Civil War Historian Drew Gilpin Faust On PBS
This interview was originally broadcast on Jan. 9, 2008. Gilpin is featured in PBS's American Experience called Death and the Civil War. It premiered Sept. 18, the day after the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the deadliest day in American military history.
Historian Drew Gilpin Faust writes that Civil War deaths — both their number and their manner — transformed America. Her book is This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.
The Civil War death rate was six times that of World War II, when adjusted against the size of the American population, Faust points out.
"For those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience ... was the presence of death," she writes. "At war's end this shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite."
Faust is the president of Harvard University, where she also holds the Lincoln Professorship in History.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The United States embarked on a new relationship with death during the Civil War, our guest Drew Gilpin Faust writes. Her book, "This Republic of Suffering," is about how the carnage of the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, changed conceptions of how life should end and challenged fundamental assumptions about life's value and meaning.
This past Monday, September 17, marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the deadliest day in American military history, with 23,000 casualties, counting both Union and Confederate troops. "Death and the Civil War," a documentary by Rick Burns based on Faust's book, was shown earlier this week on PBS stations and is also available online and on DVD.
Faust has written several other books about the Civil War, including "Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War." She's the president of Harvard University, the first woman to hold that position. She's also a professor of history at Harvard. Terry Gross spoke with Drew Gilpin Faust in 2008, when "This Republic of Suffering" was published.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Drew Gilpin Faust, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's start with just a description of the magnitude of death during the Civil War.
DREW GILPIN FAUST: The magnitude of death included 620,000 estimated military dead and uncounted numbers of civilian dead. And to understand what that means, I think we have to consider it in terms of the size of the population as a whole and think about the rate of death in order to be able to understand what such numbers might mean in the context of our own time.
And 620,000 military dead was the equivalent of about two percent of the American population at that time. And in today's terms, that would mean six million dead.
So, as we contemplate what kind of impact that might have on our own society, I think we can get some sense of what this level of death might have mean to Americans of the mid-19th century. Another way to think about it is to consider that as many soldiers died in the American Civil war as died in all American wars from the American Revolution through the first years of Vietnam. So it was a war with a much higher cost of lives than any war we had engaged in up through the mid-20th century, the total of deaths.
GROSS: Now you write that the massive numbers of dead and the gruesome ways in which the deaths occurred violated the prevailing assumptions about life's proper end, about who should die, when and where and under what circumstances. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
FAUST: Well, I think part of this impact came from the fact that this war occurred in the middle of a Victorian era, in which notions about death were very much centered around the home and having an individual die in the midst of the bosom of family, often on a death bed surrounded by individuals who would hear last words and be able to assess the future state of the dying person based on how the death occurred.
And so many Americans, of course, in war died away from home, away from family, in circumstances on battle fields where such a death toll hadn't been anticipated, and therefore, there wasn't adequate provision for burial, for identifying the dead, for taking care of the remains of the dead.
GROSS: There was this idealized sense of what a good death would be, and that included some of the things you described, dying near family. What else?
FAUST: Well, this was an overwhelmingly Christian and, in fact, Protestant nation. And notions of the good death, the art of dying, had come down through Christian tradition over a number of decades and centuries, and this included the notion that the way one died had a predictive aspect to it, that you could tell whether someone was likely to go to heaven, was likely to be in a state in which he or she could be reunited with kin in a future life, in which an individual could die easily or hard depending on whether or not they were likely to be saved.
And so, scrutinizing the death and being present to hear important last words that would end their life's narrative, all of that came to take on great importance and to be expected as a way of ending a life.
The other part of this, of course, was the notion of decent burial, a grave that could be identified, could be visited, could be marked, and a way in which the dead person could be remembered and in some sense remain in the bosom of the family, even though that person had departed. And of course, a soldier who was lost on a battlefield, his grave unknown, could not be recognized and remembered in that way, as well.
GROSS: And a soldier whose body was mutilated in war couldn't be dying the good death either.
FAUST: I think that the firepower of the Civil War, the numbers of bodies that were left to rot, the numbers of amputations in the Civil War, all of this created threats to the understanding of the human being as an integral soul, as a body and soul that could be united. I think one of the most striking aspects of the way Civil War death occurred is that it really challenged individuals' understanding of what it meant to be human and what separated humans from animals.
You find often in Civil War Americans writing about death that they talk about bodies being treated like hogs or being treated like dead chickens and just thrown into pits. And so this anxiety about whether a human being was in fact different from an animal, based on how these bodies were being treated, was very troubling, very disturbing.
