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Drew Gilpin Faust: Death and the American Civil War

[Ms. Faust is the president of Harvard and the author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, from which the following is excerpted.]

Mortality defines the human condition. “We all have our dead–we all have our Graves,” a Confederate Episcopal bishop observed in an 1862 sermon. Every era, he explained, must confront “like miseries”; every age must search for “like consolation.” Yet death has its discontinuities as well. Men and women approach death in ways shaped by history, by culture, by conditions that vary over time and across space. Even though “we all have our dead,” and even though we all die, we do so differently from generation to generation and from place to place.[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, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total 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, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities. As the new southern nation struggled for survival against a wealthier and more populous enemy, its death toll reflected the disproportionate strains on its human capital. Confederate men died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one in five white southern men of military age did not survive the Civil War.[2]

But these military statistics tell only a part of the story. The war killed civilians as well, as battles raged across farm and field, as encampments of troops spread epidemic disease, as guerrillas ensnared women and even children in violence and reprisals, as draft rioters targeted innocent citizens, as shortages of food in parts of the South brought starvation. No one sought to document these deaths systematically, and no one has devised a method of undertaking a retrospective count. The distinguished Civil War historian James McPherson has estimated that there were fifty thousand civilian deaths during the war, and he has concluded that the overall mortality rate for the South exceeded that of any country in World War I and that of all but the region between the Rhine and the Volga in World War II. The American Civil War produced carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time.[3]

The impact and meaning of the war’s death toll went beyond the sheer numbers who died. Death’s significance for the Civil War generation arose as well from its violation of prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end–about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances. Death was hardly unfamiliar to mid-nineteenth-century Americans. 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 prewar era continued to be more closely acquainted with death than are their twenty-first century counterparts. But the patterns to which they were accustomed were in significant ways different from those the war would introduce. The Civil War represented a dramatic shift in both incidence and experience. Mid-nineteenth-century Americans endured a high rate of infant mortality but expected that most individuals who reached young adulthood would survive at least into middle age. The war took young, healthy men and rapidly, often instantly, destroyed them with disease or injury. This marked a sharp and alarming departure from existing preconceptions about who should die. As Francis W. Palfrey 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.” A soldier was five times more likely to die than he would have been if he had not entered the army. As a 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 manner and frequency of death in Civil War battlefields, hospitals, and camps, and from the war’s interruptions of civilian lives.[4]

In the Civil War the United States, North and South, reaped what many participants described as a “harvest of death.” By the midpoint of the conflict, it seemed that in the South, “nearly every household mourns some loved one lost.” Loss became commonplace; death was no longer encountered individually; death’s threat, its proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences. As a Confederate soldier observed, death “reigned with universal sway,” ruling homes and lives, demanding attention and response. The Civil War matters to us today because it ended slavery and helped to define the meanings of freedom, citizenship, and equality. It established a newly centralized nation-state and launched it on a trajectory of economic expansion and world influence. But for those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death. 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 ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite. Even in our own time this fundamentally elegiac understanding of the Civil War retains a powerful hold.[5]

Death transformed the American nation as well as the hundreds of thousands of individuals directly affected by loss. The war created a veritable “republic of suffering,” in the words that Frederick Law Olmsted chose to describe the wounded and dying arriving at Union hospital ships on the Virginia Peninsula. Sacrifice and the state became inextricably intertwined. Citizen soldiers snatched from the midst of life generated obligations for a nation defining its purposes and polity through military struggle. A war about union, citizenship, freedom, and human dignity required that the government attend to the needs of those who had died in its service. Execution of these newly recognized responsibilities would prove an important vehicle for the expansion of federal power that characterized the transformed postwar nation. The establishment of national cemeteries and the emergence of the Civil War pension system to care for both the dead and their survivors yielded programs of a scale and reach unimaginable before the war. Death created the modern American union–not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.[6]

