The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying
Faust, Drew Gilpin, The Journal of Southern History
MORTALITY DEFINES THE HUMAN CONDITION. "WE ALL HAVE OUR Dead--we all have our Graves," Stephen Elliott, a Confederate Episcopal bishop, observed in an 1862 sermon. Every age, he explained, must confront "like miseries"; every age must search for "like consolation." Yet in spite of the continuities that Elliott identified in human history, death has its discontinuities as well. Men and women fashion the way they approach the end of life out of their understandings of who they are and what matters to them. And inevitably these understandings are shaped by historical and cultural circumstances, by how others around them regard death, by conditions that vary over time and place. Even though "we all have our Dead" and even though we all die, we are likely to do so quite differently from century to century or even generation to generation, from continent to continent and from nation to nation.(1)
In the middle of the nineteenth century the United States embarked on a new relationship with death, entering into a civil war that proved bloodier than any other conflict in American history, a war that would presage the slaughter of World War I's Western Front and the global carnage of the twentieth century. The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865 is approximately equal to American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The Civil War's rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II; a similar rate of death, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean almost five million fatalities. Although mortality rates differed North and South, with the percentage of Confederate men who died in the war three times greater than the proportion of Yankees, death seemed omnipresent throughout Civil War America. As the Daily South Carolinian observed in 1864, "Carnage floods our once happy land."(2)
But the impact and meaning of the war's casualties were not simply a consequence of scale, of the sheer numbers of Union and Confederate soldiers who died. Death's significance for the Civil War generation derived as well from the way it violated prevailing assumptions about life's proper end--about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances. As a newly appointed chaplain explained to his Connecticut regiment in the middle of the war, "neither he nor they had ever lived and faced death in such a time, with its peculiar conditions and necessities...." Civil War soldiers and civilians alike distinguished what many referred to as "ordinary death," as it had occurred in prewar years, from the way in which so many men were now dying in Civil War battlefields and camps.(3) Historians have only recently begun to consider the social and cultural meanings of Civil War death, perhaps because the war was so long seen as the all-but-exclusive province of military historians, who regarded casualties chiefly as an index to an army's continuing strength and effectiveness. Burgeoning recent interest in the war by social historians, however, has begun to raise questions about the wider impact of battlefield slaughter and to suggest that such mortality, even in a society far more accustomed to death than our own, must have exerted a profound influence on Americans' perceptions of the world around them as well as their hopes for a world to come. Like the Connecticut chaplain, these scholars see Civil War death as representing a new departure--in its scale, in its brutality, in its seeming endlessness as the war continued on and on. The Mexican War had yielded a total of 1,800 American military deaths over a period of two years; the Revolution killed approximately 4,000. More than 4,800 soldiers died on a single day at Antietam in September 1862, and 7,000 more would die from wounds received there. Death was no longer just encountered individually; mortality rates were so high that nearly every American family was touched. Death's threat, its proximity, its actuality became the most widely shared of war's experiences. As Emily Dickinson wrote from western Massachusetts during the conflict, "Sorrow seems to me more general [than] it did, and not the estate of a few persons, since the war began; and if the anguish of others helped one with one's own, now would be many medicines." At war's end, this shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the common ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite. Even in our own time, this fundamentally elegiac understanding of the Civil War retains its powerful hold.(4)
Our understanding of the impact and influence of Civil War mortality must necessarily begin with an exploration of the deaths themselves, with how they were managed emotionally, spiritually, and ideologically by soldiers and their families. Americans North and South would be compelled to confront--and resist--the war's assault on their conceptions of how life should end, an assault that challenged their most fundamental assumptions about life's value and meaning. As they faced horrors that forced them to question their ability to cope, their commitment to the war, even their faith in a righteous God, soldiers and civilians alike struggled to retain their most cherished beliefs, to make them work in the dramatically altered world that war had introduced. Civil War death would transform America and Americans in ways that new scholarship is just beginning to explore. But this change would emerge only slowly and only out of the often desperate efforts of Yankees and Confederates to mobilize traditional religious and intellectual resources to operate in the dramatically changed circumstances of what has often been called the first modern and the last old-fashioned war. In the experiences of soldiers and their families, we can see this conflict between old and new cast into sharp relief as Americans endeavored to reconstruct conventional consolations to serve new times and a new kind of slaughter. Civil War death must thus be understood as at once old and new, for the effort of Americans to hold on to cherished beliefs and assumptions indelibly shaped the necessarily transformed world that war made.
