The past few years have challenged American attitudes about death, sacrifice and collective mourning. The loss of almost 1 million people in the United States to the coronavirus (or even more, according to excess-deaths figures) has changed funerals and mourning practices. Some people have become numb to loss after experiencing death tolls on such a massive scale. Political polarization and broken political norms have worsened the disruption, and vaccines, death statistics and more have become the subjects of culture and policy wars.
In fact, even President Biden’s State of the Union address referencing the death of his son Beau and the “flag-draped coffins” of deceased soldiers was interrupted by a political attack — something that once would have been unheard of. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) heckled the president: “You put them there. Thirteen of them!” Her comment referred to 13 service members killed in a suicide bombing during the 2021 exit from Afghanistan ordered by Biden. While Boebert was booed and criticized, even by some members of her own party, she was unrepentant, and Denver media reported that she immediately started fundraising on her willingness to yell at Biden during the speech.
This moment, and the broader debate about death after an unprecedented loss of American lives, reminds us that rancor and grief can get tangled during times of political division. Historically, collective mourning — even for American troops, one of the bedrock unifying elements of U.S. national identity — has frequently been used as a tool of political battle, perpetuating disunion and division. At no time did this happen more clearly than during the American Civil War.
One of the first Union officers killed in the war, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, died May 24, 1861, as he removed a Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, Va. Ellsworth’s men, the Zouaves, initially occupied Alexandria with little resistance. But when Ellsworth interpreted the flag posted atop the hotel as being a willful provocation by hotel owner James W. Jackson, both the colonel and the innkeeper died after exchanging fire.
Ellsworth’s body was wrapped in an American flag and taken to the Navy Yard, where President Abraham Lincoln and others paid their respects. Ellsworth’s aide, Cpl. Francis Brownell, stood guard by Ellsworth’s coffin, still clutching Jackson’s Confederate flag stained with Ellsworth’s blood. In the following days, Ellsworth’s remains in his American-flag-draped coffin were venerated in a White House funeral, processed through the streets of D.C. and celebrated at another public funeral in New York City, on the way to interment in Ellsworth’s hometown of Mechanicville, N.Y. News articles, engravings and more spread the mourning for Ellsworth across the North, and he became a martyr to the Union cause. The cry to “remember Ellsworth” motivated men to enlist in the Army.
Ellsworth had studied law under Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., and Lincoln had admired the military knowledge of the young colonel, who had organized a drill team before the war. The president shed tears over the death of his former student, and Lincoln carefully arranged for Ellsworth’s White House funeral. Lincoln was personally affected by his death, and he understood the symbolic power of Ellsworth’s “flag-draped coffin” to unify the public and build support for the intensifying Civil War.
Many of Lincoln’s Confederate opponents also recognized the power of Ellsworth’s “flag-draped coffin,” as they turned him into a symbol of military aggression and everything they considered to be wrong with the United States and its war effort. One Georgia newspaper called Ellsworth and his men “villains,” while the Richmond Examiner declared that owner Jackson had died defending his home from Ellsworth and a “horde of thieves, robbers, and assassins in the pay of Abraham Lincoln.” Jackson became a cultural hero to many Confederates, just as Ellsworth had in the North. The collective mourning for Ellsworth and Jackson intensified sectional hatred just as the Civil War ramped up.
In 1861, numerous men were told in songs and recruiting pitches to emulate Ellsworth as they joined the Union Army, just as newspapers urged prospective Confederate soldiers to enlist and defend their “homes” as Jackson had done. Avenging dead heroes prepared Americans to battle one another, and it helped them bury discussions of the political and social issues — including slavery — that had led to the conflict. Death and sorrow prepared the way for more death and sorrow, and the war would soon intensify beyond what people had imagined.
Today, Biden is building on the tradition of military mourning to advance his “unity agenda,” which aims to attract the support of both Democrats and Republicans. But while Biden tapping into this tradition may unify Americans, Boebert’s disruptive remarks show that doing so leaves room for division.
Americans can’t seem to agree on the meaning of death and sacrifice, something intensified by a politicized pandemic that has resulted in mass death. In times when different groups of Americans do not recognize their common interests, extreme partisans can exploit collective grief to opposite political purposes, and what is meant to unite — even an image of a flag-draped coffin — can actually divide.