A deeply moving and poetic examination of American Civil War losses—Union and Confederate, free men and slaves— Death and the Civil War premiered on American Experience(PBS) and is available on DVD, in a book and DVD combo, and on CD from PBS.org. The documentary, produced and directed by Ric Burns, is based on This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (January 2008) by Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, a civil war historian and professor of history.
An estimated 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War, representing 2.5% of the population. Faust commented “Transpose the percentage of dead that mid-19th-century America faced into our own time—seven million dead, if we had the same percentage.” And if the government operated today as it did during the Civil War, those bodies would be scattered on battlefields, in woods, and roads throughout the country, for the federal government took no responsibility for fallen soldiers. Wounded men were left to die on battlefields as troops—their fellow soldiers—withdrew.
Americans were tragically unprepared for a war that would last more than a few months and result in such a high body count. Hundreds of thousands of fallen soldiers were never identified, leaving their families with no sense of closure. These events changed the American way of looking at and thinking about death, retiring the concept of “a good death,” which none of the war dead experienced.
Statistics recounting the number of dead and wounded at major battles (such as Antietam, Gettysburg, and Shiloh) are overwhelming and sobering. Not all of the dead were killed on the battlefield; many died of disease in dirty medical facilities and squalid prisoner of war camps. Escaping slaves in “contraband camps” also died in the thousands from diseases that were rampant in these containment facilities.
Death and the Civil War also looks at the post-war efforts to find and bury the dead, the social impact on both the North and South, and explores the origins of Memorial Day (which may surprise many viewers). Participants in the program include Drew Gilpin Faust; historians David W. Blight, Vincent Brown, J. David Hacker, Thomas Lynch, and Mark S. Schantz; 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen; and George F. Will.
Many struggle to understand how the country could have been divided so; Death and the Civil War is a sensitive, respectful consideration of that division.