- Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War by Brian Steel Wills
In her groundbreaking This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War ([New York, 2008], p. 5), Drew Gilpin Faust quotes a Confederate chaplain's grim admonition to his flock: "'Soldier… your business is to die.'" As Brian Steel Wills demonstrates in his deeply researched study Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War, the business of dying was booming not only on battlefields but also in hospitals, camps, and practically anywhere else Civil War soldiers could be found. Of the conflict' s 620,000-plus fatalities, an estimated 400,000 or so died of causes not directly related to combat with the enemy. In fact, death was so commonplace that soldiers became inured to it, as was the case of Confederate marine Henry Lea [End Page 180] Graves, who noted in 1862 that the sight of dead comrades no longer affected him as it once had: "'I look on the carcass of a man now with pretty much such feelings as I would do were it a horse or hog'" (p. 94).
Wills arranges his book into chapters according to the circumstances of the soldiers'—and in some cases, civilians'—demise: in camp or hospital; on the railroad; by lightning, drowning, or other acts of God; from incidents involving animals or firearms; in marine mishaps; and by explosions in factories or arsenals. Disease claimed by far the most victims, followed by accidents, sunstroke, murder, suicide, and military execution. As varied as the causes of death were, they shared a common trait in that all lacked the glorious aura of death on the battlefield. Even so, Wills observes, the fallen soldiers' friends and family "still mourned their losses and strove to accept them," although acceptance was sometimes easier said than done (p. 16). Such acceptance was especially hard when alcohol led to a soldier's death, as in the case of a Texas cavalryman who died from a fall down a flight of stairs while drunk. A comrade, noting that the deceased trooper's widow had learned the circumstances of her husband' s death, drew a moral from her situation: "'This war will give an aching heart to many a wife widowed and children made orphans—but near despair must be the bitter grief of those who mourn some loved one dead & a drunkard'" (pp. 61–62). Judging from the numerous examples cited in Inglorious Passages, drunkenness was a recurrent factor in the deaths of officers and enlisted men alike. In noting the death of a colonel due to an excess of whiskey, an Iowa soldier declared that alcohol was "'killing more [Union soldiers] than the Confederates are killing'" (p. 61).
Most noncombat fatalities involved individuals, but a few incidents resulted in dozens—and even hundreds—of deaths. One of the worst such disasters occurred on March 13, 1863, at the Brown's Island Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, where a massive ammunition explosion rocked the city, resulting in the deaths of more than forty civilian workers; most of the victims were teenage girls and young women. Even more catastrophic was the carnage that ensued on the night of April 27, 1865, when three of the boilers on the dangerously overcrowded steamboat Sultana exploded, possibly killing as many as 1,700 Union veterans who were returning home from Confederate prison camps at the end of the war. It remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
There is an air of inevitability about Inglorious Passages, in which death strikes down victims with relentless efficiency. And yet the book has its occasional humorous moments. A soldier grievously wounded by the accidental discharge of a firearm asked his doctor to "'stop those fellows from playing that tune,'" which happened to be the Dead March (p. 147). The physician replied that the musicians meant no harm. "'They thought,'" he explained to the wounded soldier, "'it was to be their first...