As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpasses the half a million mark, comparisons to the those who died during the American Civil War are sure to follow. Over 625,000 Union and Confederate soldiers perished in the war along with an estimated 50,000 civilians, approximately 2% of the country’s population at the time.
Rereading Drew Gilpin Faust’s often cited and highly regarded book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), has a new degree of relevance as we begin year two of the Pandemic. Her book is not about specific battles, strategies, or personalities (she assumes you already know about this), but rather about how the unprecedented casualties in the Civil War directly affected the entire country and how it shaped our current views of death. The breadth of Faust’s scholarship is overwhelming as she discusses the logistical and emotional nightmares of identifying and burying the dead, and reconciling the staggering losses.
Because so many died on distant battlefields and hospitals, she writes that the fallen and their loved ones would not have the comforts of what was known as The Good Death (ars moriendi). No family member could attend to a dying son, husband or brother and any corresponding religious ceremony was severely truncated or non-existent. This sounds strikingly familiar given that those who die in hospitals from COVID-19 are often unable to be joined by family members in their final hours and traditional funerals have been curtailed because their potentiality as super-spreader events.
Another chilling similarity between the Civil War and today’s mortality numbers is the role that public health (or the absence of it) has played. Currently, ongoing debates about Americans’ willingness to wear masks and be vaccinated while adhering to social distancing recommendations has factored into these grim statistics. In the Civil War for every soldier that died on the battlefield, two died in camp, mostly from the lack of sanitary conditions. Outbreaks of typhus, smallpox, dysentery, and malaria were but a few of the lethal epidemics that spread through camps and nearby communities throughout the war. Moreover, writes Faust, battlefield surgeons often did not wash hands between patients, and with the lack of the “understanding of antisepsis, physicians routinely spread infection with unclean instruments and dressings.” Thus, in both eras, ignorance translates into death.
Here in 2021, amidst the mourning, ignoring, forgetting, obsessing, and despairing over the virus death tolls, one hopes to uncover the significance or meaning of it all. In This Republic of Suffering, Faust writes that though we continue to question “both the humanity of those slaughtered like animals and the humanity of those who had wreaked such devastation,” a paradigm change did emerge from the carnage*.
Soon after the first battles of the Civil War (most notably Shiloh in April 1862), both sides realized that they had mechanisms neither to deal with the emotional devastation nor to manage the physical bodies themselves. Thousands of corpses rotted on the battlefields; others were buried unidentified in mass graves—and only the “lucky” families received any news of what had happened to a missing loved one. But the war changed all that as the Federal government, the military, philanthropic organizations, and private citizens sought to establish procedures to address this new crisis. By late 1865 a nationwide program began to find, identify, and move the bodies of tens of thousands Union soldiers. (Faust details how this came about, which will leave the reader humbled by the dedication of those who took on this monumental task.)
Today, there is an expectation that the military authorities will go to great lengths to recover the remains of a dead U.S. soldier and to properly honor them for their sacrifice. (According to Faust, “The United States expends more than $100 million each year in the effort to find and identify the approximately 88,000 individuals still missing from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.”) She reminds us that it was the horrors of the Civil War that led to the outcry that the fallen deserve a decent burial in the hallowed ground of a National Military Cemetery, many of which were located near battlefields.**
By reading This Republic of Suffering, one can at least be hopeful that something meaningful will emerge from the millions globally who have died during the pandemic. But for the time being that revelation remains shrouded in grief.
Murray Browne is a writer living near Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of Down & Outbound: A Mass Transit Satire (2016) and The Book Shopper: A Life in Review (2009). Links to his books and blogs can be found at murray-browne.com. His last piece for ToM was “The Power of the Endless Love for Automobiles,” published in December 2020.
* Thanks to Francis Walker of the Gravity’s Rainbow Support Group (GRSG), who has also recently read the Faust book and gave me some good feedback on this article. With respect of the quote from Faust, (“both the humanity of those slaughtered like animals and the humanity of those who had wreaked such devastation”), Francis poses how these same sentiments translate here in 2021. He writes: “Similar questions may haunt us going forward with the pandemic death toll with respect to those who succumbed and the humanity of those who knowingly or unknowingly contributed to its spread.”
** The headstone photo comes from my cousin Jackie Fehrenbach who spends a lot of time delving into our family’s history. Here is a photo from a trip she made a few years ago to the Nashville National Cemetery, which was established in July 1866.
The framed piece at the top of the posting contains a photograph of my grandmother’s uncle William Henry Kelley who fought with the 12 Regiment of the Indiana Volunteer Infantry and later died from his wounds sustained in the Battle of Missionary Ridge in November 1863. The letter dated November 30, 1863 was one of the last letters to his family.