Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,

And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,

And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hand of companions…


John Palmer carried the bullet that killed his son with him to the grave; Henry Bowditch habitually wore a watch fob fashioned from his fallen son’s uniform button; Mary Todd Lincoln dressed in mourning till she died; Walt Whitman believed the war had represented the “very centre, circumference, umbilicus” of his life; Ambrose Bierce felt haunted by “visions of the dead and dying” Jane Mitchell continued to hope for years after Appomattox that her missing son would finally come home; J. M. Taylor was still searching for details of his son’s death three decades after the end of the war; Henry Struble annually laid flowers on the grave that mistakenly bore his name. Civil War Americans lived the rest of their lives with grief and loss.1

More than 2 percent of the nation’s inhabitants were dead as a direct result of the war—the approximate equivalent of the population in 1860 of the state of Maine, more than the entire population of Arkansas or Connecticut, twice the population of Vermont, more than the whole male population of Georgia or Alabama. These soldiers had experienced what many Americans called “the great change,” the uncharted passage from life to death. No longer fathers or brothers or sons, they had become corpses and memories, in hundreds of thousands of cases without even identifiable graves.

But the fallen had solved the riddle of death, leaving to survivors the work of understanding and explaining what this great change had meant. And the living had been changed too, by what they had seen and done, what they had felt, and what they had lost. They were, like Bierce, “sentenced to life” and to making sense of how Civil War death had redefined what life might be. Sidney Lanier, Confederate poet who had fought in the bloody Seven Days Battles in 1862 and later suffered in a Union prison camp, commented in 1875 that for most of his “generation in the South since the War, pretty much the whole of life has been not-dying.”2

Managing Civil War death was made all the more difficult by the mystery that so often surrounded it. