Share This Article

Soldiers and civilians struggled to maintain their cultural values regarding death and dying as the toll of the war continued to rise.

No one expected what the Civil War was to become. Neither side could have imagined the magnitude and length of the conflict that unfolded, nor the death tolls that proved its terrible cost.

A number of factors contributed to these unanticipated and unprecedented losses. The first was simply the scale of the conflict itself. As a South Carolinian observed in 1863, “The world never saw such a war.” Approximately 2.1 million Northerners and 880,000 Southerners took up arms between 1861 and 1865.

Between the horror of combat and the agony of numerous diseases, Civil War soldiers had many opportunities to die. A war that was expected to be short-lived instead extended for four years and touched the life of nearly every American. A military adventure undertaken as an occasion for heroics and glory turned into a costly struggle of suffering and loss. As men became soldiers and contemplated battle, they confronted the very real possibility of death. They needed to be both willing and ready to die, and as they departed for war, they turned to the resources of their culture, codes of masculinity, patriotism and religion to prepare themselves for what lay ahead.

Focusing on dying rather than on killing enabled soldiers to mitigate their terrible responsibility for the slaughter of others, and dying assumed clear preeminence over killing in the soldier’s construction of his emotional and moral universe. Civil War soldiers were, in fact, better prepared to die than to kill, for they lived in a culture that offered many lessons in how life should end.

The concept of the Good Death, ars moriendi, was central to mid-19th-century America, as it had long been at the core of Christian practice. One was to die at home, among family, with words of comfort for the survivors and a profession of faith on one’s lips. Texts on the art of dying proliferated with the spread of vernacular printing, culminating in 1651 in London with Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying. By the 19th century, the tradition of the ars moriendi was spread both through reprints of earlier texts, sermons; in American Sunday School Union tracts distributed to youth across the nation; in popular health books that combined the expanding insights of medical science with older religious conventions about dying well; and in popular literature, with the exemplary deaths of Charles Dickens’ Little Nell [The Old Curiosity Shop] or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Eva [Uncle Tom’s Cabin]. So diverse and numerous were these representations of the Good Death that they would become a central theme within the songs, stories and poetry of the Civil War itself.

The Good Death proved to be a concern shared by almost all Americans of every religious background. An overwhelming majority of Civil War soldiers were Protestant, and Protestant assumptions dominated discussions about death. But the need for wartime unity and solidarity not only brought Protestant denominations together, but produced interaction between Protestant, Catholics and Jews, and the notion of a Good Death was shared across religious lines.

Civil War battlefields and hospitals, however, could have provided the material for an exemplary text on how not to die. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of death for many Civil War Americans was that thousands of young men were dying away from home. As one group of Confederate prisoners of war observed in a resolution commemorating a comrade’s death in 1865, “we…deplore that he should die…in an enemys land far from home and friends.” Most soldiers would have shared the wishes of the Georgia man whose brother sadly wrote after his death in Virginia, “he always did desire…to die at home.” But the four years of civil war overturned these conventions and expectations, as soldiers died by the thousands in the company of strangers, even enemies. As a South Carolina woman remarked in 1863, it was “much more painful” to give up a “loved one [who] is a stranger in a strange land.”

Civil War soldiers experienced an isolation from relatives uncommon among the free white population. Family was central to the ars moriendi tradition, for kin performed its essential rituals. One should die among family assembled around the deathbed. Family members needed to witness a death in order to assess the state of the dying person’s soul, for these critical last moments of life would epitomize his or her spiritual condition. The dying were not losing their essential selves, but rather defining them for eternity.

Last words had always held a place of prominence in the ars moriendi tradition. People believed final words to be the truth, both because they thought that a dying person could no longer have any earthly motivation to lie, and because those about to meet their maker would not want to expire bearing false witness. To be deprived of these lessons, and thus this connection, seemed unbearable to many 19th-century Americans left at home while their sons, fathers, husbands and brothers died with their words unrecorded or even unheard. Americans thus sought to manage battlefield deaths in a way that mitigated separation from kin and offered a substitute for the traditional stylized deathbed performance. Soldiers, chaplains, military nurses and doctors conspired to provide the dying man and his family with as many of the elements of the conventional Good Death as possible.

