Review: American Experience presents… “Death and the Civil War”

Posted on September 17, 2012 by


As one who often takes strolls among the graves of Civil War dead (and as one who is a regular follower of American Experience), I was very eager to see how the upcoming episode would deal with the “process” of death during the war. I’m glad to say… I was not disappointed.

In Death and the Civil War, Ric Burns takes Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death in the American Civil War and brings it to life through commentary, imagery, and a very fitting soundtrack.

As I began watching, I realized (happily) that this was not a show centered on the oft over-used theme that… they had weapons that surpassed their tactics, and therefore there were a lot of dead.


Instead, it reminded me that death was a process at the time of the Civil War. Processes differed between now and then, and different circumstances frame the respective differences. As the show points out, at the time of the Civil War, in many ways, death was framed by the Evangelical movement that trickled down from the 1820s. It helped set the course for what would be good and bad deaths. Yet, the war challenged this, as death was no longer a guaranteed event, to take place at home and among friends and family. The war demanded a reevaluation of circumstances… men were dying far from home, and often in brutal conditions. Likewise, the massive number of dead… hitting home with the idea that, in today’s terms, that would equate to somewhere around seven million dead in four years… challenged capabilities of handling the dead. They were neither prepared for the expectations of death… nor the number of dead.

Between this and the obligation to the dead… to their mortal remains, and to their memory… this is what Burns’ work addresses.

Personally, I think it couldn’t come at a better time… during the Sesquicentennial, and in fact, one day on the heels of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg… 150 years from the day on which began the “clean-up” of so much death and carnage from one day of fighting. Out of the total number of 23,000 casualties, almost a third of that number were among the dead from September 17. Therefore, it’s a particularly good time to consider the subject matter.

But, numbers and stats are not at the core of this production. Rather, it’s more about human awareness of mortality and how they dealt with it. As I mentioned… imagery and soundtrack are key in helping us weave through this story, and Burns assembles an excellent collection to reach out to us, as viewers. Perhaps, in some ways, Burns does something similar to what Mathew Brady did after the Battle of Antietam… he brings the dead and process of dying, in the Civil War, to our doorsteps… or rather, through our televisions. The romanticism is not there (thank goodness), except, perhaps in some ways, in the lingering expectations of Victorian era death.

There are a few details of the presentation, however, that were in error. As others in the Civil War blogosphere have covered this already, I do not feel the need to do so. Still, I did find it a bit strange that, in one part of the show, there was mention of hogs “rooting around”, yet left us to hang out a bit regarding what that meant, exactly. The reality was that the hogs were literally eating the dead, often even digging-up the corpses from their shallow graves. It seems strange not to mention this when being free with such graphic imagery, but, it was one of those points that I found odd that they didn’t quite follow through on.

An example of one of the more graphic images used by Burns.

I also found something familiar in circumstances mentioned in a few sections of the presentation… as in the case where soldiers would form pacts among themselves, for the others to take care of their remains and last possessions, in the event of the death of one of the party. Even more significant, are the thoughts of identifying the dead, and (yet) how, in the 1990s, I found one of my own kinsmen buried with an incorrect headstone, at Andersonville. Not only did I wonder if his parents ever visited… making the long trip from western Maryland… but I also wondered if they had made the trip, if they were really able to find his marker. Of course, this is something that was properly addressed, immediately after the war by Clara Barton and Dorrance Atwater. Burns’ program addresses the imperfect process of identifying the dead, but (and not to his discredit) might not be aware that, years later, when stones replaced crude wooden markers, how there was clear failure in keeping true to honoring the memory of the dead.

Image of the replacement marker for my Moore relative… though it too is flawed as it should read “1st Potomac Home Brigade”. At least the name is correct…

Burns does a very good job, covering all… no matter the side or race, gender, or age.

For those wanting a sneak-peak… see below…

The two hour episode premiers tomorrow night (Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012) at 8 p.m., on your favorite public television station. Please be sure to watch. I highly recommend it.