The Civil War and Changing Views on Death

Arlington National Cemetery

While today the United States has very specific rituals concerning military personnel deaths, it was not long ago in US’s history that standards of burial did not even exist. This was clearly displayed in an interesting documentary by Ric Burns called “Death and the Civil War.” People projected that the war would be quite short with minimal casualties because of the dominance and organization of the North in relation to the South. However, this perception quickly changed as the war progressed and battles were leaving hundreds to thousands of dead strewn across the battlefield. The Battle of Shiloh left about 3,500 men dead in, a number that was once not even conceivable. Originally, it was the role of the military leaders to provide a decent burial and for the deceased, but they were simply not prepared to deal with the scope of the death.

During the time of the Civil War photography was gaining popularity. Consequently, these images of death were more accessible and palpable. This caused public outcry by citizens, who then began many volunteer commissions to help save and comfort the dying during the war. After the war even more commissions arose to identify the dead and give them proper burials whether they had been buried in a mass grave or simply left on the battlefield. It was expected that the government had a commitment to these soldiers who had died fighting for it. In 1867, the government began to fund, build, and protect cemeteries for the soldiers, spending 3 million dollars to do so. What was once the duty of the military leaders and volunteers had now become a government sanctioned policy.

This documentary definitively portrays the role and obligation of the living to the dead. Because of the volunteers who worked to give the soldiers dignity in death, today military personnel are held in high esteem in life and death. It is difficult imagine the amount of death people faced in the 1860’s during the civil war. With a much smaller population than today the effect of the deaths was much more detrimental to society. This is not to say that today’s war death tolls are not as significant to society, but rather that the death tolls have been substantially reduced. Society’s reaction to the unprecedented death of the Civil War caused a need to advance medical technology and governmental involvement.

Today there is a greater recognition for the men and women of the military who die in active duty. The institution of military cemeteries such as Arlington and numerous commemorative holidays such as Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day certainly exhibits this. The Civil War undoubtedly changed the US’s views on death and how it is dealt with especially on a large scale, as in the case of war.

To get more information or watch: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/death/

One response to “The Civil War and Changing Views on Death

  1. Perrinh Tritinass Savang

    You bring up a very interesting discussion regarding the responsibility of governments in burying dead soldiers. On the one hand, there are negative consequences when governments take it upon themselves to honor dead soldiers. As you mentioned, they must spend millions of dollars to build and protect cemeteries as well as to perform special burial rituals. In the Civil War, such costs totaled upwards to $3 million, but have mostly likely soared with the number of wars throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Additionally, such ritualistic deaths seem to elevate the soldier to the status of a mythic hero, which may or may not have accurately described his or her character. On the other hand, because governments send these soldiers to risk their lives, they become, in many ways, responsible for arranging some type of honorable funeral or memorial. Although I agree that it is necessary for governments to honor soldiers in some way—specifically because, in many cases, they conscribe young people to fight—spending large amounts of money, as they do now, may not be the most productive way to do so. I feel these rituals that elevate the status of soldiers in our society creates this idea that some deaths are more honorable than others or that specific occupations are somehow more deserving of national respect. I question whether governments should even have a say in how societies determine what are honorable and dishonorable deaths.

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