The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying

Article excerpt

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. …