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  • The Civil War Dead:Realism and the Problem of Anonymity
  • Ian Finseth (bio)

For all the many thousands of pages that have been devoted to the American Civil War, the hosts of its dead remain essentially unknown to us. Who were they, these men (and women) whose names have floated away on the breeze? What did their experience of death—the very end of knowable experience—mean for them and their contemporaries, and how did it acquire those meanings? Why do the Civil War dead, as the dead, generate such interest today? It is the vexing difficulty of these questions that has both motivated this essay and suggested its basic hermeneutic: I take the routine namelessness of the Civil War dead as an opportunity and a method for understanding how their mortality took on particular forms of significance during the war itself and in the decades after. As in a shallow grave, the historical predicate here is close under the surface: the unprecedented numbers of dead made it difficult to account for, identify, or adequately inter the body of every fallen soldier, not to mention those of slaves or other noncombatants whose lives the war had claimed—and thus appeared the figure of the unknown soldier. Multiply that figure by thousands and we arrive at the collective Civil War dead, a phrase that only points up their anonymity. Of course, it was not the soldiers themselves who were nameless, but their mediated presence in image, text, and memory—in songs, histories, photos, memorials, paintings, and oral lore. This was an anonymity imposed from without, by circumstances and culture, by the inability or even unwillingness of the living to attach a particular name to a particular body. As used here, then, the terms namelessness and anonymity refer to an epistemological condition created by a subtle and probably unintentional form of social exclusion, a condition in which the dead body is preserved for circulation and [End Page 535] contemplation while the name is representationally absent: unknown, irrelevant, a distraction.

The issues raised by Civil War mortality have certainly not lacked for scholarly attention, particularly now during the ongoing sesquicentennial of the war. We know, for instance, that the combatant death toll was probably much higher than 620,000, the traditional estimate agreed upon by generations of historians, and that the "biological crisis" brought about by the war killed an untold number of civilians, particularly African Americans (Downs 4).1 In addition, cultural historians have given us a much better understanding of how the Civil War both challenged and reinforced Americans' attitudes toward death and their rituals of mourning.2 We also know that the war moved the US toward a more routinized, bureaucratic relationship to death, manifested most overtly in the rise of embalming and the professional funeral industry.3

By focusing on the narrower, but deceptively complex, problem of anonymity, this essay shows how the Civil War dead entered into the complex dynamics of national self-imagining, particularly in relation to the development of realism as a movement in American literary history. Namelessness had a paradoxical effect: while it rendered the dead susceptible to symbolic appropriation and the cultural logic of abstraction, it also made them elusive as objects of awareness and as historical constructs. On the one hand, the Civil War dead, in their inexorable passage from physical bodies to literary, rhetorical, or visual images, became monuments to national continuity and cultural coherence. This conscription amounted to a particular kind of political necrophilia by which they were incorporated into the body politic and the future history of the nation through the enforced concept of sacrifice. The union, wrote one veteran in a characteristic moment, "is cemented by the blood of hundreds of thousands of our patriotic people who sprang to arms to defend and preserve it" (Lapham 9). This ubiquitous attitude reflected a pervasive and deeply rooted "necro ideology" (Castronovo 12) which, in Russ Castronovo's account, regulated the parameters of national citizenship by seeking to drain the dead of history, subjectivity, and political meaning, in order to create a public sphere in which "generic personhood" (8) is untroubled by "[e]xperiences and recollections that flow outside of national citizenship...


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pp. 535-562
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