Civil War Americans often wrote about what they called “the work of death,” meaning the duties of soldiers to fight, kill, and die, but at the same time invoking battle’s consequences: its slaughter, suffering, and devastation. “Work” in this usage incorporated both effort and impact–and the important connection between the two. Death in war does not simply happen; it requires action and agents. It must, first of all, be inflicted; and several million soldiers of the 1860s dedicated themselves to that purpose. But death also usually requires participation and response; it must be experienced and handled. It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments. Of all living things, only humans consciously anticipate death; the consequent need to choose how to behave in its face–to worry about how to die–distinguishes us from other animals. The need to manage death is the particular lot of humanity.[7]

It is work to deal with the dead as well, to remove them in the literal sense of disposing of their bodies, and it is also work to remove them in a more figurative sense. The bereaved struggle to separate themselves from the dead through ritual and mourning. Families and communities must repair the rent in the domestic and social fabric, and societies, nations, and cultures must work to understand and explain unfathomable loss.

This is a book about the work of death in the American CivilWar. It seeks to describe how between 1861 and 1865–and into the decades that followed–Americans undertook a kind of work that history has not adequately understood or recognized. Human beings are rarely simply passive victims of death. They are actors even if they are the diers; they prepare for death, imagine it, risk it, endure it, seek to understand it. And if they are survivors, they must assume new identities established by their persistence in face of others’ annihilation. The presence and fear of death touched Civil War Americans’ most fundamental sense of who they were, for in its threat of termination and transformation, death inevitably inspired self-scrutiny and self-definition. Beginning with individuals’ confrontation with dying and killing, the book explores how those experiences transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering. Some of the changes death brought were social, as wives turned into widows, children into orphans; some were political, as African American soldiers hoped to win citizenship and equality through their willingness both to die and to kill; some were philosophical and spiritual, as the carnage compelled Americans to seek meaning and explanation for war’s destruction.

Every death involved “the great change” captured in the language and discourse of nineteenth-century Christianity, the shift from this life to whatever might come next. A subject of age-old concern for believers and nonbelievers alike, the existence and nature of an afterlife took on new urgency both for soldiers anxious about their own deaths and for bereaved kin speculating on the fate of the departed. And even if spirits and souls proved indeed immortal, there still remained the vexing question of bodies. The traditional notion that corporeal resurrection and restoration would accompany the Day of Judgment seemed increasingly implausible to many Americans who had seen the maiming and disfigurement inflicted by this war. Witnesses at field hospitals almost invariably commented with horror on the piles of limbs lying near the surgeon’s table, dissociated from the bodies to which they had belonged, transformed into objects of revulsion instead of essential parts of people. These arms and legs seemed as unidentifiable–and unrestorable–as the tens of thousands of missing men who had been separated from their names. The integral relationship between the body and the human self it housed was as shattered as the wounded men.[8]

Bodies were in important ways the measure of the war–of its achievements and its impact; and indeed, bodies became highly visible in Civil War America. Commanders compared their own and enemy casualties as evidence of military success or failure. Soldiers struggled for the words to describe mangled corpses strewn across battlefields; families contemplated the significance of newspaper lists of wounds: “slightly, in the shoulder,” “severely, in the groin,” “mortally, in the breast.” They nursed the dying and buried their remains. Letters and reports from the front rendered the physicality of injuries and death all but unavoidable. For the first time civilians directly confronted the reality of battlefield death rendered by the new art of photography. They found themselves transfixed by the paradoxically lifelike renderings of the slain of Antietam that Mathew Brady exhibited in his studio on Broadway. If Brady “has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it,” wrote the New York Times.[9]

This new prominence of bodies overwhelmingly depicted their destruction and deformation, inevitably raising the question of how they related to the persons who had once inhabited them. In the aftermath of battle survivors often shoveled corpses into pits as they would dispose of animals–“in bunches, just like dead chickens,” one observer noted–dehumanizing both the living and the dead through their disregard. In Civil War death the distinction between men and animals threatened to disappear, just as it was simultaneously eroding in the doctrines of nineteenth-century science.[10]

The Civil War confronted Americans with an enormous task, one quite different from saving or dividing the nation, ending or maintaining slavery, or winning the military conflict–the demands we customarily understand to have been made of the Civil War generation. 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. Americans had to identify–find, invent, create–the means and mechanisms to manage more than half a million dead: their deaths, their bodies, their loss. How they accomplished this task reshaped their individual lives–and deaths–at the same time that it redefined their nation and their culture. The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.


