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How Americans Found Glowing Meaning in the Nightmare of the Civil War
Sunday, 27 January 2008 10:36

by Andrew Bard Schmookler

I offer this present piece as a kind of follow-up to what I posted earlier this week (”This Time –Unlike the Other Time Evil Wrought Havoc on America– There will be No Romanticizing the Story: A Re-Run Worth Re-Running”.) The main idea of that previous piece proposed a central difference between the catastrophe of the American Civil War and the catastrophe of the Bush presidency: whereas the Civil War was eventually romanticized, I declared, it is most unlikely such romanticization will occur when Americans look back on this dark Bushite era.

What follows is a passage from the new book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (newly installed as the president of Harvard University, but before that a scholar of history). This excerpt appears in the January/February issue of Harvard Magazine.

Faust’s excerpt here gives one vivid view of how America rendered the Civil War into an epic glowing with heroism, and how it became glowingly sentimentalized. It seems to illuminate at least part of the process by which the nightmare of that war became romaticized.

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In the part of the book immediate preceding this passage, Faust describes the nightmare of the slaughter, and how it traumatized those who survived it. And then she writes:

Man had been at once agent and victim of war’s destruction. Both as butcher and butchered, he had shown himself far closer to the beasts than to the angels. The vaunted human soul had seemed to count for little in the face of war’s fearsome physicality, its fundamental economy of bodies, of losses and casualties, of wounding and killing. Mutilated and nameless corpses challenged notions of the unity and integrity of the human selves they once housed, for by the tens of thousands these selves had fragmented and disappeared. Death without dignity, without decency, without identity imperiled the meaning of the life that preceded it. Americans had not just lost the dead; they had lost their own lives as they had understood them before the war. As Lucy Buck of Virginia observed, “We shall never any of us be the same as we have been.”

The nation was a survivor, too, transformed by its encounter with death, obligated by the sacrifices of its dead. The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny, one designed to ensure that lives had been sacrificed for appropriately lofty ends. So much suffering had to have transcendent purpose, a “sacred significance,” as Frederick Douglass had insisted in the middle of the war. For him, such purpose was freedom, but this would prove an unrealized ideal in a nation unwilling to guarantee the equal citizenship on which true liberty must rest. Slavery had divided the nation, but assumptions of racial hierarchy would unite whites North and South in a century-long abandonment of the emancipationist legacy.

Instead, the United States’ new and elevated destiny became bound up with the nation itself: its growing power, its wealth, its extent, its influence. Debates about nationalism had caused the war; national might had won the war; an expanded nation-state with new powers and duties emerged from war’s demands. And both the unity and responsibilities of this transformed nation were closely tied to its Civil War Dead.

The meaning of the war had come to inhere in its cost. The nation’s value and importance were both derived from and proved by the human price paid for its survival. This equation cast the nation in debt in ways that would be transformative, for executing its obligations to the dead and their mourners required a vast expansion of the federal budget and bureaucracy and a reconceptualization of the government’s role. National cemeteries, pensions, and records that preserved names and identities involved a dramatically new understanding of the relationship of the citizen and the state. Edmund Whitman had observed with pride after his years living among the dead that the reinterment program represented a national commitment to a “sentiment.” In acknowledging that decent burial and identifiable graves warranted such effort and expense, the United States affirmed its belief in values that extended beyond the merely material and instrumental. Soldiers were not, as Melville articulated and so many Americans feared, “operatives,” simply cogs in a machinery of increasingly industrialized warfare. Citizens were selves — bodies and names that lived beyond their own deaths, individuals who were the literal lifeblood of the nation.

Without agendas, without politics, the Dead became what their survivors chose to make them. For a time they served as the repository of continuing hostility between North and South, but by the end of the century the Dead had become the vehicle for a unifying national project of memorialization. Civil War death and the Civil War Dead belonged to the whole nation. The Dead became the focus of an imagined national community for the reunited states, a constituency all could willingly serve — “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead — or South or North, ours all (all, all, all, finally dear to me),” Walt Whitman chanted.

In 1898 President William McKinley announced to the South, in a much-heralded speech in Atlanta, that “the time has now come in the evolution of sentiment and feeling under the providence of God, when in the spirit of fraternity we should share with you in the care of the graves of the Confederate soldiers.” The sons and grandsons of “these heroic dead” had in the preceding year risked their lives in a new American war; the brave Confederates should be officially honored alongside their Union counterparts.

To Frederick Douglass’s despair, the reasons for which men had died had been all but subsumed by the fact of their deaths. “Death has no power to change moral qualities,” he insisted in a Decoration Day speech in 1883. “Whatever else I may forget,” the aging abolitionist declared, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” But many even of those who had fought felt otherwise. “The brave respect the brave. The brave/Respect the dead,” Ambrose Bierce wrote in a poem chiding one “Who in a Memorial Day oration protested bitterly against decorating the graves of Confederate dead.”
Remember how the flood of years
Has rolled across the erring slain;
Remember, too, the cleansing rain

Of widows’ and of orphans’ tears.
The dead are dead — let that alone:
And though with equal hand we strew

The blooms on saint and sinner too,
Yet God will know to choose his own.
The wretch, whate’er his life and lot,

Who does not love the harmless dead
With all his heart and all his head —
May God forgive him, I shall not.
And Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had as a young soldier facing death so resolutely rejected the solace of Christianity, came to embrace war’s sacrifice as the one foundation for truth. His “Soldier’s Faith” speech, delivered on Memorial Day 1895, became emblematic of the elegiac view of the war that hailed death as an end in itself. “I do not know the meaning of the universe,” Holmes baldly declared. “But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds,” he had found one certainty: “that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” The very purposelessness of sacrifice created its purpose. In a world in which “commerce is the great power” and the “man of wealth” the great hero, the disinterestedness and selflessness of the soldier represented the highest ideal of a faith that depended on the actions not of God but of man. “War, when you are at it,” Holmes admitted, “is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine.” …
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