The killing fields

Jon Wiener teaches U.S. history at UC Irvine and is a contributing editor of the Nation magazine. His most recent book is "Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower."

AMAZON.COM lists more than 36,000 books on the American Civil War, and my guess is that most of them depict battles and heroes, and describe wartime deaths as noble and tragic. Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering” does something different. It’s a shattering history of the war, focusing exclusively on death and dying -- how Americans prepared for death, imagined it, risked it, endured it and worked to understand it.

Some 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. In proportion to the nation’s population, that’s six times its death rate in World War II. A similar rate today -- in the Iraq war, for example -- would mean 6 million American deaths. Mass killing, it turns out, didn’t require advanced technology like air power and carpet bombing; the humble musket and rifle were sufficient -- along with disease, which was responsible for two-thirds of the fatalities. It was worst in the South, where one in five white men of military age died.

At the outset, both sides assumed the war would be brief -- the kind of “cakewalk” the Bush White House expected would follow after we invaded Iraq. In 1861, as in 2003, the generals had no conception of the years of fighting and waves of death that would follow.


Faust is the new president of Harvard University. Before that, she was dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and published five books on the Civil War era. Here she describes the aftermath of battle: “Men thrown by the hundreds into burial trenches; soldiers stripped of every identifying object before being abandoned on the field; bloated corpses hurried into hastily dug graves; nameless victims of dysentery or typhoid interred beside military hospitals; men blown to pieces by artillery shells; bodies hidden by woods or ravines, left to the depredations of hogs or wolves or time.” Since there was no official identification of the dead or notification of families -- dog tags were not required until World War I -- family members flocked to battle sites to reclaim the bodies. There they found “scavengers seeking to rob the dead, entrepreneurial coffin makers and embalmers, and swarms of tourists” with morbid imaginations.

In the Civil War, unlike modern conflicts, killing was intimate: “[S]oldiers were often able to see each other’s faces and to know whom they had killed.” This made it harder for good Protestant boys to ignore the Sixth Commandment, but they were all assured that God was on their side. Snipers were considered immoral because they did not confront their victims face to face; one soldier wrote that sniper fire was “sickening, murderous, unnatural, uncivilized” -- although it seems a good deal less so compared with today’s technological battle strategies.

Americans viewed death in the mid-19th century through the lens of evangelical Protestantism, with its focus on heaven as a real place where people went in their real bodies after dying. Admission to heaven required not just living a good life but also dying what was known as “the good death.” Dying soldiers -- and anxious family members -- worried about this, because the devil tempted the dying with despair and disbelief. If wives were going to see their dead husbands in heaven someday, the dying had to follow what Faust calls “a checklist”: The dying man should express an awareness of his impending fate and a willingness to accept it; he should restate his belief in God and in his own salvation; he should leave messages for “those who should have been at his side.” Last words were important evidence of a good death. Before the war, men generally died surrounded by wives and children, who awaited and carefully noted their last words. But if you died on the battlefield, your fellow soldiers bore the responsibility of recording your last words and conveying them to your family. Those deprived of learning their loved ones’ last words remained anxious for the rest of their lives about whether they would see their husbands and sons in heaven.

Blacks occupied a special place in the history of Civil War killing and dying. The Union Army included 180,000 black soldiers, but very few were permitted to engage in combat; most were assigned to labor details and many to burial duty. Southern whites found the fact of black soldiers intolerable; one white Southerner complained that it suggested that “our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Thus, Confederate forces regularly committed atrocities against black soldiers, including the mutilation of their corpses and the slaughter of black prisoners -- most notably in the Ft. Pillow massacre, north of Memphis, Tenn., in April 1864, when Confederate troops under Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest killed nearly 200 of the 300 or so black troops, most of whom had already surrendered. Early in the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved the execution of four captured black soldiers, and Gen. Robert E. Lee did nothing to stop the murder of wounded black soldiers after the Battle of the Crater in 1864.

While white troops had to overcome a Protestant aversion to violating the Sixth Commandment, the Union Army’s black soldiers had no problem justifying wartime killing. As one contemporary African American newspaper explained, slavery itself was a kind of warfare against blacks; therefore, Faust writes, fighting its perpetrators was “by definition an act of self-defense.” For black soldiers, “to kill was ironically to claim a human right.”

We teach students that the Civil War matters because it ended slavery and shaped the meaning of freedom and equality. Faust makes another point: Civil War death created the modern American state: The expansion of federal power began when the government took on two tasks -- first, identifying and caring for the remains of every dead Union soldier and then paying pensions to their widows. That required not just a massive federal bureaucracy but also a radically new idea about the relationship between the individual and the government in Washington.


Federal policy, however, covered only Union soldiers. Those who had fought to destroy the Union, it was argued, should not be treated as the equals of those who had died to save it. But this exclusion of the Confederate dead from federal cemeteries had unanticipated effects. The task of maintaining Confederate cemeteries was taken up by a grass-roots mobilization of white people in the South, especially women. Their project became a political one of honoring not just the dead but also the cause they died for, which quickly became known as “the Southern way of life.” Commemorating the Confederate dead would be a potent political rallying point for white Southerners.

The story ends in 1898. There was a new war -- in Cuba and the Philippines -- and President William McKinley announced that it had officially brought about sectional reconciliation; henceforth the dead, North and South, would be honored together. African Americans may well have resented the change; 15 years earlier, Frederick Douglass had insisted that “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.”

All history is contemporary history. Faust began writing this book more than 10 years ago, but its publication now, in the midst of another war, gives it a special meaning. Without being explicit about it, the book reminds us what we’re doing when we tell war stories centered on heroism and noble sacrifice, when we overlook the fact that wars are, above all, about death. Despite the excessive carnage, the Civil War did have a worthy goal, and a similar purpose is touted by our current leaders: bringing freedom and democracy to an oppressed people. But it seems that all we have brought the Iraqis is a new republic of suffering. *