Mid-nineteenth-century American culture treated dying as an art and the "Good Death" as a goal that all men and women should struggle to achieve. From the fifteenth century onward, texts describing the Ars Moriendi ["art of dying"] had provided readers with rules of conduct for the moribund and their attendants: how to give up one's soul "gladlye and wilfully"; how to meet the devil's temptations of unbelief, despair, impatience, and worldly attachment; how to pattern one's dying on that of Christ; how to pray. With the spread of vernacular printing, such texts multiplied in number, culminating in the mid-seventeenth century with Jeremy Taylor's The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying (1651). Taylor, an Anglican divine, has been called a "prose Shakespeare." His revision of the originally Catholic Ars Moriendi was not just an example of literary art, however, but an intellectual triumph that succeeded in firmly establishing the genre within Protestantism. Taylor, who had already published a volume on holy living, placed deathbed conduct within the context of the whole life that served as its preparation.(5)
By the nineteenth century Taylor's books had become classics, and the tradition of the Ars Moriendi spread both through reprints of earlier texts and through more contemporary considerations of the Good Death. Often these more modern renditions appeared in new contexts and genres: in sermons that focused on one or two aspects of the larger subject; in American Sunday School Union tracts distributed to youth across the nation; in popular health books that combined the expanding insights of medical science with older religious conventions about dying well; or in popular literature, with the exemplary deaths of Dickens's Little Nell, Thackeray's Colonel Newcome, or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Eva. So diverse and numerous were these representations of the Good Death that they reached a wide spectrum of the American population at mid-century, and they would become a central aspect of the popular culture, the songs, stories, and poetry of the Civil War itself. By the 1860s many elements of the Good Death had been to a considerable degree separated from their explicitly theological roots and had become as much a part of respectable middle-class behavior and expectation in both North and South as they were the product or emblem of any particular religious affiliation. Assumptions about the way to die remained central within both Catholic and Protestant faiths but had spread beyond formal religion to become a part of more general systems of belief held across the nation about life's meaning and life's appropriate end.(6)
In the context of the Civil War, the Good Death proved to be a concern shared by almost all Americans of every religious background. An overwhelming majority of Civil War soldiers, like Americans generally in the 1860s, were Protestant, and Protestant assumptions dominated discourse about death. But war's imperatives for unity and solidarity produced an unprecedented degree of religious interaction and cooperation that not only brought Protestant denominations together but to a considerable extent incorporated Catholics and Jews as well. The war encouraged a Protestant ecumenism that yielded interdenominational publication societies, common evangelical gatherings, and shared charitable efforts like the Christian Commission. But Civil War ecumenism extended beyond Protestantism. Catholic chaplains in both Union and Confederate armies remarked on the effective cooperation among pastors and soldiers of differing religious affiliations. One of the most famous religious images of the war, Father William Corby offering a ceremony of general absolution to a brigade of Union troops before their engagement at Gettysburg, serves as a telling representation of the way that war's necessities produced a widely shared culture of religious faith, at least temporarily distanced from theological particulars. As Corby described the event, "all, Catholic and non-Catholic ... soldiers showed a profound respect, wishing at this fatal crisis to receive every benefit of divine grace that could be imparted...." The chaplain added that "general absolution was intended for all ... not only for our brigade, but for all, North or South, who were susceptible of it and who were about to appear before their Judge."(7)