[1] [Stephen Elliott], Obsequies of the Reverend Edward E. Ford, D.D., and Sermon by the Bishop of the Diocese . . . (Augusta, Ga.: Augusta Chronicle and Sentinel, 1863), p. 8.
[2] James David Hacker, “The Human Cost of War: White Population in the United States, 1850—1880,” Ph.D. diss. (University of Minnesota, 1999), pp. 1, 14. Hacker believes that Civil War death totals may be seriously understated because of inadequate estimates of the number of Confederate deaths from disease. Civil War casualty and mortality statistics are problematic overall, and the incompleteness of Confederate records makes them especially unreliable. See Chapter 8 of this book. Maris A. Vinovskis concludes that about 6 percent of northern white males between ages thirteen and forty-five died in the war, whereas 18 percent of white men of similar age in the South perished. But because of much higher levels of military mobilization in the white South, mortality rates for southern soldiers were twice, not three times, as great as those for northern soldiers. James McPherson cites these soldiers’ death rates as 31 percent for Confederate soldiers, 16 percent for Union soldiers. Gary Gallagher believes Vinovskis’s overall death rate for the South is too low; he estimates that closer to one in four rather than one in five white southern men of military age died in the conflict. I have cited the more conservative total. See Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?” in Maris A. Vinovskis, ed., Toward a Social History of the American Civil War: Exploratory Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 3—7; James M. McPherson, personal communication to author, December 27, 2006; Gary Gallagher, personal communication to author, December 16, 2006.
[3] James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 3, 177, n. 56.
[4] [Francis W. Palfrey], In Memoriam: H.L.A. (Boston: Printed for private distribution, 1864), p. 5; Richard Shryock, “A Medical Perspective on the Civil War,” American Quarterly 14 (Summer 1962): 164; H. Clay Trumbull, War Memories of an Army Chaplain (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1898), p. 67. Vital statistics for this period are very scarce, and the most complete cover only Massachusetts. I am grateful to historical demographer Gretchen Condran of Temple University for discussing these matters with me. See U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Part I (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975), pp. 62—63. On the “untimely death of an adult child” as “particularly painful” in mid-nineteenth-century England, see Patricia Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 39.
[5] One notable appearance of the image of a harvest of death is in the title given Timothy O’Sullivan’s photograph of a field of bodies at Gettysburg in Alexander Gardner, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1866; rpt. New York: Dover, 1959), plate 36; Kate Stone, Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861—1868, ed. John Q. Anderson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1955), p. 264; C. W. Greene to John McLees, August 15, 1862, McLees Family Papers, SCL.
[6] [Frederick Law Olmsted], Hospital Transports: A Memoir of the Embarkation of the Sick and Wounded from the Peninsula of Virginia in the Summer of 1862 (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1863), p. 115.
[7] The general literature on death is immense and rich. A few key texts not cited elsewhere in this volume include Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997); Thomas Lynch, Bodies inMotion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000); Sandra Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006); Paul Monette, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988); Paul Monette, Last Watch of the Night (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994); Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963); Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994); Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, eds., Death and the Regeneration of Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
[8] Mrs. Carson to R. F. Taylor, September 14, 1864, Carson Family Papers, SCL. On changing notions of the self, see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), and Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe Since the Seventeenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[9] New York Times, October 20, 1862. See William A. Frassanito, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978); Franny Nudelman, John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence and the Culture of War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 103—31; and Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill & Wang, 1989). Even as we acknowledge the impact of Civil War photography, it is important to recognize how few Americans would actually have seen Brady’s or other photographs of the dead. Newspapers and periodicals could not yet reproduce photographs but could publish only engravings derived from them, like the many Harper’s Weekly illustrations included in this book.
[10] Maude Morrow Brown Manuscript, z/0907.000/S, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Miss.; on nineteenth-century science and the changed meaning of death, see Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Excerpted from This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust Copyright © 2008 by Drew Gilpin Faust. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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