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.



7 responses

15 09 2012
Damian Shiels

I hope it makes it to European screens. I recently read Faust’s book, it is an excellent study.


15 09 2012
Tom & Claire Crabb

Remove me from your emails

Tommy Crabb 214 Oak Creek Drive Waxahachie, Texas 75165 972-978-8892


15 09 2012
Harry Smeltzer


I’m not sure that I can…I think you have to do it. Click on the sign me up button and see if there is an remove button.


17 09 2012
Chris Evans

Thanks for mentioning the documentary. Looking forward to watching it.



13 03 2013
Milann Daugherty

Harry, I watched this and thought it was excellent and very informative. I especially liked Part I and the discussion of a “good death” as you reviewed. I’m glad to see that you posted James Gates grave stone. That whole trip must have been a moving experience. I have also enjoyed reading in the current news about the ceremony for two men from the Monitor who were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Relatives from Maine and Calif. attended. What an amazing story.


13 03 2013
Harry Smeltzer

It was cool to visit his grave, though now I’m not so sure it IS his grave. It seems he has another one in Bedford County – the same cemetery where my great grandfather (James’s brother-in law) is buried, and it’s not in Roaring Spring. Confusing stuff.


13 03 2013
Milann Daugherty

It is confusing. I was surprised to read of the grave elsewhere when I had seen an article in the Bedford Gazette that listed where local Civle War veterans were buried. I thought at the time how interesting it was that he was in the same cemetery as James Cleaver. I wonder if there is a way to resolve the confusion.


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