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This Republic of Suffering

By Daniel Hubbard | March 14, 2010

As family historians we are always trying to gather facts and tie them together into lives. Though every event we can document is important, there are three that get most of the attention, birth, marriage and death. All three are surrounded by practices and rituals unique to their time and culture.

Birth and death bracket every life. Outside of those bounds there is little to document and even those documents, a prenatal doctor’s bill, a probate record, an obituary, will refer in their way to the time of life, life to come or life not yet long gone. Of these great events, death is the one we least like to consider and yet the practices surrounding death are, if anything, more varied than than the others. Understanding people’s beliefs about death can help to explain the records, diary entries and letters that they left behind.

Rows of soldiers graves at Shiloh Battlefield (Wikipedia)

Reading This Republic of Suffering has taught me something of death in mid-nineteenth century America. It was a time when the view of death was different from ours and because of a horrific war, it was a time when ways of dealing with death were strained and altered. The concept which dominated people’s thinking about death was the “Good Death.” According to a Presbyterian tract given to Confederate soldiers—

“Death is not to be regarded as a mere event in our history. It is not like a birth, or a marriage, or a painful accident, or a lingering sickness.” It has an “importance that cannot be estimated by men.” Death’s significance arose from its absolute and unique permanence. “Death fixes our state. Here [on earth] everything is changing and unsettled. Beyond the grave our condition is unchangeable.” The moment of death could thus offer a glimpse of an unvarying perpetuity. “What you are when you die, the same will you reappear in the great day of eternity. The features of character with which you leave the world will be seen in you when you rise from the dead.”

That final ominous sentence placed a great weight on the shoulders of the dying. It also explains the desperation of the living to know something about a family member’s moment of death. Immense importance was placed on a person’s facial expression, their emotional state and, of course, on their dying words. So many letters home to the families of soldiers explain not just the cause of death, the place of death and general condolences, but great pains were taken to report how the soldier met death. It was important for family members to learn that death was met with that graceful calm the the “Good Death” required. The dying man’s last words were central and every effort was made to report them to the folks waiting at home.

Dying a Good Death also meant dying surrounded by loved ones, preferably at home and comfortable so that they could hear the dying words for themselves. The worst that could happen was for a man to die alone and unnoticed on the field of battle. Even then, fellow soldiers, if given the chance, would report back home if his face in death appeared calm. They would look to see if he was clutching his Bible or a family photograph, anything that would give a hint into the state of a dying man’s soul.

Death in the American Civil War was so very different from a Good Death.  In that, it is certainly no different from any other war, though some of the specifics differ. Americans were not yet used to the idea of dying in a hospital. Because this was war, death in the hospital almost certainly meant death far from home, death among strangers. Yet, death among strangers was to be avoided. Records and even songs left by nurses show that they sometimes pretended to be the mother of a delirious and dying young man. Even clear-headed patients would ask for someone to pretend to be family as they passed away.

Unlike a Good Death or even a normal death, dying on the battlefield or even in the hospital, could mean that no one knew who the soldier had been. There were many solutions that attempted to ensure that when a man died, he would not die anonymously. Some soldiers wrote their names, units and home addresses on the inside cover of a pocket-sized New Testament that they always had with them. Others made sure they carried mail from from next-of-kin. Before battle, some soldiers pinned a scrap of paper to their uniforms on which they had written name and address. Others carried metal badges engraved with their name and unit. At least in some cases, nurses asked the worst injured who they were, then pinned the information to their clothes. That way when these men died speechless or delirious in someone else’s care, they could still be identified.

Besides the problems of preserving the identities of the dead, there was the problem of getting information to their kin. Without any official mechanism for reporting deaths, letters from fellow soldiers and nurses might bear the news. Otherwise, newspaper casualty lists at least might give the name. If the news came at all, it would be slow. Then there was the task taken up by many of locating their soldier and bringing his body home. Reports describe hordes of civilians descending upon battlefields in search of relatives. Sometimes they found their loved one, often they did not. Wartime records only described the location of 100,000 Union graves. A large number but because estimates of the Union dead were three times higher, it was not nearly large enough. Even a year after the war ended, the number of known Union dead missed 80,000 men. Neither North nor South had the capacity to account for the dead that they had expected to be so few when the war began. In this confusion, some soldiers disappeared without a trace. Some were in mass graves, others fell victim to a particularly disconcerting phenomenon. Powerful weapons made it not uncommon for there to be no body left to bury. Still an unsettling thought, but in the age of the Good Death it was a possibility that those who had not seen it for themselves found nearly impossible to accept.

So very far from the Good Death—recovering the dead for reburial in the months after the Battle of Cold Harbor. Scenes like this and the battles that preceded them could not help but alter one's thoughts on death forever. (Library of Congress)

If relatives recovered the body, there was another hurdle. A person who died at home could be laid out in the parlor and buried before there was great need for preservation. With battlefields close enough to home to make it possible for a body to be brought back for burial with kin but far enough to make recovery and transportation too time consuming, the art of embalming entered the mainstream. For the first time, the time of death and the time of burial became commonly decoupled.

The mid-nineteenth century American views and traditions of death were not ours. When death on a massive scale was introduced into that world, the old views of death and the old traditions that surrounded death were forced to change and adapt. For a genealogist puzzling over the details of a burial or a family historian trying to understand a Civil War letter, This Republic of Suffering is wonderful cultural information.

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