Death and Civil War America: Interview with Drew Gilpin Faust

12/20/2007 • Abraham Lincoln, Civil War 1863, Civil War Battlefields, Civil War Nurses, Civil War Soldiers, Civil War Times, Confederate Generals, Confederate Soldiers, Gettysburg, Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, The Gettysburg Address, Union Army

What is the “Republic of Suffering”?

Frederick Law Olmstead, an administrator with the Union Sanitary Commission, was very involved with taking care of the wounded on hospital ships during the Peninsula campaign. Stunned by the misery and the sheer numbers of injured and dead, he made a remark about the country being turned into a “Republic of Suffering.” The scale of suffering was so huge, it seemed to encompass the whole country. I found it a compelling theme, and it comes out especially in the chapter on counting the dead toward the end of my book.

I also liked the idea of a Republic of Suffering as the title of the book because so much killing changes the role of public programs and government policies. The powerful democratic impulses of the war forced a reexamination of the neglect of the dead that was assumed and regularized in the opening days of the war. The Federal government took on new responsibilities for wartime dead through the national cemetery system, the effort at the close of the war to go back through the South and retrieve the bodies of the dead and try to identify them. The recognition that the state had a responsibility to the families of the dead, the bodies of the dead and the memories of the dead is also part of the Republic of Suffering.

Did the responsibility of the state to retrieve and reinter bodies also extend to Confederates?

No. Union agents would leave Confederate soldiers on the field but pick up Union bodies. That generated a response by private citizens in the South to take up the obligation to care for the Confederate dead. Women in particular mobilized in a series of ladies societies across the South, especially in areas near battlefields, to go out and organize search parties to try to find the graves of Confederate soldiers and collect them together in cemeteries like Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. There was also an effort on the part of organizations of Southern women to bring the dead back from Gettysburg and other fields in the border and Northern states where they were killed and reinter them in cemeteries. So private efforts grew up in the Southern states to compensate for the failure of the Federal government to include Confederate dead in the reburial program.

Would you agree that this book seems to be a departure from your previous work, which dealt with Confederate nationalism and plantation culture?

I’d say it’s a departure from my earlier work mostly because the North plays a large role in this book, and my previous work had been restricted to the South.  I think that’s the way in which it’s most dramatically different. The other issues I address in Republic aren’t so  different because I’ve always been interested in how societies and people  define themselves. I think that’s what attracted me to the Civil War, because war provides a moment of truth, because it forces people to prioritize their values and decide what’s most significant. I think death in a sense is the most dramatic instrument of that, and so I’ve spent my whole career looking for moments of truth in which individuals in societies reveal themselves.

How long did it take you to research the book?

It’s hard to say how long, because I found myself drawing upon work that I’d done for my earlier books, Mothers of Invention and The Creation of Confederate Nationalism. But I started thinking seriously about this project in 1995 when I was asked to give the  Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College, a lecture that’s given every year at the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on some sweeping aspect of Civil War history. I decided I wanted to focus on death in that lecture. That was my first exploration of the topic, and it was a rather synthetic, speculative rumination on this question.

It was motivated in part by an undergraduate course that I taught for many years on war and the American experience. That course looked at the experience of war across the span of U.S. history, so that caused me to read about Vietnam, WWI and WWII and do a lot of comparative thinking about war. You find literature that says WWI was a dramatic departure in terms of the horror of war and the numbers of deaths and the amount of destruction changed how everyone thought about the world. A marvelous book by Paul Fussell, The Great War in Modern Memory, argues that point. But I think the Civil War had something of the same impact in the level of slaughter. Much of what has been said about the impact of WWI should in the American context be pulled back to the experience of the Civil War.

The scope of this book is fascinating, but it can also be seen as sort of sad and even at times depressing. It’s also very realistic in its treatment of the Civil War. Do you think that the Civil War has been overly glorified or glamorized in popular imagination?

Part of what I wanted to say with this book is that when we forget the kinds of things I describe here—the centrality of the experience of death, the volume of death, the devastating impact it had on so many aspects of mid-19th-century civilization—we forget the reality of the Civil War for those who lived in that era. The mourning that must have gripped the nation is something that’s too easy to forget because we are not captured by it.

The experience of death in that war was so widespread that it infused American culture. One of the things I thought a lot about since beginning to work on this subject is how much of late 19th-century America should we understand through those events? For example, think of the people who never knew what had happened to their son—it’s 1863, and you never hear of him again after Gettysburg.  Let’s say you are a 30-year-old parent, you’re going to live another 40 years, and the rest of your life is shaped by that lingering uncertainty about the loss of that child. You can multiply that experience hundreds of thousands of times. I think as we consider late-19th-century Americans, we should be thinking about the ways in which they were shaped by the continuing presence of what I described in this book.

