September 19, 2012

Reaction to American Experience's "Death and the Civil War"

Tombstone of Capt. John H. Dysart
Woodward Hill Cemetery
Alerted by Kevin Levin's review, I watched American Experience's two-hour documentary, "Death and the Civil War."  Overall, I thought it was well done, although I've considered the topic interesting for many years.  In fact, much of this blog chronicling the Lancaster County Regiment has focused on deaths in the regiment and reactions in Lancaster.  Here are a couple posts for anyone interested:

  • "There Sleeps a Pennsylvania Volunteer": Death Visits the 79th Pa.  A letter from Corp. Elias H. Witmer about the first death in the regiment.
  • Better Know a Soldier: Lewis H. Jones.  A working-class soldier from Lancaster City for whom the month of January 1861 was dominated by taking care of matters after the death of his brother-in-law (also in the 79th PA).  Treatment of his brother-in-law's family became a political issue when the incumbent mayor falsely charged his physician challenger of snubbing the family (I still need to post the wives' letter) a couple weeks after the death.  Jones himself died in the Battle of Perryville.
  • The Death and Funeral of Capt. John Dysart.  The first officer of the 79th PA to die, and whose body was returned to Lancaster.
I also hope to write soon about post-Antietam aid trips and visits to recover bodies, including that of John A. Hougendobler whose death was recently mentioned in my last post on South Mountain.  Furthermore, I'll have a lot more about the Battle of Perryville and how the regiment and Lancaster dealt with the thirty-something deaths in the regiment.

Back to the documentary, I probably best enjoyed the beginning and the end, as the stories and pictures about battlefield horrors blended together.  The new roles that the federal government took on were interesting, particularly reburial efforts in Kentucky and Tennessee which doubtless brought many of the remains of Pennsylvania volunteers into national cemeteries, although few successfully retained identification in the case of the 79th Pennsylvania.   
Grand Army of the Republic plot at Greenwood Cemetery, Lancaster
I believe the African-American section of the GAR plot is pictured.
I would have liked to have heard more in two specific areas, though.  First, as Kevin pointed out, the documentary neglects to discuss how the war's proponents very clearly tried to use the deaths to build support for the war (or resist Copperhead criticisms).  Particularly in the winter of 1863, these rhetorical efforts corresponded to the advent of the Union Party which sought to basically reboot the war effort.  It was even fairly obvious earlier, too, as I'll be posting soon about how soldier deaths played into the Congressional election of 1862.  Lancaster Republicans, especially, argued that only a vote for Thaddeus Stevens would properly honor the dead.  

Second, rather than a multitude of stories about battlefield horrors, I would have liked to know more about how death tied into existing art, rituals, and institutions (besides the federal government).  How did mainline denominations and evangelical churches react and change or not change how they talked about death?  How did pastors respond?  What did wartime soldiers' tombstones look like (these tend to be amazing)?  What were traditions of mourning?  What about art and jewelry?

I still highly recommend watching the documentary, which you can find at  Check back on this blog to fill in the details and for more case studies to better understand the divisions and unity produced by death during the Civil War, as well as the lasting memorials that they created and that we still have around us today.    

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