Death of a Nation

In late 1862, early in the Civil War, Mathew Brady exhibited in his New York studio photographs of the Antietam landscape taken by his staff just after the September battle that claimed the lives of more than 6,000 men. Photography was in its infancy, and because most Americans had never seen anything but drawings and paintings of war, the exhibition caused a sensation. People who clamored to see the pictures were stunned even though the images showed none of the fighting, only its aftermath: burial parties, bodies strewn across the landscape and, most unsettling in this context, a boatload of picnickers blandly relaxing at the scene where thousands had just died. Trying to make sense of it, a New York Times reporter wrote, "We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door … It attracts your attention, but it does not enlist your sympathy. But it is very different when the hearse stops at your own door, and the corpse is carried out over your own threshold … Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it."

That anonymous Times reporter had no way of knowing that what he saw was only the beginning of a bloodletting that eventually claimed the lives of one of ever five Southerners, who marched off to battle. By the war's end, Americans would be forced to revise practically every idea they had about death, and the trauma was so profound that its effects can be felt even now. The horrific Civil War body count, estimated at 620,000 dead, is a well-known statistic. Less familiar, but of no less importance, is what all that dying did to the populations north and south of the Mason-Dixon line during the war and for decades to come. It is that gap in our understanding that historian (and Harvard president) Drew Gilpin Faust so brilliantly addresses in her latest book, "This Republic of Suffering."

She begins with the simple fact that before the war, Americans were unfamiliar with the notion of their loved ones not dying surrounded by their kin (until the first decade of the 20th century, 15 percent of the population did not die at home; only poor people went to a hospital to die). The Victorian idea of the "good death," in which the dying faced their demise with a peaceful frame of mind and in the company of loved ones, was intrinsic to beliefs about the primacy of home. Then, suddenly, the unthinkable—the notion that a son or husband could die hundreds of miles distant—became the reality. Those with means traveled to battlefields in search of the slain, hoping not only to find them but to bring them home for burial. Those who could not afford such a trip were left to depend on the letters of other soldiers, who sought to reassure grieving families that the dead had made their peace with God and died honorably.

Yet thousands of families were still left in ignorance. Even on the Union side, which kept much better records than their Confederate counterparts, 40 percent of those who died were listed as "unknown." For soldiers in the field, the realities of mass slaughter were even worse. Describing the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, Ulysses S. Grant wrote, "I saw an open field … so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground."

The Civil War has been called the first modern war, for its introduction of weaponry effective at a quarter mile, for the beginning of trench warfare and for the concept that war could be waged against a civilian population. But the means of handling this devastation were decidedly primitive. As the U.S. Surgeon General William A. Hammond observed, the war was fought "at the end of the medical Middle Ages." Twice as many soldiers died of disease as from gunfire (among black soldiers, the rate was 10 times as high), and even the better-provisioned North did not have an ambulance service until near the end of the war.

The way people died and the horrific body count undermined every idea of a rational universe or a just God, or any god at all. Author William Dean Howells wrote of Union Gen. (and later president) James A. Garfield: "At the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of a lifetime, that never came back again: the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it." The vitriolic author Ambrose Bierce, who served as a Union soldier, believed that his experience left him "sentenced to life."

Faust finds such despair seeping through countless letters and journals of soldiers and civilians alike. But the horror at the violence was not always paralytic. Well before the war ended, the North had embarked on a reburying program that by 1871 had resulted in the creation of 74 national cemeteries—the nation's first, beginning with Gettysburg—to hold the remains of 303,536 men. (Southerners, however, were not included in this program until the McKinley administration.) The necessity of medical hygiene and sanitation was recognized as never before. Women, particularly those Southern women who initiated the reburial efforts, discovered the benefits of social activism.

But the most profound change occurred in the public's impression of its government, which was thereafter expected to bear responsibility for burial, for the notification of survivors and for pensions for veterans. "In some ways I don't find this book a depressing book," Faust said in a recent telephone interview. "I find it an inspiring book, as I watch people struggle to deal with extraordinarily difficult circumstances and retain their humanity and affirm that humanity in the face of suffering and loss." At the same time, she is keenly aware of what her research uncovered: that more than half a century before World War I, which is usually cited as the war that taught the world about mass slaughter, Americans had been well schooled in these horrors. "The level of carnage that was experienced in Europe had been experienced through much of the South during the war. So I think you begin to see inklings of that modern perspective—the irony, the questioning, the doubt—coming out of the Civil War."

"This Republic of Suffering" is one of those groundbreaking histories in which a crucial piece of the past, previously overlooked or misunderstood, suddenly clicks into focus. The Civil War, we come to see, was not just the first modern war but also produced the first modern generation. As Faust writes, "The Civil War generation glimpsed the fear that still defines us—the sense that death is the only end. We still work with the riddle that they—the Civil War dead and their survivors alike—had to solve so long ago."

Death of a Nation | Culture