Battle deaths belonged to those at home as well as those in the field. The traditions of ars moriendi defined civilians as participants in war’s losses and connected soldiers to those behind the lines. Both parties worked to ensure that soldiers would not die alone. Soldiers endeavored to provide themselves with surrogates: proxies for those who might have surrounded their deathbeds at home. Descriptions of battles’ aftermath often remark on the photographs found alongside soldiers’ corpses.

In military hospitals, nurses frequently permitted delirious soldiers to think their mothers, wives or sisters stood nearby. Clara Barton described her crisis of conscience when a young man on the verge of death mistook her for his sister Mary. Unable to bring herself actually to address him as “brother,” she nevertheless kissed his forehead so that, as she explained, “the act had done the falsehood the lips refused to speak.”

Because no effective or formal system of reporting casualties operated on either side during the war, it became customary for the slain soldier’s closest companions at the time of his death to write a letter to his next of kin, not just offering sympathy and discussing the disposition of clothes and back pay but providing the kind of information a relative would have looked for in a conventional peacetime deathbed scene. These were condolence letters intended to offer the comfort implicit in the narratives of the ars moriendi that most of them contained. News of a Good Death constituted the ultimate solace—the consoling promise of life everlasting.

Some soldiers tried to establish formal arrangements to ensure the transmission of such information, to make sure that not just the fact but a description of their death would be communicated to their families. In 1862 Williamson D. Ward of the 39th Indiana made a pact with several members of his company to provide this assurance for one another: “We promised each other” that if any were wounded or killed, “we would see that they were assisted off the field if wounded and if dead to inform the family of the circumstances of death.”

But even without the formality of such resolutions, soldiers performed this obligation. I.G. Patten of Alabama responded with “Aufaul knuse” to a letter that arrived in camp from I.B. Cadenhead’s wife almost two weeks after his battlefield death. Another Confederate castigated himself for not stopping in the aftermath of an 1863 battle to record an enemy soldier’s last words and transmit them to his family.

Remarkably similar North and South, condolence letters sought to make absent loved ones virtual witnesses to the dying moments they had been denied, to link home and battlefront, and to mend the fissures war had introduced into the fabric of the Good Death. In camp hospitals nurses and doctors often assumed this responsibility.

Some men managed to write home themselves as they lay dying, speaking through pens instead of from the domestic deathbeds war had denied them. These letters are particularly wrenching.

Bloodstains cover James Robert Montgomery’s 1864 letter from Spotsylvania to his father in Camden, Miss. A private in the Confederate signal corps, 26-year-old Montgomery reported that a piece of shell had “horribly mangled” his right shoulder. “Death,” he wrote, “is inevitable.” But if the stained paper makes his wounds seem almost tangible, his assumptions about death emphasize the years that distance him from our own time. “This is my last letter to you,” he explains. “I write to you because I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son.”

His choice of the word “delight” here—a term that seems strikingly inappropriate within our modern understanding—underlines the importance accorded the words of the dying. Montgomery died of his wounds four days later.

Letters describing soldiers’ last moments on Earth are so similar, it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind. In fact, letter writers understood the elements of the Good Death so explicitly that they could anticipate the information the bereaved would have sought had they been present at the hour of death: The deceased had been conscious of his fate, had demonstrated willingness to accept it, had shown signs of belief in God and in his own salvation and had left messages and instructive exhortations for those who should have been at his side. Each of these details was a kind of shorthand, conveying to the reader at home a broader set of implications about the dying man’s spiritual state and embodying the assumptions most Americans shared about life and death.

One of the Civil War’s greatest horrors was that it denied so many soldiers the opportunity to write home by killing them suddenly and depriving them of the chance for the life-defining deathbed experience. Sudden death represented a profound threat to fundamental assumptions about the correct way to die, and its frequency on the battlefield comprised one of the most important ways that Civil War death departed from the “ordinary death” of the prewar period.

