part of the burial service," wrote a Confederate nurse, Fannie Beers, in the fall of 1862. "But it had now become impossible. The dead were past help; the living always needed succor."

Soldiers and families alike tried hard to cling to the Victorian notion of the "Good Death," so much so, observes Faust, that "letters describing soldiers' last moments on Earth are so similar it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind." In the mid-19th century, a dying person was expected to pass away surrounded by family, conscious of and at peace with his impending fate, reconciled to his Maker, leaving inspiring last words to be remembered by. War, especially modern war, shattered all those assumptions. Death was often unpredictable, excruciatingly painful, absurd and squalid, the dying departing full of fury and agony. It came far from home; and when delivered by explosive artillery shell, it sometimes did not even leave any identifiable remains. A man could be literally "blown to atoms," wrote a Union chaplain at Gettysburg -- a fate, Faust observes, that civilians found incomprehensible.

Faust shows how American institutions adapted to the staggering burden of this new kind of war and wholesale death with a blend of can-do humanitarianism, pragmatic improvisation, mawkish sentimentality, political cant, commercial hucksterism and downright fraud. Freelance embalmers flocked to battlefields in the aftermath of the fighting. "Bodies taken from Antietam Battle Field and delivered to Cars or Express Office at short notice and low rates," read the business card of one entrepreneur. "Bodies Embalmed by us NEVER TURN BLACK! But retain their natural color and appearance," boasted another. In 1863, a Washington undertaker was imprisoned on charges of making a practice of recovering and embalming dead soldiers without permission and then extorting payment from families that wanted the bodies returned.

Faust convincingly demonstrates that the trauma of the Civil War revolutionized the American military's approach to caring for the dead and notifying families. After the war, a massive and superbly organized effort by the War Department to recover, identify and rebury Union dead in newly established national cemeteries was an act of atonement for the nation's failings during the war itself.

Faust is less convincing in making a case that the war's confrontation with death produced a permanent transformation in American belief, politics, character, habits of mind and modes of expression -- something that Paul Fussell did so insightfully for World War I in The Great War and Modern Memory. She notes, for example, Ambrose Bierce's bitingly ironic humor, which grew very directly out of his war experience, but it would be interesting and important to learn how this brand of cynicism went over with most people. She suggests that the war's unprecedented suffering posed a challenge to religious faith, but beyond offering a series of interesting anecdotes she never really presents a clear argument that the war, in the end, had a lasting effect one way or another on American religiousness.

But the real lesson may be the remarkable human capacity to forget and gloss over even the ugliest realities. Walt Whitman, who visited tens of thousands of wounded soldiers during the war and came to know its death and terrible suffering firsthand, wrote (in a speech he never delivered) the famous words, "The real war will never get in the books." But he then added, "I say will never be written -- perhaps must not and should not be." Those who read Faust's powerful account of "the real war" will almost surely beg to differ. *

Stephen Budiansky is the author of "The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox."

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