Death and the American Civil War: Disruptions of Decency and a New Awareness of Reality
Victorian notions of the body and its functions were complex given the combination of the rise in biological and medical knowledge that occurred during the nineteenth century and the prudery that gained such traction during the same era. These two trajectories were likely not in simple conflict as they might appear, but rather the increasing awareness of the body as an almost mechanical entity rather than the soul-filled object of majesty it had long been appreciated as likely fueled the reluctance to admit to bodily functions and certainly to bodily decay. In the United States, the Victorian Era brought with it a stark and unavoidable reminder of the body's frailties and ultimate lack of majesty with the onset and prolonged casualties of the Civil War. The half-decade of conflict is famously the bloodiest of American wars, claiming the lives of more U.S. citizens than any other war or military action in the nation's history, and while even today it serves as a poignant reminder of man's inhumanity to man it's effect on the Victorian sensibilities of the era could only have been more profound.
The idea of a "good death" in Victorian times, given the aversion to all things bodily and medical that existed during the era, would have been one that took place privately, quietly, and with a minimum of medicinal fuss or symptom expression. Passing quietly in one's sleep would have been the ideal for most individuals of the period, and certainly it would not have been desired to be immediately present for anyone else's more gruesome death or to witness or even discuss the details of one's passing. Photography, journalism, and the backyard presence of the Civil War made it all but impossible to avoid stories and images of death, and almost every family throughout the nation was touched by a death in the war in some way or another. The good death was not to be found in the Civil War, then, but instead those directly affected by the violence and death and society as a whole had to redefine the way they understood death, dying, and life itself. There was no longer a way to avoid thinking about these issues and their implications, and thus a new spirit that recognized the raw brutality of war and of death and that arguably created a greater respect for the body that replaced the former majesty with which it had been mistakenly imbued. Death in the Civil War era became a force in and of itself with both concrete and abstract impacts upon the world and American society that continue to reverberate today.
A Meditation on Death
Understanding how views of death generally and the fatal violence of war specifically were changed by the Civil War requires an understanding of sentiments that existed prior to the war. In his "Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society," William Lloyd Garrison celebrates the Revolutionary War as one in which "people rose up as from the sleep of death, and rushed to the strife of blood; deeming it more glorious to die instantly as freemen, than desirable to live one hour as slaves" (p. 18). To Garrison writing approximately six decades after the American Revolution commenced and three decades prior to the Civil War, the idea of death in service of a higher purpose was noble and even graceful, and is far removed from the gory details that would be almost universally shunned in the Victorian Era.
While Victorians might not have been able to see majesty in the body anymore, they could certainly see grandeur in the nobler principles and values of humanity, and Garrison suggests that war and death are noble when they occur for noble purposes. While still not the typical Victorian ideal of the "good death," such a death would certainly be honorable according to Garrison's view and according to the sentiments of many during the period. Not all individuals would agree with Garrison's abolitionist viewpoint, of course, but many if not most people of the time would likely have agreed that there were some principles worth dying for. This was a period in which the concrete details of the body were ignored and the trajectory of history outweighed an individual's death, at least when viewed in the abstract or from a great deal of distance, and it was against this backdrop that the Civil War occurred.
Walt Whitman's poem "1861" is an early harbinger of changes to come in the manner that American individuals and American society as a whole viewed death and faced life during and following the Civil War. In sharp contrast to Garrison's sentiments of only a generation prior, the first casualties of war and the immediate and stark details of the violence brought about significant changes in the American sentiments towards death no matter what the larger purpose of that death was supposed to be. Whitman does honor the soldiers, describing them as "as a strong man, erect, clothed in blue clothes," but he closes his poem by calling 1861 a "hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted year" (p. 78). Though echoes of older sentiments remain, the newer dismay and recognition of death and war's crushing reality is made ore clear.
This is not to suggest that everyone thought war was wonderful until the Civil War and Walt Whitman's poem, of course, but the Civil War did mark a moral shift in American society and values of the time. As seen in Garrison's tract, Americans had come to glorify the deaths of the past due to the purposes they bore, and morality regarding death emphasized this positive aspect. Recognizing the individual, the human, and the bodily impacts of war and death as Whitman does requires a different morality -- a morality that recognizes the inherent rights and desires of each individual person as superseding, or at least possibly superseding, larger values in society. When faced with the realities of death and the dismemberment of bodies during warfare, it becomes more difficult to justify or celebrate these gory sacrifices regardless of what such deaths might accomplish on a grander scale.
Even Whitman was still at least one step removed form the horrors of the Civil War, not actually going through battle himself. The changing morality of a populous faced with the Civil War is very clearly evidenced through the direct experience of Dora Miller, who kept a diary during the siege of Vicksburg in part as a diversion from the threat of death and the myriad discomforts she experienced. Even without a direct experience of death from the war, hiding in caves and moving houses as threats changed and other chaotic turns of event occurred gave Mrs. Miller a direct experience of the horrors of the war and served as a constant reminder that a painful and public death could occur at any time. Forced to face death on a daily basis as shells drop throughout the city, a grim acceptance that is neither noble nor ignoble emerges.
After paying to have a cave dug as a bomb shelter of sorts and then being forced to leave their house and cave behind, Dora Miller at one point finds herself huddling in a cellar that offers protection form the constant shelling by the Union river boats. As with other times during the siege, Dora finds herself wondering whether death might in fact be preferable to the constant worry that it might occur: "The confinement is dreadful. To sit and listen as if waiting for death in a horrible manner would drive me insane" (p. 140). Earlier, Dora had compared the cave they had dug as a shelter to the confinement of a tomb, and here again death becomes even more horrible in anticipation than in reality, showing a full shift from Garrison's perspective. Rather than welcoming a death that comes in the furtherance of some grander principle, Mrs. Miller almost seeks death as an escape from the fear of death, and her own internal emotional health now takes precedent over any delusional grandeur in warfare.
The visual images that came out of the Civil War were also a major factor in the shifting sentiments and moralities of the time, and were arguably even more important than the direct experience of the war itself in shaping American perspectives towards war and death. Though the experience of a photograph could never compare with the experience of a battlefield or even a bomb shelter, pictures were reprinted and shown throughout the country and the world, bringing direct and concrete knowledge of war's effects and the reality of death in battle to the entire population. No one was removed from the effects of war, and no one could escape confronting what death truly meant to the body and to society.
Though it is not an image of death, Alexander Gardner's photograph "African-American Refugees Amid Ruins of Richmond" gives a stark reminder of…