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Awaiting the Heavenly Country

The Civil War and America's Culture of Death

Mark S. Schantz

Publication Year: 2008

"Americans came to fight the Civil War in the midst of a wider cultural world that sent them messages about death that made it easier to kill and to be killed. They understood that death awaited all who were born and prized the ability to face death with a spirit of calm resignation. They believed that a heavenly eternity of transcendent beauty awaited them beyond the grave. They knew that their heroic achievements would be cherished forever by posterity. They grasped that death itself might be seen as artistically fascinating and even beautiful."-from Awaiting the Heavenly Country

How much loss can a nation bear? An America in which 620,000 men die at each other's hands in a war at home is almost inconceivable to us now, yet in 1861 American mothers proudly watched their sons, husbands, and fathers go off to war, knowing they would likely be killed. Today, the death of a soldier in Iraq can become headline news; during the Civil War, sometimes families did not learn of their loved ones' deaths until long after the fact. Did antebellum Americans hold their lives so lightly, or was death so familiar to them that it did not bear avoiding?

In Awaiting the Heavenly Country, Mark S. Schantz argues that American attitudes and ideas about death helped facilitate the war's tremendous carnage. Asserting that nineteenth-century attitudes toward death were firmly in place before the war began rather than arising from a sense of resignation after the losses became apparent, Schantz has written a fascinating and chilling narrative of how a society understood death and reckoned the magnitude of destruction it was willing to tolerate.

Schantz addresses topics such as the pervasiveness of death in the culture of antebellum America; theological discourse and debate on the nature of heaven and the afterlife; the rural cemetery movement and the inheritance of the Greek revival; death as a major topic in American poetry; African American notions of death, slavery, and citizenship; and a treatment of the art of death-including memorial lithographs, postmortem photography and Rembrandt Peale's major exhibition painting The Court of Death. Awaiting the Heavenly Country is essential reading for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the Civil War and the ways in which antebellum Americans comprehended death and the unimaginable bloodshed on the horizon.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 3-8


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

Many people have made this book a pleasure to write. At the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, I thank especially John Hench, Nancy Burkett, and the extraordinary services rendered by Joanne D. Chaison and her staff. ...

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pp. 1-5

Living under the shadow of postmodernity, where all historical “facts” are dimly perceived, at least one reality appears horribly luminous: that 620,000 men lost their lives in the American Civil War. Whether we think of the American Civil War as a “total war,” a “destructive war,” or simply as a “hard war,” students of it agree on its singularly bloody impact.1 ...

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1. “Emblems of Mortality”

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pp. 6-37

The generation of Americans who fought the Civil War understood that they could not escape the embrace of death. Nor did they particularly wish to. They knew that death was the inevitable portion of all who live. In 1846, readers from New Haven, Connecticut, to Charleston, South Carolina, could examine the pages of the latest reminder of their own certain mortality. ...

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2. “The Heavenly Country”

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pp. 38-69

Antebellum Americans could face death with resignation and even joy because they carried in their hearts and heads a comforting and compelling vision of eternal life. For them heaven was not an ethereal, dreamy state of the soul or a billowy universe of unspecified dimension. ...

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3. “Melancholy Pleasure”

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pp. 70-96

On September 24, 1831, Judge Joseph Story pronounced the dedicatory address for Boston’s freshly created Mount Auburn Cemetery. He was the man for the job. An associate U.S. Supreme Court justice and a professor of law at Harvard, Story possessed a brilliant legal mind as well as rhetorical flair. ...

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4. “A Voice from the Ruins”

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pp. 97-125

In February 1847, the poet known as Susan published a premonition of destruction and war entitled “A Voice from the Ruins.” Although we know little about Susan as an author, we do know that she had at least a small following in antebellum America. ...

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5. “Better to Die Free, Than to Live Slaves”

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pp. 126-162

George E. Stephens was one of the men who followed Col. Robert Gould Shaw in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry’s 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. A resident of Philadelphia’s free black community, Stephens’s family had moved to Pennsylvania from Virginia in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion. ...

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6. “The Court of Death”

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pp. 163-206

Sometime during the middle of the 1840s, the firm of James Baillie, headquartered in New York City, published a memorial lithograph (fig. 14). In a variety of ways, this small scene offers a “thick description” of the cul ture of death in antebellum America.1 The image depicts a trio of figures— a man, a woman, and a young girl—standing ...

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pp. 207-210

It is tempting for us to see ourselves as being very much like the generation of people who fought the American Civil War. Part of this impulse may be attributed to the pervasive egotism of contemporary society; of course, we imagine, those who fought in the past must share much with those of us living in the present. We are all Americans. ...


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pp. 211-236


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pp. 237-246

E-ISBN-13: 9780801459252
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801437618

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1