Death and the Civil War (The American Experience): A Review

This evening PBS broadcasts The American Experience‘s production of Death and the Civil War.

Over the past several years we’ve become more aware of and sensitive to the brute fact that many people died during the American Civil War.  We’ve had upward adjustments of the total human toll of the war, as well as renewed attention given to deaths among civilians. Drew Gilpin Faust’s fine The Republic of Suffering placed renewed focus on how American culture addressed this challenge; so has the work of other historians, including Mark S. Schantz, J. David Hacker, James Downs, and Megan Kate Nelson (as well as Bernadette Loeffel-Atkins, who’s written on mourning rituals).

The folks at The American Experience drew heavily on Faust’s study in crafting their own presentation of this topic (click here for an explanation of why this topic proved compelling, and here, where Ric Burns offers his own perspective). The presentation feels oddly familiar, with the camera focusing on various images or panning across artifacts presented as if one was looking at a desk or inside a tent (which helps explain why some images are shown in their frames, to show us images as the people at the time would have viewed them).  Various voices read letters; there is the usual array of talking heads, some familiar, some less so, reflecting thoughtfully on the themes of Faust’s book and other recent scholarship (such as the risks slaves took with their health and well-being by seeking freedom).  That the formula is familiar makes it no less effective, although at times one is rather conscious of the process.

As I watched, I grew increasingly aware that this was not simply an effort to educate the mind but also to move one’s sensibilities. Between the dramatic reading of letters, the background music, and the recreated scenes (no humans appearing), the viewer is transported to the harsh reality of death and loss in their imagination, with photographs reminding us of the slain and the maimed.  The effect called to mind the shock and disbelief described in the writings of Union officers and soldiers as they surveyed the scene before them west of Antietam Creek on September 18, 1862, precisely 150 years before the airing of this reflective essay.  One is almost numbed by the result.

One of the themes of specific interest to me is how the folks at home came to terms with the crude facts of death on the field of battle (even if we know that far more men died of disease).  Some people travelled to the front in an effort to recover the remains of loved ones; others made arrangements to have the remains brought to them.  At the same time photographs brought home not the chaos of combat but its consequences in images that at times were explicit, at other times pastoral, and on occasion staged.

At Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute last June I concluded a tour of the action at Little Round Top by taking my group to the national cemetery, where I pointed out the final resting places of several men who gave the last full measure on that hillside one July day in 1863.  I wanted members of my group to understand that for all of the tales of heroism and debates over who did what, that these men were just as much (and perhaps even more) heroes than Warren and  Chamberlain (other heroes, including Vincent, Hazlett, Weed, and O’Rorke, perished as well, after all). Yet that cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated to the Union dead, who predominate (although there are several known cases of dead Confederates buried in the cemetery).  The Confederate experience is slighted in this presentation; so is the western theater.  On the whole, this is about the death of soldiers, not civilians, although there is acknowledgement of the risks assumed by African Americans.  Airing as it does a week after the eleventh anniversary of the events of 9/11, we might have expected that a more creative approach could have taken Faust’s book as a point of departure and not as the essential framework of the presentation.

I well recall some twenty-two years ago, when Ken Burns’s treatment of the Civil War aired, that Burns lavished particular attention on the aftermath of battle, as if to remind us of the cost of glory.  Ric Burns now focuses on that cost and what Americans made of it.  It is a worthwhile reminder of the difference between commemoration and celebration as we contemplate what happened 150 years ago.  I recommend that you watch it, and if you do, watch it with your undivided attention as you consider what you hear, see, and feel.

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