All of the below is from a book review, Grave Doubts: Reckoning with mass mortality after the Civil War, by T J Jackson Lears in the Dec/Jan 2009 BookForum magazine. The two books are Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, and Mark S. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country; though my quotes will only be from the beginning and Faust’s part of the review.
First, the beginning:
The Civil War was by far the bloodiest war in American history. The Union and Confederate armies suffered more than 620,000 fatalities — roughly equivalent to the American dead of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War put together. Among all combatants, the death rate was six times that of World War II; among Southerners, three times that of Northerners. Noncombatants, too, were swept up in this first modern, total war: An estimated fifty thousand civilians died.
… Most Civil War chroniclers have lifted their gazes from battlefield losses to political gains — the emancipation of African-American slaves and the emergence of the United States as a modern nation. The war, from this view, was a Christian saga of suffering and redemption. Its outcome was the “new birth of freedom” envisioned by Lincoln at Gettysburg, a more democratic society purged of the original sin of slavery. This Civil War story lies at the heart of the American political mythos; it also resonates with fundamental human longings — above all, the desire for mass death to make sense, to fit into some larger pattern of cosmic meaning. No wonder the grand narrative possesses so much staying power.
Still, this familiar story has had some disturbing (if unintended) consequences. It has brought an unwarranted coherence to our perception of war’s chaos. It has encouraged us to read retroactive purpose and direction into events that the people enmeshed in them may have found chillingly bereft of both qualities. And it has fostered the fiction of redemptive war — the dangerous fantasy that inspired war makers from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush, allowing them to wrap their imperial adventures in robes of righteousness.
The rest, below are about Faust’s book:
Faust’s boldest and most illuminating arguments arise from her recognition of the pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty concerning who had lived and who had died. Forty percent of dead Yankees and a far higher percentage of dead Confederates were identified only by “the significant word unknown” (in Whitman’s phrase). Before battle, soldiers scribbled their names on scraps of paper and pinned them to their uniforms, hoping there would be enough left of their bodies to be returned to their families. Some battlefield casualties were “blown to atoms,” as a soldier recalled. The impact of heavy artillery on flesh meant that some men “actually vanished,” Faust writes, “their bodies vaporized by the firepower of this first modern war.” While civilians found this hard to imagine, combat veterans “understood all too well the reality of men instantly transformed into nothing.” They could hardly confront a more disturbing challenge to their taken-for-granted sense of being in the world.
… Some public figures knew perfectly well what the carnage meant, or thought they did. Three months after Appomattox, the Reverend Horace Bushnell, like many other prominent Northern ministers, detected the hand of God in the Union victory. God’s design, he said, had been fulfilled by “our acres of dead.” Like Christianity, history “must feed itself on blood,” and the United States now “may be said to have gotten a history.” The nation was “no more a mere creature of our human will, but a grandly moral affair” — “hallowed” by “rivers of blood.” “Government is now become Providential,” Bushnell concluded. This divination of the state was idolatry masquerading as Christianity, a masquerade common to romantic nationalism and all too familiar in our own time as well. As Faust suggests, Bushnell “could talk so enthusiastically about blood because he had spent the war in Connecticut, distant from the battlefields ‘black with dead’ that he described. But Providence had favored him, and he could thus claim its purposes as his own.”
… Confronted with the unadjustable reality of mass death, combat survivors found it impossible to communicate what they had experienced. Groping for words to characterize his first battle, John Casler of the Stonewall Brigade finally gave up. “I have not power to describe the scene,” he wrote his parents. “It beggars all description.” The inadequacy of language suggested a profounder inadequacy of consciousness. Under the impact of the slaughter, Civil War Americans began to doubt man as well as God — to question the human ability to understand, as well as the divine capacity for benevolence. It was not only terminal skeptics like [Ambrose] Bierce who found themselves “sentenced to life” after the Civil War. Lanier, himself a combat veteran and former prisoner of war, wrote in 1875 that for most of his “generation in the South since the War, pretty much the whole of life has been not-dying.” Where Schantz insists on the durability of the Victorian culture of death after the crucible of the war, Faust suggests that its mass slaughter created a far more contingent, and entirely less comforting, cultural legacy.
If you have time, read the full review. I think it’s excellent. [ link ]