GROSS: Now, you write that soldiers tried to construct a good death even in a chaos of war. What were some of the ways that they did that?
FAUST: Well, I think many soldiers tried to create situations in which the elements of the good death could be replicated. One of the striking things that I found reading soldier's letters and descriptions of battlefields after battles was the numbers of soldiers who surrounded themselves with photographs of their families as they were dying.
So instead of having the family around the death bed, instead they would array photographs around themselves, almost to replicate the notion that their family was present and that they could look into the eyes of their family as they were dying.
They also often expressed last words or last wishes in ways that they asked to have transmitted to their family members. And soldiers who survived were quite assiduous in sending to family members information about the nature of the death of a comrade. So family members might receive a letter of condolence that included many elements of the good death that, you know, indicating that their loved one had indeed had a good death and expressed belief, expressed a willingness to die, died easily, indicating that they were going to make a quick transition into heaven.
And so these letters were very important link between home and battlefield that was meant to overcome that separation that war had introduced.
GROSS: Is there such a letter than you'd like to excerpt for us?
FAUST: Well, one of the most dramatic is one that a soldier wrote himself, a man named James Montgomery, who was dying and was bleeding all over the letter, and in fact when you hold the letter, you can see his blood, and that is a very arresting connection for a researcher with the history of those that she is writing about.
And James Montgomery wrote to his father and said that he knew his father would be - and I find this word so striking - delighted to hear from his son as he was dying. And of course that makes someone in the 20th century or the 21st century just shake with amazement.
And then you realize that the reason the father would be delighted is that James Montgomery could assure his father that he had died well and that he was ready to die, that he was anticipating a better life, and he could also tell his father about his fate, and his father didn't have to worry what had happened to him, wouldn't have to deal with the uncertainty, the terrible uncertainty that accompanied unidentified deaths and un-reclaimed bodies.
GROSS: You know, as you mentioned, during the time of the Civil War, the ideal of the good death included that the way you died was going to influence how you entered the next world. And you quote a pamphlet that was distributed by the Presbyterian Church to soldiers during the Civil War that warned, quote, death is not to be regarded as a mere event in our history, death fixes our state.
Here on Earth, everything is changing and unsettled. Beyond the grave, our condition is unchangeable. 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.
So in this period where people are dying of mutilations and gangrene and disease and dysentery and just, you know, pure battle wounds, how does the idea of death start to change because it's hard to believe that the way you exit the world will forever fix who you are in the afterlife if you're bound to die this gruesome death that's out of your control?
FAUST: I think that description of how you are was meant to be one about your psychological state and your spiritual state more than it was about the condition of your body. But the issue of the condition of your body was a very troubling one for mid-19th-century Americans, as well, because the traditional belief was that your body would be whole and be reunited and also be resurrected, along with your spirit.
And this was troubling because if you'd had your arm amputated, and it was buried off somewhere far away, how was that going to get reunited with the rest of your body? And so there's a lot of writing about this issue of bodies and what happens to them and whether resurrection includes bodies and how in fact this can be possible, given the kind of mutilation that you describe.
So I think that the bodily assaults of the war challenged many traditional beliefs, as well as the spiritual assaults on this terrible harvest of death.
DAVIES: Harvard president and historian Drew Gilpin Faust, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2008 interview with Harvard president and historian Drew Gilpin Faust, whose book "This Republic of Suffering" looks at how the Civil War changed American views of life and the afterlife.
GROSS: Now, you write that soldiers who survived battles had to then bury the dead, and there were so many dead to be buried. There were new kinds of burial practices that were developed because of the mass level of death in the Civil War?
FAUST: I think it's hard for us to imagine the lack of systematic organization in the military in regard to death. And partly it was because the level of death was so unanticipated. But there were no regular burial details. There were no graves registration services. For much of the war, there were not regular ambulance services in either army, although the Union army, by about 1864, improved that situation somewhat.
But this meant that usually, after battle, there was just chaos, and there were so many bodies and no organized attempt or plan to take care of them. So, after battles, there was always an active improvisation to get the dead buried. It often took a considerable period of time. There are letters from individuals visiting battlefields as long as 10 days after the actual battle saying that the dead still lay strewn about.
There are many descriptions of overwhelming stench, is the word that is often used, emanating from Gettysburg or Antietam and poisoning the air from miles around. So this horror of not simply the number of deaths and the impact of those deaths but simply the bodies and the difficulty of figuring out what to do with them was very present in the minds and lives of Civil War Americans.