Readiness was so important in determining the goodness of a death that soldiers often tried to convince themselves and others that even what appeared to be sudden had in fact been well prepared. The soldier unable to speak after being wounded on the field had, letter writers frequently reassured kin, expressed his faith and demonstrated his anticipation of salvation in the days or weeks before his fatal encounter. When John L. Mason was killed just outside Richmond in October 1864, a comrade wrote to his mother to explain he “died almost instantly without speaking or uttering a word after being struck.” But the letter went on to assure her that there still remained “much for consolation” in his death, for even though Mason had been unable to say so, there was evidence that he was “willing and ready to meet his saviour.” The preceding summer he had told his comrades that he “felt his sins were forgiven & that he was ready and resigned to the Lord’s will & while talking he was so much overjoyed that he could hardly suppress his feelings of delight.”

Soldiers’ premonitions came to play an important role in their work of preparation for death. L.L. Jones anticipated that he would be killed in the fighting in Missouri in the summer of 1861 and so provided his wife with his dying sentiments before he went into combat. “I wish you to have my last words and thoughts,” he wrote. “Remember me as one who always showed his worst side and who was perhaps better than he seemed. I shall hope to survive and meet you again…but it may not be so, and so I have expressed myself in the possible view of a fatal result.” He was killed in his first battle.

Witnesses eagerly reported soldiers’ own professions of faith and Christian conviction, for these were perhaps the most persuasive evidences that could be provided of future salvation. As T.J. Hodnett exclaimed to his family at home after his brother John’s 1863 death from smallpox, “Oh how could I of Stud it if it had not bin for the bright evidence that he left that he was going to a better world.” Hodnett was deeply grateful that John’s “Sole seme to be…happy” as he passed his last moments singing of a heaven with “no more triels and trubble nor pane nor death.”

When soldiers expired unwitnessed and unattended, those reporting their deaths often tried to read their bodies for signs that would reveal the nature of their last moments—to make their silence somehow speak. A Confederate soldier reported the death of a cousin in 1863: “His brow was perfectly calm. No scowl disfigured his happy face, which signifies he died an easy death, no sins of this world to harrow his soul as it gently passed away to distant and far happier realms.” Clearly such a face could not be on its way to hell.

Peaceful acceptance of God’s will, even when it brought death, was an important sign of one’s spiritual condition. But if resignation was necessary for salvation, it was not sufficient. Condolence letters detailed evidence of sanctified behavior that absent relatives had not been able to witness. In a letter to his wife informing her of her brother George’s death in 1864, Frank Batchelor worked hard to transform the deceased into a plausible candidate for salvation. Batchelor admitted that George “did not belong to the visible body of Christ’s Church,” but cited his “charity,” “his strong belief in the Bible” and his rejection of the sins of “envy hatred and malice” to offer his wife hope for her brother’s fate. Batchelor confirmed himself “satisfied” that George was “a man of prayer” and had no doubt at last “found the Savior precious to his sole” before he died. “This being so,” Batchelor happily concluded, his wife could comfort herself with the knowledge she would meet her brother again “in the green fields of Eden.”

Soldiers’ efforts to provide consolation for their survivors altered the traditions of the ars moriendi. New kinds of death required changed forms and meanings for consolation. When Civil War condolence letters enumerated evidence of the deceased’s Christian achievements, designed to show his eligibility for salvation, the writer often included details of the soldier’s military performance, his patriotism and his manliness. In a letter to the widow of a comrade who had died the preceding day, T. Fitzhugh reported all the customary information: her husband had been resigned to death, was conscious of his fate and sent his love to his wife and children. But he also added that the soldier had “died a glorious death in defense of his Country.”

In some instances patriotism and courage seemed to serve as a replacement for evidence of deep religious faith. Some nonbelievers hoped that patriotism would substitute for religious conviction in ensuring eternal life. Despite clerical efforts, the boundary between duty to God and duty to country blurred, and dying bravely and manfully became an important part of dying well. For some soldiers it almost served to take the place of the more sacred obligations of holy living that had traditionally prepared the way for the Good Death. Letters comforting Wade Hampton after his son Preston was killed in the fall of 1864 emphasized this juxtaposition of military and Christian duty and sacrifice. William Preston Johnston urged Hampton to remember that his son’s “heroism has culminated in martyrdom,” which should serve as a “consolation for the years he might have lived.”

