1.31.2008

the tumultuous (18)60s




I recently finished This Republic of Suffering, the new book by Drew Gilpin Faust, about this country's relentless confrontations with death during the Civil War and its toll on the collective psyche. (That title is taken from–of all people–Frederick Law Olmsted and his description of the wounded and dying at Union hospital ships.) An unreservedly glowing review in last Sunday's Times surprised me a bit. While the book is a great achievement – it is thorough and rigorously detailed without being exhausting, it is sensitively crafted and intelligently presented– I still expected more.

Background: The Civil War's final tally stood at approximately 620,000 military deaths (I believe that figure does not contain what we would now call "collateral damage"), out of a total national population of about 31.5 million. It is no wonder that a Confederate soldier, quoted in the book, felt that, "death reigned with universal sway, ruling homes and lives." Nearly every household would have been mourning someone. Faust demonstrates, dramatically, that the experience of living through those years was limned by the presence of death—materially, politically, intellectually, and spiritually.
Geoffrey Ward, in the Times review:
When the war began, the Union Army had no burial details, no graves registration units, no means to notify next of kin, no provision for decent burial, no systematic way to identify or count the dead, no national cemeteries in which to bury them....Fathers and brothers wandered battlefields in search of missing relatives.... So did wives and mothers dressed in black.
“The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny,” says Faust. The lasting impact of that sacrifice “created the modern American union,” she writes, “not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.” It also, she posits, changed Americans' understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But the book largely documents, often in moving first-hand accounts, what I believe were immediate tangibilities of the time: the struggle to account for the losses, to attend to the casualties, to reconcile death with the act of dying "well" (ars moriendi, or the good Christian death). Faust even discusses the arcane rituals of mourning (though she doesn't define what the differences between "heavy", "full", and "half" mourning are). When I finished reading, though, I was left wondering why I didn't have a better understanding of the cultural and psychological impact of all this. (Perhaps I just need to read more about the war!)

America in the 1860s witnessed mass killing, assassination, racial enmity, political strife and rioting, what effect did that tumult have on literature, or social change or even religion? The shadows of events of that magnitude don't pass away quietly. They are absorbed, instilled, repressed, passed on or refuted. What did that generation of children without fathers grow up to think? This country was literally rent apart. What was Europe thinking at the time? That this Great Experiment was imploding, surely.

Americans saw actual photographs of war--the battlefields, the dead-- for the first time
, not an artist's rendering. In 1862, Mathew Brady shocked the public with an exhibit in his New York gallery, "The Dead of Antietam." Within hours after it was confirmed on September 19th that the Confederates had withdrawn, Brady's cameramen Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson began to record the aftermath and within a month the results were hanging on the walls.
The New York Times said that if Brady "has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it... he has brought home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war."
(An interesting modern take on the "birth of photojournalism" on the battlefield at Antietam here.) How is it that religion and sentimentality became all the more entrenched in American society as a result? When the (mostly European, granted) wounded of WWI came back broken and disfigured 50 some odd years later their faces and bodies haunted painting, the graphic arts, and literature. Disillusionment, in some sense, propelled Modernity. How is it that this country faced the "terrible reality' of the Civil War and seemed to turn around.

The last Union body was recovered and reburied in 1871. The last Civil War veteran (though there is some dispute) died in 1956. In 2003 a man recounted stories about his father's experience during the Civil War for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It is history, but not totally out of reach. Faust's creates a vividness from a compilation of incident and fact. The book that traces the social and cultural legacy of those moments, t
hat's the book I'd like to read next.

Images: from Library of Congress,
a very romantic portrait of Confederate prisoners at Gettysburg, July, 1863 (detail; Union casualties at Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863; from old-picture.com, Civil War wounded, prepared by War Department, Surgeon General's Office.

4 comments:

NEW YORK BRIT said...

Sorry, I don't mean to intrude, but came across your post by accident.

A fascinating and enjoyable read [always been interested in this time, particularly in NYC]. Thanks!

angela said...

thanks, no intrusion. Always happy to know someone's visiting!

Anonymous said...

you said you were surprised at how positive the review--maybe the reviewer's has a college-age child (the author is president of harvard...)

just kidding...

Michael Leddy said...

Angela, I just found your blog while looking for photographs of Joseph Mitchell. I didn't expect to find the old hotel itself. And this post answered a question I just put to a historian-friend (all right, an historian-friend) — how people would've seen Brady's photographs. Thank you!

Your blog's terrific — I'll be reading again.

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