Some historians argue that a lot of Northern men didn’t participate in the military. Were there some people unaffected by the Republic of Suffering, or was it all-inclusive?

I think that there’s a distinct contrast between the North and South in this regard because of the level of mobilization in the South. For white and black Southerners, the presence of death was inescapable. I think in the North it was not as intense. As you suggest, there were many Northerners who managed not to have a direct role in the war. Sometimes I’ll be reading source material and I’ll just be stunned by this. For example, I was reading about Elizabeth Carey Agassi, the woman who founded and served as the first president of Radcliffe College, and her husband Louis Agassi, a scientist who taught at Harvard. They were traveling to Brazil to do research. As they were sailing down the East Coast she wrote that she looked over and saw all this smoke coming up from Virginia, and thought, “Oh yeah, that ‘s the Civil War going on.” I was so struck by this because there were numbers of individuals who served from Harvard and many students who died and so forth, yet somehow the Civil War was peripheral to them. I find that very strange, and I think we need to remember that people were differentially involved in the war.

That makes me think of Teddy Roosevelt, who felt guilty because his father didn’t serve.

Think about the Civil War memory industry—reunions, preserving and marking battlefields, the glorification of Civil War dead—and the impact that it had on the nation as the country moved toward the 20th century. I think that was a way in which Civil War influence spread beyond those who were direct participants and became a part of the entire American consciousness.

In your preface you state that we die “differently from generation to generation.”  How do we die differently today and why?

Well, I think there are a number of factors that play into this. Technology is certainly one of them. Customs and values are another. We tend to die today in hospitals, tied up to all kinds of machines. The notion that the family should be at bedside is not so strongly felt. The place of religion is very different in our society. Ways of dying are more diverse because we are not as homogeneous in our identities and religious affiliations as people were during the Civil War. Nineteenth-century America was overwhelmingly Protestant, so that makes a difference. One of the things that I found most striking as I got more involved in this project is that many colleagues and friends did not want to talk to me about the subject of the Republic of Suffering.

A past president of Penn and another historian I know didn’t like coming when I gave talks about this; he didn’t want to think about death, and he teased me about it. He made it kind of amusing,  but I think it’s expressive of something deeply rooted in our culture, which Phil Arias has written about so eloquently, which is we don’t like thinking about death. We try to eliminate it from our thoughts and live our lives as if it’s never going to happen. The notion of the good death was that it was a prepared death.  You spent much of your life organizing yourself in relationship to death. That has had a very profound effect on me because I think that I have lived in some ways in a 19th- century world for the last 15 years, because I constantly thought about death.

Do you feel that you became obsessed with death?

Not in a bad way—I think in an illuminating way. I think in the way that it affected the question of moment of truth. When you think about death, it conceptualizes and intensifies much of what you do. It tells you to go smell the flowers; it put things in perspective when you’re having a horrible meeting or there’s a lot of difficult things going on.

You say that Americans in the 19th century were more prepared to die than kill.  Are we better prepared for killing than dying?

That’s an interesting question…

Let me rephrase my question: Would it be easier for a soldier today to kill than it was for a Civil War soldier?

Certainly desensitization to killing is still an important part of military training. I think it’s recognized that making individuals able to kill is a challenge and has to be taught. So we don’t just assume that everyone walking around in 21st- century America is a born killer. I would say that the glorification of violence in popular culture may indeed have broken down certain inhibitions about killing. We hear stories on the news about children who pop off and shoot each other, or gang warfare. I think the news likes to put front and center examples of times when the sanctity of human life has been completely ignored, and I think certainly popular culture points to and takes advantage of those examples.  You asked a really interesting question, and I don’t have a firm answer to it.  I think it’s a question worth exploring.

Could you describe what a good death would be in the Civil War period?  If a soldier could die ideally, what would that entail?

Well a soldier would be at home. He wouldn’t be on the battlefield—he would be surrounded by family, and then these various questions that I put forward in my first chapter would be addressed. He would be prepared, he would express his willingness to die, he would say he had met his savior and expected to be taken to heaven, he would have settled all of his accounts with his family. He also would have prepared in a quite specific way his will, his burial arrangements, and he would have a kind of understanding of a shared understanding with his family of what the next step was. In other words, he was on his way out.

Explain how photography sometimes served as a surrogate for the family experience.

I think the most dramatic, public example of this was when Amos Humiston was found dead on the battlefield surrounded by portraits of his children, and there was a great effort to identify him. This seemed to be such an iconic moment—that this individual had wanted to die with his family around him, so he used his photographs in place of the actual individuals. It captured the public imagination, and there was a big effort to identify who he was, who his children were. That was accomplished, and his name was discovered through publishing engravings in the press. But I think the level of public interest in this is important—the image of someone who was torn away from family trying to reproduce that family through a ring of photographs around himself in his last moments.

