Preview: American Experience – “Death and the Civil War”

14 09 2012

On Tuesday, September 18, PBS will be airing a new episode of American Experience titled Death and the Civil War. The good folks there sent me a DVD of the program a while back and asked me to hold off on telling you about it until we got closer to the air date. That was a big mistake on their part, since without a firm deadline I put things off until the last minute. But I did make time to watch the program and have a few thoughts to share.

The film builds off of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering and is directed by Ric Burns, who with his brother Ken brought us The Civil War, among other things (see the Civil War Monitor interview with Burns here). Much of the Burns formula is present here, with a reliance on panning and zooming of period photographs. In Death however, the photos are sometimes shown in their entirety in a natural setting – that is to say, we see the whole image and sometimes its frame, perhaps on a table. It certainly makes for a warmer mood at times, which considering the subject matter is much needed.

Also important to a Burns project is the soundtrack, and in this case we get a very moody, string heavy background to the narration that is effective. I don’t know if I could listen to a lot of it on its own without blowing my brains out, which is to say it suits the subject matter very nicely. (Apparently you’ll be able to purchase the soundtrack as well – I didn’t receive a copy of that for review.) I thought I caught themes from Johnny Cash (The Highwayman) and Beethoven (Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92), but I could be wrong. Anyway, it’s good stuff. Rea has more info on the soundtrack here.

OK, now on to the film itself. It’s presented in 8 parts. In the introduction we’re told the story of a mortally wounded Confederate and his sobering letter home in 1864, which sets the stage for the subject at hand: how was the country affected by, and how did it deal with, the unprecedented scale of death that accompanied the war? The nation was unprepared for it, and it overwhelmed individuals and institutions that had to deal with it. At the time, there were no national cemeteries, and no systems for burial or for the notification of families of the death of loved ones. Resulting reburial and pension systems would transform the Federal government in profound ways.

In Part I, Dying, we learn that death in antebellum America was viewed as a part of life. The importance of a “good death”, at home, surrounded by family and friends, with last words, was paramount. It was a very Christian view of the process of moving from one world to the next. This of course was directly opposed to death on a battlefield far from home and relatives, often alone, and often without the body ever being identified or even buried. In addition, there was little preparation for the care of casualties, which brought about the formation of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and the U. S. Christian Commission in the north. In the south, with its fewer resources, the prospect of dealing with the dead and wounded was even more overwhelming. Dying sets the stage for the remaining six parts, Burying, Naming, Honoring, Believing & Doubting, Accounting, and Remembering. In the end, it’s a tale of adaptability and the struggle to maintain some sense of humanity and normalcy in inhuman and abnormal circumstances. To achieve a good death in a bad death setting.

The film is ultimately not an uplifting piece, but for those who have not already read Faust’s book, or for those more visually inclined, it is informative and moving. The answers to some questions I’ve long pondered, such as why physicians were so quick to tell their patients that their condition was fatal, have been made more understandable to me.

Watch it.





Unknown, 4th Alabama, On the Battle

14 09 2012

Fourth Alabama Regiment at Manassas. – We have been favored with the perusal of a letter from a young gentleman engaged in the battle, to his brother in New Orleans, from which we have been permitted to take the following extracts, As they contain some facts which we have not previously seen published, we present them to our readers. The letter was written on the 23rd of July, from Culpeper Courthouse, whither the writer retired with some of his wounded relatives:

Our regiment, (the 4th Alabama,) not more than seven hundred strong, alone and unsupported, fought and kept in check for more than one hour, not less than ten thousand of the enemy’s forces. At least one-third of the regiment were killed and wounded in the battle. We held our position manfully, until about one thousand of the enemy, concealed in a patch of woods, flanked us on the right, and exposed us to double fire. Col. Jones was informed of this movement, but refused to retreat, because not commanded to do so from headquarters.

After stating that they were at last compelled to retire, the letter proceeds:

We had retreated some three or four hundred yards in great disorder and confusion, when in our rear to the right, we saw a regiment drawn up in column. They waved a Confederate flag over their heads, and we took them for friends. They acted very strangely, allowing us to pass them, and get upon a hill-side about one hundred and fifty yards distant. Here the regiment began to rally, and the companies to reform. All of a sudden, a perfect shower of bullets went through our lines. We fired back at them, and every man then took care of himself. The men were dispersed about in squads all over the field, and as they had no field officers left to rally them, joined whatever regiment they happened to meet with.

Some of our men afterwards distinguished themselves. One of them made a Yankee Colonel dismount from his horse, and march before him as a prisoner. He presented the horse to Gen. Beauregard, who had his horse shot under him during the action. In return, Gen. B. made him (a mere boy at that) captain over sixty prisoners. If the Yankees had been smart they could have taken our regiment every one prisoners. We were surrounded in the front, back and rear, and wonderful to say, we made the attack in the face of all the enemy. They were most exceedingly cautious, and I believe badly scared. Not more than forty of our men were left dead on the field, and something like 200 wounded, some mortally. The Yankees took our wounded left on the ground, dressed their wounds, gave them water, and placed them in the shade. They treated them very kindly in every respect. In the rest of the field, however, the tide of battle changed. On the left the Yankees had been attacked and repulsed in every quarter, and were rapidly giving way. Gen. Jackson arrived with reinforcements, and the rout of the enemy was completed. They drew off in such a hurry as to leave a great number of their sick and wounded on the field.

The 4th Alabama regiment suffered more than any other on the field. President Davis told us we should have a better chance next time. He complimented us by saying that we were chiefly instrumental in gaining the battle. He said we kept the whole left wing of the Northern army in check until Gen. Jackson arrived with his reinforcements. We lost all the field officers we had: General, colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major. Gen Bee has since died, and the rest are quite low. We secured all our wounded, the enemy not being able to take them off in their hot haste.

I was present from morning till night on the battle field, and saw the whole battle as it raged in different quarters. About 4 o’clock in the evening the firing ceased suddenly, and it would have made a departed saint laugh to see the enemy scampering away.

The letter further states that our wounded soldiers are taken into private families and are well taken care of.

New Orleans Times-Picayune, 8/4/1861

Clipping Image contributed by John Hennessy








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