Share This Article

We are well into the second year of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, and there have been no new national public television documentaries on the subject. Has everything been done? Has the breadth of the Civil War and Civil War–related subjects run their course on the airwaves? I think not, but given the economic climate it certainly has become challenging to produce new historic material to touch the hearts and minds of TV viewers in unique ways and compete with many available program choices.

Fortunately the long-running American Experience series is premiering a documentary that brings together the familiar with the unusual: “Death and the Civil War.” The familiar, of course, is the Civil War. The unusual is the focus on death—an obvious part of war, but this program intensely focuses on the death aspect of the war in all its spiritual and practical considerations.

The program airs September 18 at 8 p.m. Eastern, but check the listings of your local PBS station for times.

Certainly, this is subject had the potential to be dreary and depressing from beginning to end. But American Experience entrusted it to Steeplechase Films and the company’s accomplished principal, Ric Burns, who avoided this pitfall in writing and directing the film. Ric brought imagination and energy to this project as he has for diverse PBS documentaries that include We Shall Remain, Part II: Tecumseh’s Vision and Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World.

As noted above, “Death and the Civil War” will premiere on September 18, the day when, 150 years ago, the United States was faced with the shocking reality of 3,650 battle deaths in the previous day’s Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.

This film bypasses the usual subjects of cause, revolt and conflict that logically introduce most discussions of the Civil War. The major personalities are all but absent. The battles are barely discussed and their strategic consequences ignored. The results of battles discussed here are the deaths and the wounds that resulted in death. The program not only looks statistically at Civil War casualties, it examines the processes and emotions that America and Americans on both sides of the conflict had to deal with when facing death on a monumental scale.

It is based on the book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Harvard University president Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, who was also chief project consultant on the film. Faust wrote the book because, in her research for a work on women of Southern slaveholding families, she uncovered countless references to loved ones lost in the war. Reading these manifestations of grief and sorrow started her journey into examining how Americans on both sides of the conflict dealt with the massive and public deaths that the Civil War produced.

“The death toll in the Civil War, if we translate it proportionately today, would be about seven million people,” Faust explains. “Imagine us as Americans, dealing with the deaths of seven million people; how that would change all of us and how central that would be our daily experience, to what we believe, to what we thought our nation should be … to how we believe that the future should be shaped. So I wanted to ask that question that I thought hadn’t been asked before, about how that presence of death affected everybody who lived during that time period.

Burying Union dead after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Library of Congress“The book also deals with questions of mourning and religion and transformation and psychology and beliefs so there’s a lot in the book that was beyond the reality of it, and I think the film captured that part of it so magnificently … the human suffering that extended not simply to those who died but to the survivors who had to grapple with how they understood religion and how they understood what had taken place and how they understood their lives.”

In the 19th century much was made of the “Good Death”—taking care of one’s affairs, saying good-bye, and generally preparing those left behind in the physical world while also preparing oneself for entering the spiritual world. Battlefield deaths often came violently and quickly; when death was lingering it often occurred among strangers. These were unsettling things, not only to those young men who could see their fate ahead of them, but also to the friends and families left behind. There was rarely the opportunity to prepare at all but when there was, such as in the case of mortally wounded Confederate J. R. Montgomery, attempts were made toward gaining the good death. Hearing his dying letter to his father is a hauntingly poignant moment that opens the film and sets the tone immediately.

Although the emotions related to dying and grief are among the film’s most important themes, it also examines the practical consideration of what to do with this war’s massive body count. This is where the story reveals the changes that came about in public policy and actions.

The armies were charged with identification, retrieval, burial and sometimes notification of next of kin, but there was no organized effort in the beginning, even on the federal side. These procedures came in stages, beginning with a few caring chaplains, surgeons or other officers, aided by citizens’ groups, families and dedicated individuals, until finally the decent treatment of those who sacrificed their lives for their country became standard policy.

The moment in the film that symbolizes all these efforts coming together focuses on a moment in history both iconic and pivotal— the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg in November 1863. It was the first one established in any American conflict.

The story continues beyond the war and into the postwar process of reburial, as the federal government assigned teams to find, identify and rebury in national cemeteries the bodies of Union soldiers scattered throughout the South. Politics and discrimination entered even into these solemn proceedings. Confederate soldiers were not included. The South was forced to find ways to bury her own dead. The principal units assigned to the unpleasant task of reburial parties were United States Colored Troops. These subjects are rarely seen or talked about in period documentaries.

Poets provide some of the best understanding of what death means. The words of Walt Whitman and other period voices are sprinkled throughout the film. Among the on-camera historical interpreters is a former undertaker, Thomas Lynch, now a poet and capable philosopher on dealing with death.

Columnist George Will puts the subject in perspective and Admiral Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminds the audience that the treatment of war dead continues to command a high priority for the U. S. Armed Forces today.

A mourner among Confederate graves, Richmond, Virginia. Library of Congress.“They’re speaking from that human organ that combines the head, and the heart and the body,” says Burns, “and so they have to be wise people. Whether as military men or funeral directors-turned-poets, these are people whose intelligence and humility are both as high as they can be. And what results when you get that humility mixed with intelligence are vivid, moving registrations of realities larger than the person who is talking.”

I’m not so sure that the visual element in the film is on par with the letters of dying soldiers and perspectives on death offered by visionary poets. A conscious effort was made to limit the visuals used.

“We wanted to create a film that was inhabited by the ghosts of what was there and let you look at the traces,” Burns explains. “Starting with the J. R. Montgomery letter—that is not only the actual document, but that’s his actual blood on the document. So maybe that’s a model for what we wanted to include.”

Although many of the images are powerful and telling, there is much repetition, particularly of wartime photographs. The images are usually unidentified and they are fairly common—the audience will not experience the kind of shock and awe 19th-century Americans felt during the first New York showing of Alexander Gardner’s grotesque images of dead soldiers and horses on the Antietam battlefield. Less is usually more, but not when it keeps returning. There are other images available to make the points, even subtly. And gravestones are presented as soft fleeting glimpses. It may be overused, but for me nothing communicates the tragedy of war better than epic panoramas of the massed soldiers’ graves in the many national and Confederate cemeteries we have in this country.

Death and the Civil War” is a story without obvious heroes. Abraham Lincoln and Clara Barton, for example, are mentioned for their roles in developing national policies and procedures for handling war dead, but the efforts to find, identify, bury and commemorate the fallen are viewed as an effort of many people and organizations. This program shows us the history of how these efforts came to be and what they mean to those who made the sacrifices and those who have benefited from those sacrifices. Now it is up to us continue this tradition of honor and remembrance.

Click here to read Jay Wertz’s interview with filmmaker Ric Burns.

Click here to see “The Dead of Antietam,” a collection of Matthew Brady photographs, from the September 2012 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. To learn about how the treatment of America’s war dead continued to evolve in the 20th century, see “Rest in Peace? Bringing Home U.S. War Dead” from MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.