You speculate that religion may have enabled killing in the Civil War. Could you explain that?

It’s just something worth thinking about. I don’t think you would say it absolutely did.  But I think religion may have enabled both killing and dying—certainly enabled dying, in that if you firmly believed you were going to another life, it was easier to give up this one. But the notion that there are Christian soldiers who undertake killing for purposes that are consistent with religious ends I think motivated numbers of soldiers in the war, so I think it contributed to easing the difficulties individuals confronted both as they thought about killing and about being killed.

Were there any differences between the way northern Union soldiers and African- American soldiers reacted to killing?

There’s a considerable body of evidence that shows African-American soldiers recognizing the Civil War as a continuation of the violence of slavery. This was not so much a break in a peacetime world but rather an exacerbation of a world in which they had long found themselves, so that violence was at the heart of their prewar existence. There is a lot of expression of violence in war as an opportunity of vengeance, for repaying debts, for an instrument of liberation and an instrument of revenge.  It’s sometimes criticized by African-American leaders. For example, Bishop Henry Turner was very nervous about calls for vengeance. He said we must not submit to this kind of definition, but one finds in numbers of letters from African-American soldiers the notion that this is a “just desserts” for the horrors of slavery. Abraham Lincoln phrased it a little bit differently, but he alludes to something of the same message in the second inaugural, where he sees the killing in the war as in some sense the price that America as a whole is paying for having embraced the slave institution. So it’s not a matter of our individual vengeance but rather the nation as a whole being punished for having been involved with slavery.

Was it harder for Americans to kill in the Civil War because the opponents were  fellow Americans?

Yes. I think it was harder for soldiers to kill people who looked like themselves. And one of the ways that we see evidence to suggest that that’s the case is the kinds of atrocities that soldiers often committed against African-American soldiers—the failure to take prisoners, the Fort Pillow Massacre, those are probably the most dramatic examples of this, but there was a sense on the part of white Southerners that these were not real soldiers—that this was a kind of slave insurrection, that they did not have a legitimate right to be in military uniforms and to be fighting. Some commanders even encouraged ignoring the laws of war and the differential treatment of black Union soldiers, so that you can see when differences of race emerged, differences in perception emerged as well, and differences in treatment.

And that feeling percolated back to plantations as well and to the home fronts of the South, in the sense that there was racial violence.

There was considerable racial violence across the South as the slaves challenged masters in ways that they had not dared do before the war made the possibility of freedom seem a reality. The conflicts also were expressed in ways that led to retribution against slaves, especially when black men tried to escape and ran off to the Union army.  Plantation owners often punished the wives and families that were left behind. There are numbers of examples of violence that just seem almost illogical and so extreme as to represent a kind of rage and disruption that is very startling. For instance, there’s the example of an African-American woman in South Carolina who yelled “Hurray, the Yankees are coming” when she heard that Union troops were nearby, and a group of whites got together and hanged her in response. Then there was a very severe set of punishments that essentially killed any slave woman who had pointed out to the Yankees where a family’s silver had been buried. An effort, I think, that speaks of a desire to retain control in a situation that was completely out of control for white Southerners and then precipitated them into being themselves out of control

Was there one particular story of a person or individual that stuck with you as you were working on this?

Some of the stories of families either looking for lost loved ones or dealing with loss were the stories that lingered most strongly for me, partly because you could see how that would extend over decades, and the sense of ongoing loss. I think of two families in particular.

One was the family of Henry Bowditch, a Harvard professor. He was here in Boston when his son Nathaniel was killed in the spring of 1863. Henry Bowditch was told he’d been severely wounded, and he got on a train to go down to Virginia to see what had happened. Then when he got off the train, filled with hope that perhaps Nathaniel might recover, he was greeted by someone who said he was dead. He was taken to the army camp, met with Nathaniel’s comrades, talked to them and was told how good a soldier his son had been.

Henry Bowditch struggled with emotion. He was not used to emotion—he didn’t know how to handle it, he kept apologizing for it, he kept trying to find ways to channel it and to turn his loss into something he could handle. Watching him go through that period of mourning and try to come to terms with Nathaniel’s death is very moving.  He did two things in particular that are worth noting. One is put together the most extraordinary series of scrapbooks and memorial volumes—now in the Massachusetts Historical Society—that recorded much about Nathaniel’s life and his death. But what I think they record most vividly is Henry Bowditch needing to act in some way that connected him with his son, and memorializing Nathaniel in this way provided him that. Secondly Bowditch became a very active advocate of improved ambulance service for soldiers. He felt that his son had died needlessly, that if medical care had been brought to him more quickly, he might have been saved. An ambulance service was somewhere between poor to nonexistent in most of the Union army in that time. And Bowditch changed that. He used his position of influence within the medical profession, his passion about his son’s death and his sense of mourning and grief to introduce a revolutionary improvement in the ambulance service in the Union army by the end of the war.