So what do we mean by new ways of dealing with the dead? Some of these were the kinds of dehumanizing practices that so threatened and scared Americans as they found themselves forced to throw bodies into mass pits without names, without identity.
Most soldiers who died on the battlefield were buried without coffins. Probably half the cases of Civil War dead were not identified. And so there was no way to let loved ones know, and there were no regularized processes in either Northern or Southern Army for notifying next of kin.
This began to trouble soldiers and other - and families and officials enormously. And so, we can see in the course of the war the evolution of efforts to try to overcome the dehumanization and anonymity of these burial practices.
GROSS: You mentioned the dehumanization. I mean, you describe some of the burial practices, like roping dead soldiers by the legs, tying the rope around their torso and then dragging them to the pile of corpses, sometimes using bayonets so that the soldiers wouldn't have to touch the putrefying corpses. This is before there's, you know, rubber gloves or Latex gloves.
FAUST: And then there's a horrible description that I cite where a soldier talks about throwing the bodies into a pit and then jumping on top of them in order to enable the pit to hold more soldiers and then sometimes causing the body to burst because it had been rotting for so long, so very gruesome kinds of descriptions that soldiers wrote down I think almost to exorcise the demons that this had introduced into their lives and into their minds.
GROSS: And then there were fears that there were living soldiers hidden in the piles of the dead.
FAUST: And there are examples of soldiers who, in fact, were discovered to be in the midst of these piles and would - one soldier wrote about being discovered and eventually returning to fight again after he had recovered from the wounds that had made him seem as if he were dead.
GROSS: I was really surprised to read in your book that during the Civil War, the military did not have the responsibility of informing the next of kin of a soldier who had died, and they didn't have the responsibility of recording the names of soldiers who died. That was changed as a result of a few people who did a lot of work to change it, one of whom as Edmund B. Whitman, the chief quartermaster of the military division of Tennessee.
FAUST: Edmund Whitman had been a quartermaster, and the Quartermaster Corps was the unit of the military that was assigned responsibility for burial. And so he began to explore, at the behest of his superiors, through the areas of the western theater, just looking for Union graves and soldiers who were buried in every byway and road and on former battlefields in that area. And he found two things.
One was that there were graves everywhere. He described the South as a great charnel house of the dead because he found graves in copses of woods, by railroad tracks, under apple trees, in people's farmyards, behind churches, behind settlements of freed slaves. Just all over the South he kept finding group and even individual graves. So he felt there was a substantial opportunity here to honor dead who would otherwise be lost.
The second thing he found was that these graves were often being desecrated by white Southerners who were angry about their defeat and felt that they could express some of that rage and frustration about the loss of war by doing their spring plowing as usual, even though the field was filled with Union graves, by harming the graves in other ways.
And so Whitman made the point to his superiors that, if action wasn't taken to protect these graves, that these soldiers would not just be ignored, they would be dishonored and desecrated. So over a period of months, as he began his very systematic assessment of the locations of graves, he kept making the case that all these graves should be removed to the national cemeteries.
Over the course of the years, between the fall of 1865 and then through and towards in the spring of 1866, up until 1871, Edmund Whitman kept traveling through the western part of the South to identify graves, and he, at last, was supported by the federal government in his commitment to relocate as many as he could find into a system of national cemeteries.
He personally was involved in the relocation of over 100,000 Union bodies, and the program that evolved from his efforts in large part ended up reburying over 300,000 Union soldiers in 74 national cemeteries. So this was the real beginning of the national cemetery system.
It also represented a program of a magnitude that had not before really been imagined as the responsibility of a federal government that had been quite weak before the Civil War. This was not undertaken by the states. It was undertaken by the central government, and I think we can see in that an example of the new strength of the nation-state that emerged from the war and the kinds of responsibilities that it took on.
GROSS: So, I imagine from everything that you're saying about how the government and the military were unable to identify and name the dead during the Civil War that dog tags didn't exist yet?
FAUST: That's correct. There was no formal identification badge or process, and soldiers invented ways of counteracting that. In the war, they would sometimes pin pieces of paper with their names on it on themselves when they were going into a particularly difficult battle.
Little tags, little identity badges were also for sale and were advertised widely in the North and South, and so some soldiers would buy those with their name and contact information on them. And then other soldiers just improvised by making sure there was always an envelope addressed to them somewhere on their person or writing their particulars about their address and next of kin in a diary or a Bible that they carried with them.
