- The Sacrosanct Statistics of the Civil War
In 2008, I was struck by two interesting and high-profile publications. Both Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War and Mark S. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death spoke directly to the issue of death and dying in the Civil War.1 Though similar in some of their descriptions of antebellum culture and wartime carnage, the books seemed to me to offer enough contrasting perspectives that I imagined a major historical and historiographical argument would ensue. I was wrong, and my own modest entry into the discussion of the meaning of Civil War deaths more recently helped me understand why.
Winner of the Bancroft Prize and finalist for the Pulitzer, Faust’s This Republic of Suffering has become a standard in the field. It places death at the very center of the Civil War experience, in the process developing keen insights into how the government, the larger society, communities, and individuals coped with the dying. While acknowledging that nineteenth-century Americans were more familiar with death than we are today, Faust bases her argument on the claim that the “Civil War represented a dramatic shift in both incidence and experience,” producing “carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time” (Republic of Suffering, xii). Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country received more qualified and less extensive praise but nevertheless found an appreciative audience. His goal is to show how circumstances before the war in some sense trained Americans to understand [End Page 214] and cope with the exceptional level of loss that they were to experience in the 1860s. Schantz argues that the “fundamental confrontation with death” was “one of the most pervasive concerns of the antebellum era”; that “nineteenth-century America was a death-embracing culture”; and that death was “the major story” for nineteenth-century Americans. By 1860 Americans had a clear cultural matrix that allowed them to process and, as Schantz further claims, even “facilitate” the violence of the Civil War (Awaiting the Heavenly Country, 2–4). Thus, while viewing the volume of death in the war as unprecedented, he sees the culture of death as continuous and supportive.
Having spent years working on the private papers of antebellum Americans (and finding within them a world very much like that described by Schantz), I immediately identified with his larger purpose. And I especially appreciated his desire to understand the Civil War in the context of a hoary, yet still useful, historiographic argumentative mode—that is, “change versus continuity.” As I saw it, both Schantz’s and my evidence suggested an unbroken line of both experience with death and means of coping with it, whereas Faust argued for fundamental disruptions in scale and meaning. Yet reviews that treated Awaiting the Heavenly Country and This Republic of Suffering together made much more of their harmonizing elements than any implicit or explicit contradictions. One noted that “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.”2 Note here the direct support of the “change” perspective rather than “continuity.” James McPherson in the New York Review of Books, in his usual perspicacious way, praised both works, while discussing some of the distinctions, including the question of whether a “culture of death” continued into the war years. But he also maintained that Schantz’s book offers “insights that complement those of Faust.” According to McPherson, one of the most important points of intersection was the two authors’ understanding of the dramatic new scope of death during the Civil War: the generation of the Civil War, he averred, was “totally unprepared for mortality on this scale.”3 Clearly, the tendency was to fold Schantz’s points into Faust’s interpretation and always keep the focus on the number of dead.
As I processed the two books and thought about my own work I increasingly became bothered by the statistics used in...