“The dead, the dead, the dead—our dead,” wrote Walt Whitman after the Civil War, “…somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet…our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend…the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw).”
It is those “infinite dead” to which the superb and haunting new Ric Burns documentary, Death and the Civil War, is devoted. The film is part of the PBS American Experience series and based largely on the 2008 book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War by historian and Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust.
While countless books and movies have focused on the war’s political, social, military, and technological aspects, the emphasis here, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, is on the unexpected and unprecedented number of casualties and how the handling of corpses decisively shaped American politics, government, and society. Some two and a half percent of the country’s population, about 700,000 people, died in the war. The percentage equivalent today would be seven million Americans. For a horrific little thought experiment, consider how losing several thousand Americans on 9/11 seared the nation—and then extrapolate.
The almost bloodless Battle of Fort Sumter launched what most Americans expected to be a short, and perhaps even somewhat symbolic, clash of North and South. But several months later, when 60,000 troops happened onto each other near Manassas Junction, Virginia, 900 were killed, 2,700 wounded in 12 hours. In subsequent battles, casualty numbers grew enormously on the bloodied fields of places like Shiloh (estimated 3,400 killed outright, 16,400 wounded, many grievously), Antietam (roughly 22,720 killed, wounded, or captured), and Gettysburg (about 51,112 killed, wounded, or captured).
Both North and South were utterly unprepared for the scale and geographic dislocation of four and a half years of carnage. At the war’s start, there were no national cemeteries, no way to identify the dead or notify their families, no ambulances to clear the fields of corpses, no adequate hospitals, and no medical sophistication to challenge the epidemics sweeping through army camps and prisons. (Estimates are that more than two-thirds of Civil War fatalities died from disease, not battle.)
There were only comrades pledging to deliver news to each other’s families, fledgling nursing efforts like those of Clara Barton, and frantic seminal sanitation and clerical endeavors—some federal, many private charitable enterprises, but none nearly up to reckoning with the staggering scale of slaughter.
The film benefits hugely from the improbable and important photographs of Matthew Brady, who coordinated a score of colleagues to document the fields of fallen in unprecedented dreadful detail. Shots of the Antietam casualties were featured in a New York exhibit in 1862, bringing the colossal devastation into literal and figurative public focus, helping prod citizens to take to heart their responsibility to the dead and their families. The grim new weapons technology—the Napolean gun-howitzer, for instance—left plenty of subject matter for the emerging photo technologies of Brady’s mobile darkrooms. Burns uses the results to heartbreaking effect, in conjunction with the loving, dignified family portraits soldiers brought with them and sometimes arrayed about themselves at their camps and even when, wounded, they lay slipping into their final repose.
In the war’s aftermath, corpses lay buried, or unburied and sometimes defiled, far from home. So in 1867, the federal government launched the most sweeping and elaborate program in its history: the establishment of national cemeteries. By 1871, 303,536 Union soldiers, 140,000 of them marked “Unknown,” were interred or re-interred in this vast new network of death.
But that logistical and spiritual triumph was not unproblematic. For one thing, 30,000 African-American soldiers—who by the way had borne the brunt of many gruesome battlefield corpse-collection details—were buried separately, segregated even in death. And Confederate soldiers and their families received none of the benefits of the four-million-dollar national-cemetery effort. Private widows’ groups and the like did their best to find, ID, and bury their dead husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, but that process fueled Southern Neoconfederate resentment. Would it be crazy to extrapolate, perhaps, and look for that tense history’s vestiges in some Southern conservatives’ distrust toward large Federal programs more generally?
Faust, along with David Blight of Yale, Vincent Brown of Duke, J. David Hacker of SUNY-Binghamton, columnist George Will, poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch, and other commentators in the film help unspool this context for Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, explaining how he symbolically harnessed the dead into further rhetorical service to the living, even as he ostensibly did the opposite. In light of what we’ve learned from the film, words we’ve heard dozens of times now ring differently:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Above and below the Mason-Dixon line, Lincoln’s message still pierces the heart. Watching Burns’s film amid both the clatterings and routine democratic miracles of an election season, we are compelled to reflect on his vision. To ask whether our leaders are living up to ideals of the republic we’ve inherited through fire, fury, and fright, and whether we ourselves are. Whether our platforms and our rhetoric are lofty and generous, or petty and provincial, broadminded and farsighted, or narrow and grasping.
Ric Burns’s marvelous, melancholy film inspires us to take at least a moment to glance up at those nineteenth-century war monuments, and then down at the earth interring three-quarters of a million warriors’ horrors and hopes. And then, to watch our step.
Alexander C. Kafka writes regularly for The Oxford American about films from, of, or about the South. If you have information about new or upcoming releases, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.