GROSS: You know, in writing about burials and reburials during the Civil War and its aftermath, you asked the question: Why do living humans pay attention to corpses? And I thought, that's such an interesting question to ask. We just take it for granted that it's important to give corpses a proper burial. Why did you even pose the question?
FAUST: Well, if you think about efficiency or affecting those who were still alive to be affected, would you go around expending resources reburying the dead? I mean, if you have a purely instrumental view of social obligation or governmental obligation, would this be something you would think of?
And of course we do, and of course this matters enormously to us. And I think Edmund Whitman explained it very well when he said that he was proud of the government spending so much energy and so many resources on what might be called, as he puts it, a sentiment.
In other words, this is a humanitarian age. This is an age that goes beyond the instrumental or the material. It recognizes the value of human life and the special nature of the body and the soul and their intertwined character. And so he sees it as a real affirmation of part of the humanity that many Americans feared the Civil War had dissipated.
DAVIES: Historian Drew Gilpin Faust is the president of Harvard University. She'll be back in the second half of the show. Her book about the ways the Civil War changed American views of death is called "This Republic Of Suffering." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with historian Drew Gilpin Faust, who's president of Harvard University. Her book, "This Republic of Suffering," is about how the carnage of the Civil War affected religion, culture and politics, and challenged fundamental assumptions about life's value and meaning. Monday was the 150th anniversary of the deadliest day in American military history, when Confederate and Union forces suffered 23,000 casualties at the Battle of Antietam. Terry spoke to Drew Gilpin Faust in 2008.
GROSS: So many people in America were in mourning during and after the Civil War. What were mourning customs like then?
FAUST: Mourning customs also changed in response to the war. In the South, in particular, it was very hard to follow many traditional mourning practices which would've included (technical difficulties) of mourning for a prescribed amount of time, depending how close your relationship was with the deceased person.
In the South, where it was hard to get cloth and many other basic necessities of life, being able to wear mourning was something that many individuals found they could not do. And so one of the things I found in letters from women in particular was the ways they struggled to create mourning clothes by dying old clothes black or scrambling together, borrowing clothes and so forth. Mourning garb meant a lot to these individuals, because it was a way of outwardly expressing an inward state that was very hard to deal with and hard to manage if you didn't have a way of expressing it.
One of the striking things about mourning in the Civil War, if we think about how we consider mourning, we often talk in modern times about the notion of closure, of somehow moving through a period of mourning. And Freud, of course, when he talks about the work of mourning, embeds this notion in a psychological analysis of what mourning entails, which is it is a state you move through, and eventually you separate yourself from the dead person. But you do that by coming to grips with reality of that individual's death and that individual's loss.
If we think about how many Civil War soldiers were never identified - probably half of the 620,000 who died were never identified, their bodies not located, their families uncertain about their fate - how do you go through a period of mourning and recognizing and accepting the reality of a death if you're not certain about that death, if you don't know how it happened?
Many women wrote about their lingering hope that their lost loved one might appear, might simply be in an insane asylum or be lost or, in some other way, have disappeared and eventually return home. And so to mourn under those circumstances is very, very difficult.
GROSS: A lot of women wore what was described as half-mourning dresses. What were those?
FAUST: Well, you, when you were in full-mourning, you wore black, essentially, with some white permitted. But in half-mourning certain colors, like purple, could be added as trim. And so there was a kind of lessening of the severity of the restriction of your garb.
And I think there's an interesting aspect to this notion of full mourning, half mourning, because it shows progress. It shows that your outward state is meant to reflect an inward state of recovery, of moving back into the world of the full participants in society. And so I think that's an important aspect of what the change in garb over time was meant to indicate.
GROSS: You write that it's not just death that was changed - the scale of death, how people were buried, how people mourned the dead - but also ideas of the afterlife were changed by the massive scale of death during the Civil War. How were some of these ideas of the afterlife change?
FAUST: Americans in the Civil War period were very interested in heaven and what it might be like, because they were having to face the fact that many of their loved ones were gone and many of their loved ones, they hoped, were in this other realm called heaven.
So what was heaven actually like? Heaven became a different sort of place in the course of the 19th century, and this began really before the Civil War with some writing about heaven in the 18th century that was beginning to make it less severe, less a God-centric place, more a place that seemed welcoming to individuals in a way that was very like their own homes in the world in which they lived.
And so changing notions of heaven made it seem a warmer place. It was a place where you would be reunited with all your family. And in some writings about heaven, it was a place that was even better than earth in that not only did you have all your books and your piano, but your hair didn't turn gray and all your incapacities were overcome. And so it was very idealized.