Just as there were Good Deaths, reports of painful, terrifying deaths offered powerful warnings about the existence of a Bad Death. Perhaps the most widespread version of the Bad Death concerned soldier executions customarily staged before assemblies of troops and designed to make a powerful impression and serve a distinct disciplinary purpose. The Charleston Mercury described soldiers seized by “uncontrollable emotion” as their division formed three sides of a square to witness the execution of 10 deserters. Soldiers who sat on their coffins as they awaited the firing squad or stumbled up the steps to the gallows served as an unforgettable warning to those who would die well rather than in shame and ignominy. An execution compelled its witnesses literally to confront death and to consider the proper path toward life’s final hour.

Military executions made a forceful statement about the need to be prepared to die. As the condemned prisoner scrambled to change his eternal fate with a last-minute conversion or repentance, he reinforced the centrality of readiness to the Good Death. Spiritual preparedness was of course the essence of dying well, but men often demonstrated readiness in more temporal ways. Many popular renditions of the ars moriendi emphasized the importance of settling one’s worldly affairs. A man who arranged for a burial plot on a furlough home was clearly contemplating his mortality, disposing of earthly preoccupations so that his death might bring a satisfactory conclusion to life’s narrative.

Many soldiers recognized their precarious situation by composing wills. Thomas Montfort of Georgia found it “sad and melancholy” to see men before battle “preparing for the worst by disposing of their property by will.” As his unit awaited a Union attack on Savannah’s Fort Pulaski, Montfort passed his time “witnessing wills” for comrades.

Soldiers’ personal possessions often took on the character of memento mori, relics that retained and represented something of the spirit of the departed. Burns Newman of the 7th Wisconsin Volunteers undertook the “painful duty” of informing Michael Shortell’s father of his son’s death near Petersburg the preceding evening. “Enclosed,” he continued, “send you some trinkets taken from his person by my hand. Think you will prize them as keepsakes.” A bible, a watch, a diary, a lock of hair, even the bullet with which a son or a brother had been killed could help to fill the void left by the loved one’s departure, and could help make tangible a loss known only through the abstractions of language.

Civil War Americans worked to construct Good Deaths for themselves and their comrades amid the conditions that made dying—and living—so terrible. As the war continued inexorably onward and as death tolls mounted ever higher, soldiers on both sides of the conflict reported how difficult it became to believe that the slaughter was purposeful and that their sacrifices had meaning. Yet the narratives of the ars moriendi continued to exert their power, as soldiers wrote home about comrades’ deaths in letters that resisted and reframed the war’s carnage.

Men did so not simply to mislead the bereaved in order to ease their pain. As Roland Bowen of the 15th Massachusetts responded to a friend’s request for “all the particulars” about a comrade’s death at Antietam, “I fear they will do you no good and that you will be more mortified [devastated] after the facts are told than you are now. Still you ask it and wither it be for the better or worse not a word shall be [kept] from you.”

In the eyes of a modern reader, men often seem to have been trying too hard as they sought to present evidence of a dead comrade’s ease at dying or readiness for salvation. But their apparent struggle provides perhaps the most eloquent testimony of how important it was for them to try to maintain the comforting assumptions about death and its meaning with which they had begun the war. 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 out of a slaughter that was almost unbearable. Their Victorian and Christian culture offered them the resources with which to salve these deep spiritual wounds. Ideas and beliefs worked to assuage, even to overcome the physical devastation of battle. And yet death ultimately remained, as it must, unintelligible, a “riddle,” as Herman Melville wrote, “of which the slain / Sole solvers are.”

Narratives of the Good Death could not annul the killing that war required. Nor could they erase the unforgettable scenes of battlefield carnage that made soldiers question both the humanity of those slaughtered like animals and the humanity of those who had wreaked such devastation.


Excerpted from This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust. Copyright © 2008 by Drew Gilpin Faust. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.