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On September 18, PBS Television released Ric Burns’ “Death and the Civil War” as part of its American Experience series. Burns worked closely with Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, author of the award-winning book This Republic of Suffering, and other noted scholars to closely examine and explain how the Civil War’s massive scale of death forever changed American society. Twenty years ago, Ric also worked with his brother Ken on the famous Civil War miniseries. As Ric notes: “The Civil War seemed more remote to me then than it does now. Maybe because I am 20 years closer to final things. But no matter what age you are, you can’t escape the stark reality and finality the war brought to 700,000 Americans and millions of their family members.” The DVD is available from PBS distribution.

Do you think people will be turned off by the topic?

Drew Faust and I both agree that even though this is about death and coping with death, somehow the story is moving and uplifting as well.

Why did it take so long for historians to investigate this subject?

I think Americans simply turned away from the massive death toll— 750,000 dead out of a population of 31 million, that’s like having 12 Vietnam Wars in four years in a population that was one-tenth the size. Comparable death rates in our population would mean 7 million dead. To make sense of the war, discussions were framed around Emancipation, States’ Rights, the Lost Cause or some other focus. I think it’s taken all this time for us to begin to grapple with that type of loss. It’s not like Appomattox—yay, the war is over. It’s Appomattox, and then you have the bones of half a million dead men strewn from Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean. We need to understand what that did to the country.

Who was Edmund Whitman? What did he find?

Whitman was one of the men Union General Montgomery Meigs sent to the South after the war to locate bodies in 1866. The landscape was biblical in its horrors. His team found 40,000 dead Union soldiers between Natchez and Vicksburg. I just drove that road. That’s 80-90 miles. If you walked out and saw one dead body, you’d remember it for the rest of your life, so how about strolling down the Tennessee River Valley over a three-year period and discovering 114,000 dead men?

Had many of the graves been defiled?

Yes, by people and also dug up by animals. But it is not just a Southern thing. Confederate dead were defiled in Gettysburg. You let a terrible genie out of the bottle when you start a civil war. And there is no way you can watch that many people die and not see the other side as being the agents of that death. It’s a cycle of bloodshed, because once it’s aroused, it’s like a perpetual motion machine. There’s no way to quickly rehumanize an enemy when you’ve been killing them and they’ve been killing you—in any numbers, let alone in these numbers. The anger lingers.

African Americans seemed to deeply care for Union dead.

Yale professor David Blight considers the first Memorial Day to have occurred in May 1865, when the freed black people of Charleston, S.C., came out to bury the Union dead at the Washington Race Course, which the Confederates had turned into a prison. Freed black workmen reburied some 260 Union soldiers, decorated gravesites and then joined thousands of others in a commemorative parade around the racetrack. Black Americans seemed to have a much greater intimacy with death as compared to white Americans. They died in greater numbers, their mortality rate was vastly worse, and they could have been killed if they were among the 4 million who had been enslaved by their owners.

Explain the concept of the “good death.”

Starting in the 1820s, the “Second Great Awakening” shaped how people imagined heaven and the best way to die. You should die at home surrounded by the people who loved you, so they could see you die and could observe your passage to heaven. But the war took people, most of whom hadn’t been more than five miles from home, and put them into vast armies, sent them 100 to 1,000 miles away. They’re dying, frequently anonymously, next to strangers, with nobody to utter their last words to. There is no organized burial, no systematic notification of next of kin, no “We regret to inform you….” The Good Death was violated in a hundred ways by the Civil War.

How did soldiers cope?

They made agreements: “I will write home to your family if you will write home to mine.” They wrote down a man’s last words, sometimes cobbled together by the surgeon while his hand was on the soldier’s brow after amputating his leg. Men dying on the battlefield pulled out images of family to “surround” themselves with loved ones.

At first the government gave little help to families of lost men.

Right. There’s no better example of that in the film than the story of Henry Bowditch of Massachusetts. He learns his son has been wounded, and goes to Washington in March 1863 only to find that his soldier son has died. But the boy might have survived if he had not lain for hours on the battlefield because there was no ambulance corps. That summer, his grieving parent wrote an extraordinary letter we feature in the film to plead for an ambulance corps for the Union Army. He argues that the government has a paternal duty to take care of its children soldiers.

J. David Hacker recently revised casualty estimates upward.

Yes, Hacker’s census research was innovative. As Drew Faust said to me, “We are still counting” after all these years. The fact that we’re still counting is a moving artifact of the war’s staggering and unprecedented amount of deaths.

Where did you find the rare photographs and items used in the film?

If you go to the Museum of the Confederacy or the Massachusetts Historical Society, just to pick two examples, you look at their collections differently once you have read Faust’s book. You begin to look for examples of the impact of death, and choose different images. The pictures and objects become more specific, more intimate. Take James Montgomery’s powerful bloodstained letter, the text that opens the film. He was a Confederate mortally wounded at Spotsylvania. We wanted the viewer to see such items as three-dimensional objects, so we show the letter in a tent with a flickering candle.

What surprised you the most while you were working on the film?

I think how close it made the war feel to me today. I realized more than ever how the war and its massive bloodletting caused bitter and deep emotions, and it helped me understand why the war is still part of the deep DNA of all Americans. And I think it will be for a very long time.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.