And the consistency between your own life and the life in heaven, I think, evolved from people's strong desire to feel that loss was not so overwhelming, that the person who had departed had not given up everything that his foreshortened life might imply. In fact, that person was simply around the corner, behind the veil, living a life very much like those of his brothers and sisters and comrades and so forth, back on Earth.
I think it also sometimes became a solace for soldiers who were suffering on the battlefields of Virginia or Georgia, or whatever part of the war, that heaven was a far better place than the miseries of the battlefield that they were experiencing.
GROSS: You make it sound like the Civil War was a real boon for spiritualists, because so many people felt that through a spiritualist, they can contact the dead.
FAUST: Mm-hmm. I think this grew out of the rising prominence and status of science in the mid-19th century, that it seemed to some Americans that if heaven existed, then we ought to prove it. There ought to be some foundation to establish the reality of heaven. And spiritualism spoke to that need, because it showed that individuals who were dead were communicating with live people and making tables rise and wrapping on wood and, in other ways, showing their reality. And spiritualism became a real comfort for many Americans who felt that their dead were not lost, but instead just around the veil or around the corner and were speaking to them.
There were spiritualist newspapers, seances. They were even seances in the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln was very interested in spiritualism. And it's said that Lincoln himself attended some of these seances, where Mary Todd Lincoln was trying to communicate with her dead children.
And there was a spiritualist newspaper published in Boston that, in every edition, had lengthy communications from dead soldiers often describing their own good deaths, describing what heaven was like, describing their reunification with their lost limbs and so forth. So it was a way of connecting death and life and making that separation seem less frightening.
GROSS: Now, you describe how a lot of people used their religion to help comprehend the death and suffering that their loved ones experienced during the Civil War and to help give meaning to death. But at the same time, a lot of people found that the Civil War shook their very belief in religion.
GROSS: Can you talk about the Civil War as an increasing time of doubt?
FAUST: For me, it's summed up very eloquently in a statement by the Southern poet Sidney Lanier, who said: How could God allow this? I think many Americans felt that such horror was difficult to reconcile with the notion of a benevolent God.
And, of course, this is a long-standing problem of religious belief: How do we explain evil? And it always raises questions for our understanding of a deity. How can a deity not stop such slaughter, such suffering? And so I think many Americans found themselves asking those questions.
At the end of the war, many Southerners said to themselves: How could God have allowed our defeat? We thought we were God's chosen. If there is no victory for the South, if we're not God's chosen, how can I continue to believe in God? And so those questions of reconciling suffering with the notion of a caring God was very difficult for many individuals.
One finds some of the most eminent writers of American history speculating on these questions in the context of Civil War. Herman Melville is one who writes a series of poems about the war that raised the question of: What is the nature of belief? How can there be belief? And Emily Dickinson, who, of course, found death her subject throughout her career of writing, isolated in her father's house in Amherst, used the context and imagery of war as a way of exploring, very fully, the implications of death for the possibility of belief.
GROSS: The title of your book "This Republic of Suffering," is a great title. Why don't you describe where it comes from?
FAUST: "This Republic of Suffering" is a phrase used by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was, during the Civil War, a Sanitary Commission leader, which meant that he was involved with sponsoring hospital ships that came down the East Coast from the North and parked, more or less, in the peninsula in Virginia and served as medical resources for soldiers of the Union Army who were wounded in the battles on the Virginia battlefields.
And so he saw the real horror of injury and suffering by those soldiers as they were brought back to the ships after having fought valiantly in the seven days battles or the other conflicts in the Virginia theater. And he remarked once, looking at the suffering of the men around him, that this republic of suffering did not give much space for individuals, because it was such a shared misery.
And it struck me that this was a good title for the book, because the impact of death and suffering had implications for how the nation regarded itself, and that it wasn't simply individuals who had to learn how to mourn and die and deal with the tremendous loss that these deaths meant individually, but it was rather the nation as a whole that also had to think about what it meant that so many individuals had died in its service.
GROSS: Well, Drew Gilpin Faust, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
FAUST: It's been a great pleasure.
DAVIES: Historian Drew Gilpin Faust is the president of Harvard University. Her book is called "This Republic of Suffering." "Death and the American Civil War," a documentary by Ric Burns and based on Faust's book, was shown earlier this week on PBS stations and is available online and on DVD. In fact, you can find a link to the video on our website: freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead listens to a new collection of recordings by pianist Vince Guaraldi. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.