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"The Dread Void of Uncertainty": Naming the Dead in the American Civil War

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 11, Number 2, Summer 2005
pp. 7-32 | 10.1353/scu.2005.0018

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Southern Cultures 11.2 (2005) 7-32



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"The Dread Void of Uncertainty"

Naming the Dead in the American Civil War

 The Civil War left some 620,000 American soldiers dead—more than the total number killed in all other American wars from the Revolution to Vietnam. But whose responsibility would it be to track soldiers' deaths, inform their families, and record their names? On the battlefield of Antietam, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.
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Figure 1
The Civil War left some 620,000 American soldiers dead—more than the total number killed in all other American wars from the Revolution to Vietnam. But whose responsibility would it be to track soldiers' deaths, inform their families, and record their names? On the battlefield of Antietam, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.
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We take for granted the obligation of our government to account for the war dead. We expect the military to do everything possible to gather information about our war casualties, to notify their families promptly and respectfully, and to provide the bereaved with the opportunity to reclaim and bury their kin. Eighteen months after the inauguration of combat in Iraq, the Pentagon takes satisfaction that even though more than twelve hundred American soldiers have died, none is missing or unidentified. The contrasting failure to find every American who fought in Vietnam—an estimated 1,950 remain unaccounted for—continues not just as a burden for their grieving families, but as a political force in a pow/mia movement now more than three decades old.

The United States accepts its persisting obligation to these casualties of war, and the Department of Defense spends more than $100 million a year to identify and recover the approximately eighty-eight thousand soldiers still missing from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. Yet the assumption that government bears such a responsibility is in fact quite recent. Only with the Korean War did the United States establish a policy of identifying and bringing home the remains of every dead soldier. Only with World War I did soldiers begin to wear official badges of identity—what came to be known as dog tags. Only with the Civil War did the United States establish a system of national cemeteries and officially acknowledge a responsibility to name and honor the military dead.1

There have been many revolutions in warfare in the past two centuries, and the emerging recognition of an obligation to dead and missing soldiers and their families is one of the least visible. Yet changing attitudes and policies concerning the dead and missing may have had a more significant impact than any other transformation, affecting home as well as battle front, civilians as well as soldiers. And it was with the Civil War that this shift in both private and public belief and behavior first became evident, as Americans north and south struggled to find, name, and commemorate every one of the slain. This was a war that fundamentally redefined the relationship of the citizen and the state in its abolition of chattel slavery, but this highly visible affirmation of the individual's right to identity and personhood reflected beliefs about human worth that bore other implications as well. In the face of the Civil War's rising death toll, these assumptions began to yield new attitudes towards the dead and new obligations towards bereaved families. Bloodier than any other conflict in American history, the Civil War presaged the butchery of World War I's western front and the global carnage of the twentieth century. Approximately 620,000 American soldiers died between 1861 and 1865. A similar rate of death—about 2 percent of the population—would today mean almost 5H million casualties. More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined up to Vietnam. Death touched nearly every American, north and south, of the Civil War era, yet the unanticipated [End Page 8] scale of the destruction meant that at least half these dead remained unidentified.

 Not until World War I did American soldiers wear official dog tags bearing their personal information. Simple identification of many of the Civil War dead was difficult. Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.
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Figure 2
Not until World War I did American soldiers wear official dog tags bearing their personal information. Simple identification of many of the Civil War dead was difficult. Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

The Civil War is often...