Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death
by Mark S. Schantz, Cornell University Press, 2008, $24.95
At a time when the death of one or two American soldiers in Iraq or elsewhere makes national headlines and fills television screens, it is hard to comprehend the horrific casualty rates of the Civil War. For example, nearly 8,000 men were killed outright in the three days of fighting at Gettysburg. How could the North and South accept such losses?
How did the soldiers prepare themselves to march in closed ranks into the waiting muskets and cannons? Why did the families back home accept the long lists of dead and wounded?
Mark S. Schantz, a professor of history and director of the Odyssey Program at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., gives us part of the answer in his carefully researched and insightful Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death.
He argues that early 19th century American attitudes and religious beliefs about death in part caused the tremendous carnage of the Civil War.
“I do not suggest that Southerners and Northerners set out consciously to kill themselves because they knew they would all meet again in heaven or because they grasped that their deaths might be politically valuable or aesthetically pleasing,” Schantz writes. But, he argues, it is important to try to understand what Americans thought about death because it is relevant in the way they behaved in time of war.
Part of the answer is the pervasiveness of mortality in antebellum America. Death was never far away. Epidemic disease routinely harvested the living from city and farm. Families carefully displayed their dead in front parlors. Elaborate monuments marked the remains of loved ones in cemeteries, and memorial lithographs and postmortem photos were displayed in homes.
“Americans came to fight the Civil War in the midst of a wider cultural world that sent them messages about death that made it easier to kill and be killed,” Schantz writes. “They understood that death awaited all who were born and prized the ability to face death with a spirit of calm resignation….They knew that their heroic achievements would be cherished forever by posterity. They grasped that death itself might be seen as artistically fascinating and even beautiful.”
Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust also addresses this topic in her new book, This Republic of Suffering (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), writing: “In the face of the profound upheaval and chaos that civil war brought to their society and to their own individual lives, Americans North and South held tenaciously to deeply rooted beliefs that would enable them to make sense of the slaughter that was almost unbearable.”
Schantz also says he believes the cultural and religious beliefs of the 19th century make it difficult for today’s society to understand the Civil War generation. He points out that we are bombarded by our own cultural interpretations of the past— neatly maintained battlefield parks, movies such as Gettysburg and Cold Mountain, Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary—that shape our view of the 1861-1865 era.
“But in venerating the past, let us try to approach it with clear eyes; let us take it when we can on its own terms; seeing it as a foreign land that we are privileged to visit. Let us seek to understand those who fought the Ameri – can Civil War in such a way that respects both the manner in which they lived and the ways in which they died,” Schantz concludes.
This is a difficult book to read in an emotional sense due to the dark subject matter and the realization that what Schantz is proposing impacts the sometimes distant and bloodless way we view the Civil War today.
It also explains why in one memoir a battle-hardened veteran can write casually in a sentence or two about the death of his best friend and ramble on for two or three pages about the accidental death of a pet squirrel.
Awaiting the Heavenly Country is a first-rate book with careful research on an intriguing subject. It makes an important contribution to the understanding of the Civil War era.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.