In the mood for some light entertainment? How about a two-hour film about death and dying?
The subject matter notwithstanding, Ric Burns' American Experience film Death and the Civil War, airing tonight on PBS — locally at 8 p.m. on WGTE-TV, Channel 30 — easily makes its case that the bloody four-year conflict forever changed how Americans view death itself, not only because more people were killed in that war than in any other in American history, but because, for the first time, photographic images of the dead challenged what had become an idealized notion of the end of life.
The film is based on the book The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, who says that "Americans embarked on a new relationship with death" because of the war, which claimed 750,000 lives. Given the nation's population at the time of 31 million, that would be the equivalent today of 7 million dead.
Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries, no governmental procedure for even identifying the bodies of men lost in battle, much less for burying them. The nation had no "bureaucracy" of death, simply because there had been no need for it.
At first, the war was seen almost as a minor contretemps. That changed with the battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1861, which claimed more than 800 lives.
It's important to understand how Americans looked at death before the war, since that view is so alien to many of us now. Of course, death is always part of life, but the prevailing belief in the early decades of the republic was that you needed to think about death every day in order to ensure a good life. Having a "good death" was an omnipresent goal in the lives of many people. And a good death was defined as dying at home, uttering last words, and being surrounded by loved ones.
As in all societies, says poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch, there was an adherence to ritual for the dead. Having a good death meant having a corpse, mourners, sacred text, and transport to a place of rest. But this was often impossible for the Civil War dead. Parents and siblings were often left in the dark about the fate of a family member. Reports of the wounded and missing were often unreliable, if they were sent at all.
On the battlefields, soldiers were always prepared for death. They made pacts with tent-mates to notify family members if they were killed, and often wrote "final" letters home as they were going into battle, in case they never had another chance to do so. Most poignant in the film are letters from dying soldiers, clearly fighting with their final reserves of strength to say goodbye to parents or wives.
The film carefully details how the war prompted the establishment of national cemeteries and a system for identifying and burying the dead. But it also makes the case that the sea change in the country's view of death was significant to our history, as evidenced in Lincoln's address at Gettysburg.
The famous speech was not just a eulogy for the dead, but, in a way, a eulogy for the republic as it had been created "four score and seven years ago" and "conceived in liberty." All of that had been shattered by the Civil War and it was time to build a new nation state, and that the "honored dead" of Gettysburg had not only consecrated the ground with their deaths, but consecrated the need for the nation to rebuild itself and to push forward with the principles on which it was founded.