Such mass death events are so cataclysmic that Americans must reckon with the meaning behind the mortality. How did things go so wrong, so fast?
In our grief, we can turn to history — and learn from it.
Like Americans today, 150 years ago, the Civil War generation also struggled to reckon with its own mass death event and give voice to its causes and meaning. Stone monuments and memorial ceremonies helped Americans cope with the Civil War’s mass deaths, providing needed catharsis. In the long term, however, these memorials were co-opted by bad actors and ultimately used to deflect blame for the war’s enormous death toll.
The outpouring of grief that prompted Civil War memorials and their later role in the battle over the war’s memory show how important memorialization is for catharsis and healing — and the need to present a historically accurate narrative about a tragedy’s causes.
At the Civil War’s outset, most people expected a short, mostly bloodless affair. But a few months after the secession crisis of 1860-1861, casualties mounted and hawkish Southerners realized they’d miscalculated. “We all have our dead — we all have our graves,” a Confederate minister mourned from the pulpit in 1862.
That year ushered in the first wave of mass deaths. In Tennessee on April 6 and 7, Union and Confederate soldiers slaughtered each other outside an otherwise peaceful wooden church called Shiloh. About 23,000 men were killed and wounded in the most horrible manner. A sense of dread and regret crept across the North and South. Five months later at the Battle of Antietam, the armies again massacred each other outside of a church — this time, ironically, that of the pacifist Dunker sect. With nearly 23,000 casualties, Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history.
Photographers scoured the battlefields alongside the vultures taking stock of the dead. Cameras, a recent invention, captured the carnage for Americans at home.
Images of corpses were displayed in pop-up urban galleries and battlefield sketches appeared in newspapers across the United States. The slaughter horrified the public. It was as if the photographers had “brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets,” observed the editors of the New York Times.
As the Civil War dragged on, deaths came in waves, one after another. The sheer number and gruesome manner of deaths defied all comprehension. Bullets destroyed men’s bodies. Some lucky soldiers returned home, but without arms and legs. Opioid addiction and suicide plagued the war’s survivors for decades. The scale of death was so cataclysmic that it almost cost Abraham Lincoln his reelection in 1864.
Shockingly, two-thirds of the Civil War’s dead succumbed to diseases such as dysentery, malaria and pneumonia. These deaths seemed especially pointless to the Civil War generation because Americans initially expected that if their husbands, sons and fathers should die at all, they would fall while courageously charging the enemy with flags unfurled and bayonets gleaming. Or perhaps death would come quietly in the aftermath of battle, where loved ones would at least have the chance to say goodbye. This was a “good death,” as historian Drew Gilpin Faust writes.
But most deaths occurred in overcrowded, filthy hospitals or hungry prison camps. Men died anonymously, far from home, without a chance to say goodbye or notice of death sent to their kin. These unthinkable scenes of death are what initially animated the post-Civil War monument movement.
Days after the Confederate Army in Charleston surrendered, the city’s formerly enslaved African American refugees and soldiers held the first-ever “Decoration Day.” They sang spirituals, prayed and marched solemnly around an old racetrack, once a symbol of the slaveholding aristocracy. They also decorated Union graves with flowers. Americans North and South desperately needed solace, so this tradition spread like wildfire, eventually becoming known as Memorial Day.
Within a few years, Americans cemented these ceremonies into enduring physical forms. Statues dedicated to Civil War dead sprung up across the nation in the postwar decades and into the 20th century.
Yet Civil War memorials quickly became politicized. No longer about grief, the postwar monument movement was ultimately commandeered by proponents of the Lost Cause. This false narrative — invented by ex-Confederates to deflect blame for the Civil War’s mass deaths — claimed that the war was fought over anything but slavery. In reality, slavery was the Civil War’s cause, the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, as its vice president had explained in 1861. By the early 1900s, hundreds of stone, marble and bronze Civil War monuments cemented the Lost Cause myth into the landscape, obscuring the causes and meaning of the war for generations.
The history of Civil War memorializations is both a tragic story of mourning and one of politicized coverups to obscure the true causes of the war’s mass deaths.
Now that we are living through another mass death event of enormous scale, public memorials and monuments would help document and remember the Americans who’ve died of covid-19, just like the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Today, virtual and temporary covid memorials have provided some solace. But moving forward, permanent, publicly funded memorials could help bring lasting catharsis as Americans grieve our dead.
In the bigger picture, these monuments could also help us answer the hard questions about why and how the covid catastrophe occurred. As the troubling history behind Civil War monuments teaches, no statue or memorial is politicly neutral. Thus, not only would covid memorials honor the dead, but they might also help establish an honest and historically accurate narrative about how the U.S. government and the American people mishandled the pandemic and caused needless suffering and deaths.
This issue is especially urgent because now is the moment when historical narratives about the pandemic are forming. Without accurate pandemic memorials, misinformation will probably continue to carry the day, perhaps creating a falsified, “lost cause” version of covid history.