Another was the story of Henry Taylor from Wisconsin, who died as a prisoner of war in the South. His father and mother spent months trying to figure out where he’d gone and what had happened to him. He’d been in prison in Richmond, and then he was moved to South Carolina. Taylor’s parents weren’t sure whether he was alive or dead. They finally figured out that he had died, and his father spent years trying to get at the circumstances of Taylor’s death. I was very struck by a letter written in the 1890s by his father to one of Henry’s comrades, still asking for details of his death. The comrade has clearly not been thinking about the Civil War for quite some time, but here’s the father still obsessed with the need to know about his child’s last moments.

There’s an ongoing debate because we spend so much money today to try to recover any body we can from the battlefield. There are some people who say we shouldn’t do so, but it seems to me that that process, that idea starts in the Civil War era.

One can see in the Civil War itself a real shift in consciousness about the obligation of the state to involve itself, or commit itself, to a retrieval of the dead. We take that for granted now, but that was not at all in people’s minds at the beginning of the Civil War.

Did you find any evidence of either the Northern or the Southern government  manipulating mourning for patriotic purposes?

Mourning became a vehicle for patriotic expression in many ways. At the beginning of the war every soldier’s death was greeted with parades. These were mourning parades, elaborate funerals, elaborate forms of recognition. But when you start getting toward the numbers of Civil War dead that ultimately amounted to 620,000, you obviously don’t have the same level of ceremony surrounding the deaths. I think many of these events were a combination of patriotic outpourings and private mourning. Stonewall Jackson ‘s death observances went on for days, to the point that by the time he was lying in state at Virginia Military Institute, where he had been a professor, individuals were beginning to comment on the fact that the embalming job that had been done on him was weakening, and it was past time to get him into the ground. Same thing happened with Abraham Lincoln actually; his body was taken on a train trip around much of the nation in 1865 for crowds and crowds of people to express their grief at the loss of this Union president who had won the war for them.

I think some people would say the mourning for Stonewall Jackson is still going on, legions of people who go down to VMI. How did growing up in Virginia influence the way you view the  Civil War?

I grew up in Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s,  when reenactments of Civil War battles were taking place all around me. It was a time when people were very engaged with Civil War memories. A lot of my childhood weekends, I remember, were taken up with trips to battlefields and activities that were about the Civil War. I used to play Civil War with my brothers all the time. My older brother always made me be Grant because he wanted to be Lee. I was pretty old before I realized that Grant actually won, so I had a rather distorted view of things for quite some time.

Because of that view, do you like or dislike Grant?

I like Grant a lot. I think he was a remarkable individual. Another story I should tell about my childhood—and I’m not sure when this reached a level of actual consciousness—seems to me almost prophetic about this book.  My family, my parents and grandparents, are buried in a beautiful little cemetery called Old Chapel Cemetery, located between two small Virginia towns, Boyce and Millard. There’s a little family plot there. If you look around the graveyard, within two or three feet of this family plot there are little stone markers that say unknown Confederate soldier, unknown Confederate soldier. Those were individuals killed in a skirmish on that ground during the Civil War and interred in unidentified graves. My family is buried in the midst of the phenomenon that is at the heart of this book.

Who was the Civil War buff in your family who dragged everybody to the battlefields—or was it the entire family?

Probably my parents thought, “Well, these are historic sites; let’s take them to those historic sites.” But my older brother was the Civil War nut. He collected guns and other weapons and all kinds of paraphernalia.

Did that part of your background help you? You use a lot of material culture in your books and your classroom—does that come from your family experience as well?

That’s an interesting question. At one point I borrowed all my brother’s Civil War rifles and had them at the University of Pennsylvania, where I used them in my classes to explain about the transition from the smoothbore musket to the rifled musket to the breechloader. I had his Minié balls and his cartridges and all the rest of it. One time I was stopped by a policeman as I was walking through West Philadelphia with these rifles. He wanted to know what I was up to. So yes, my brother’s collection did play a role in my teaching.  But I did not begin my scholarly career by studying the Civil War. I looked at the prewar South for the first decade and a half at least of my scholarly work. I came to the Civil War gradually and didn’t see myself as immediately jumping into this tradition of family engagement and interests.

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