When death came marching home
Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust takes up the unanswered challenges of the Civil War.
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At the same time, photography brought the ugly reality of mass killing right into the home. Civilians once able to envision war as glorious had that luxury no more.Skip to next paragraph
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But what was perhaps cruellest about the war was its impersonality. The government had no means for tracking, burying, and acknowledging the dead. More than 40 percent of Union – and even more Confederate – fatalities were identified only as "Unknown."
It wasn't just that Americans experienced death. It was the way they experienced it – on so dehumanizing a scope and scale. For so many there were not even the traditional consolations – a ceremony, a gravestone, public recognition, a sense of meaning.
It is the struggle for meaning that is at the core of this book. How did mourners face the unbearable? They found ways to bear it.
Some threw themselves into the effort to find, identify, and rebury the remains of soldiers.Bravo Moon of New York traveled to Antietam to dig up his brother-in-law's body after a colleague described where it had been buried. He bought a coffin, caulked it himself, and bribed a train official to have it shipped back home.
At Gettysburg, that story was repeated over and over again as the bodies of 1,500 Union soldiers were shipped home at private expense. In the South, bereaved women banded together to raise money for Confederate burials.
Finally, the government could no longer ignore such yearnings. National cemeteries, next-of-kin notification, military pensions, and records of the fallen all date from the Civil War. Ambulance service on battlefields began only when heartbroken Boston surgeon Henry Bowditch learned that his son had died unnecessarily on a Virginia battlefield, waiting for help that never came. Bowditch made it his quest to change the system.
But on a deeper level, many Americans wrestled with questions of why it had happened and whether such loss could ever be compensated. The literal word of the Bible wasn't sufficient consolation for some. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps caused a sensation with her bestselling novel "The Gates Ajar" in which a grieving sister declares, "I am not resigned" to traditional ideas of death and insists on new, more comforting notions of afterlife.
The struggle for meaning took many shapes and forms. For a slave named Aunt Aggie, the sight of so many dead white bodies could only mean one thing: God was finally punishing slavery. For Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., wounded at Antietam, it meant a "collapse" of all the beliefs of his youth, Christianity included.
But what fascinates Faust – and makes for a grim conclusion to her book – is the sense that the conundrum introduced by the Civil War is with us yet. As long as modern warfare permits mass killing, she writes, "we still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and ourselves in such a world."
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.