American Experience

Death and the Civil War (12 Sep. 2012)

TV Episode  |  TV-14  |   |  Documentary, History
8.2
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Based on the best-selling book by Drew Gilpin Faust, this film will explore how the American Civil War created a "republic of suffering" and will chart the far-reaching social, political, ... See full summary »

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Based on the best-selling book by Drew Gilpin Faust, this film will explore how the American Civil War created a "republic of suffering" and will chart the far-reaching social, political, and social changes brought about by the pervasive presence and fear of death during the Civil War. Written by Anonymous

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12 September 2012 (USA)  »

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Unintended Consequences
14 June 2015 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

A powerful opening -- a narrator reads a letter from a Confederate soldier to his father, written in 1864. The soldier is dying from a shrapnel wound. The letter has blood drops on it. The soldier expresses his love for his family, his wishes about where he would like his body to rest, who should have his horse and equipment, and other matters.

Of course, sentimentality comes easy but there's more to the Civil War than pity for its victims. It killed the equivalent of eight million people today, roughly the size of New York City, and wounded many more. Before the Civil War there were no national cemeteries, no way of notifying the family, no ambulance corps, no Red Cross, no federal provisions for burying the dead, no compensation for the families of the fallen, no veterans' hospitals, no infrastructure for gathering and identifying the dead. All this was twenty years before the "germ theory" of disease was widely accepted, and more men died of illness in the camps than of wounds. Pus, which we now take as a sign of infection, was called "laudable pus" because it was interpreted as a sign of healing.

There are still photos and several talking heads. Much of what the experts say sounds clever but didn't mean much to me. I don't know what it means to "come to terms with death." Some of the experts, like Drew Gilpin Faust, upon whose book this film is based, make trenchant observations about the role of the dying. It makes sense because so much of what we do in everyday life consists of following or improvising upon a script. The role we play governs most of what we do. (Imagine going to a doctor and finding he has a Mohawk haircut.) The scenario of the good, Victorian, Christian death went something like this. One died at home, in his own bed, surrounded by loved ones. He didn't make a big fuss over it or carry on in an unseemly manner. There would be a few last words to the loved ones. Then one passed away quietly. Embalming wasn't common and the corpse was quickly buried.

Death was always difficult for the survivors. The funerals were for them, the survivors, not for the deceased who was beyond caring. And religion played a great part in the conception of death and the afterlife that followed. More people attended church than voted. And the Great Awakening of the 1840s brought about a more corporeal vision of heaven. Your body was purified and ascended to heaven where the loved ones who had "pre-deceased you" were waiting. It was a big family reunion.

The Civil War changed that rosy picture.

The battles themselves aren't described in any detail, only listed with the number of casualties, including the dead. The first shot was fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Fifty wounded and zero deaths. By the time of the first real engagement, at Bull Run, which was to be completely dwarfed by later battles, more men were killed in twelve hours than had died in the two-year-long Mexican War. The government on both sides was unprepared and finally responses came from private and religious charitable organizations, supported by donations and staffed mainly by women volunteers.

The program was made by Ric Burns, Ken Burns' brother. Ken, of course, made the deservedly popular "The Civil War" for PBS. It revolutionized the documentary. And this program fills in some of the blanks left over from Ken's film. But the argumentum ad misericordiam was largely implicit in the earlier program. Not here. In injudicious use is made of letters written by soldiers or by their friends to the families back home. Fewer letters would have preserved the message and kept the program being being so tenebrous. It's pretty depressing.

Still, for those who missed "The Civil War," this is an informative and invaluable reminder of what the "unintended consequences" of war are really like, once we shake off the heroic mythology.

For anyone interested in deaths during World War II, I recommend the amazing and viewer-friendly graphics at https://vimeo.com/128373915.


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