- Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America's Culture of Death, and: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
"Then I turned aside & mused on the unknown dead/I thought of the unrecorded, the heroes so sweet & tender/The young men/The returned—but where the unreturned/I thought of the unreturned, the sons of the mothers." The Civil War was the deadliest war in American history. Over two percent of the population—620,000 men—died, scarring northern and southern families and communities, challenging American views of memorialization, and requiring Americans to reconceptualize their ideas of dying and death. As the concluding lines to Walt Whitman's "April 1865" relate, the war had the power to make its victims anonymous—unknown, unrecorded, and unreturned. One Rhode Island soldier carried a used envelope "somewhere about me so that if killed in battle my friends might know what became of me" (Faust, 120).
For those who study the history of death, the Civil War has long been a milestone in the evolution of American death culture. Drew Faust and Mark Schantz similarly recognize the significance of the war to American deathways. Both authors have produced beautifully written and thought-provoking inquiries into the topic. Published roughly six months apart, the books inevitably will be compared. But these books are not in competition with each other: Each complements the other, and together they powerfully employ deathways to describe the conclusion of the early American republic and the opening of modern America.
In Awaiting the Heavenly Country, Schantz postulates that in contrast to our contemporary society, citizens of the early republic embraced death, finding in it "a rich reservoir of meaning" (3–4) that framed their expectations of life and death, and that led them into war with a "cluster of assumptions about death that . . . facilitated its unprecedented destructiveness" (3). From newspaper reports of epidemics to Little Eva's deathbed scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin to eulogies for founding fathers, death was ubiquitous in early republic literature. The scenes and stoicism [End Page 561] represented in such literature served as guides for mourning and for dying. Victory over death was a common theme, inspiring individuals to face death heroically and courageously. One of the methods employed to ease the fear of death was the promise of heavenly afterlife. Imagining heaven as tangible, reflective of earthly existence, and populated with family and friends, many Americans had little difficulty accepting the idea that spirits might visit the earthly realm or that physical resurrection would occur in the heavenly one. During the Civil War, soldiers carried beliefs of familial reunion and bodily reconstruction into battle.
Schantz then turns attention to the rural cemetery movement and the patterns of commemoration that it inspired—patterns that emphasized martial and civic achievement. Incorporating the popularity of Greek Revival into rural cemetery planning, Americans celebrated heroism through architecture, landscapes, eulogies, and public speeches such as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The rural cemetery movement reflected a larger cultural pronouncement, evidenced as well in the death poetry of the 1840s and 1850s, that "glory would be eternal—not only in the next world, but here on earth" (96). By valorizing death, Americans were willing to "tolerate, and perhaps even to celebrate, the mass casualties that they would inflict on each other in the 1860s" (119). Schantz finds a similar mentality among late antebellum African Americans who readily courted death for freedom.
In his final chapter, Schantz explores representations of death in the era's visual culture—lithographs, photographs, and paintings. Civil War photographers' manipulations of their subjects have long been framed as evidence of Americans' new approach to death in the 1860s, but when combined with other visual media, posed photographs of dead soldiers reveal the continuing power of earlier deathways that abstracted death...