Even Jewish soldiers, who comprised less than 0.3 percent of Civil War armies, partook of this common religiosity. Michael Allen, Jewish chaplain of a Pennsylvania regiment, held nondenominational Sunday services for his men, preaching on a variety of topics, including proper preparation for death. Although we today tend to assume sharp differences between Jewish and Christian views of death, and particularly the afterlife, these contrasts appeared far less dramatic to mid-nineteenth-century Americans. Drawing on traditions stretching back at least to Maimonides, Jews of the Civil War era shared with their Christian counterparts anticipations, as one condolence letter put it, of "a better life" to come. Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia could console her sister-in-law that her son, killed at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, and his distraught father "shall be united in another world."(8) Civil War death thus proved a great equalizer in its effect of minimizing--or perhaps more accurately, marginalizing--theological and denominational differences. The shared crisis of battle yielded a common effort to cope with death's ascendancy in order to salvage the comforting notion of a Good Death available to all those who were caught up in the maelstrom of war.(9)
At the heart of this common understanding lay the assumption of death's transcendent importance. A tract distributed to Confederate soldiers by the Presbyterian Church warned that "Death is not to be regarded as a mere event in our history. It is not like a birth, or a marriage, or a painful accident, or a lingering sickness." It has an "importance that cannot be estimated by men." Death's significance arose from its absolute and unique permanence. "Death fixes our state. Here [on earth] everything is changing and unsettled. Beyond the grave our condition is unchangeable." The moment of death could thus offer a glimpse of an unvarying perpetuity. "What you are when you die, the same will you reappear in the great day of eternity. The features of character with which you leave the world will be seen in you when you rise from the dead." How one died thus epitomized a life already led and predicted the quality of the life everlasting. The hors mori, the hour of death, had, therefore, to be witnessed, scrutinized, interpreted, narrated--not to mention carefully prepared for by any sinner seeking to demonstrate worthiness for salvation. The sudden and all-but-unnoticed end of the soldier slain charging amidst the chaos of battle, the unattended deaths of unidentified wounded men too ill to reveal their last thoughts, denied these long-cherished consolations. Civil War battlefields could have provided the material for an exemplary text on how not to die.(10)
Soldiers and their families struggled in a variety of ways to mitigate such cruel realities, to construct a Good Death even amidst chaos, to substitute for missing elements; or compensate for unsatisfied expectations. Their successes or failures influenced not only the last moments of thousands of dying soldiers but also the attitudes and outlook of survivors who contended with the impact of these experiences for the rest of their lives.
By the beginning of the 1860s the rate of death in the United States had begun to decline, although dramatic improvements in longevity would not appear until late in the century. Americans of the immediate pre-Civil War era continued to encounter death with greater frequency and familiarity than their twentieth-century counterparts. But the patterns to which they were accustomed were in significant ways different from those war would bring. Mid-nineteenth-century Americans experienced a high rate of infant mortality but expected most individuals who had reached young adulthood to survive at least into middle age. One of the most "peculiar" of the "conditions" surrounding Civil War death, one of the most significant ways in which it departed from "ordinary" death, was that it took young, healthy men and rapidly, often instantly, destroyed them with disease or injury. This represented a sharp and alarming departure from prevailing assumptions about who should die. As Francis W. Palfrey of Massachusetts wrote in an 1864 memorial for Union soldier Henry L. Abbott, "the blow seems heaviest when it strikes down those who are in the morning of life."(11)
But perhaps the most distressing aspect of death for many Civil War--era Americans was that thousands of young men were dying away from home. As one group of Confederate prisoners of war observed in a resolution commemorating a comrade's death in 1865, "we ... deplore that he should die ... in an enemys land far from home and friends." Most soldiers would have shared the wishes of the Georgia man whose brother sadly wrote after his death in …
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Publication information: Article title: The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying. Contributors: Faust, Drew Gilpin - Author. Journal title: The Journal of Southern History. Volume: 67. Issue: 1 Publication date: February 2001. Page number: 3. © 2009 Southern Historical Association. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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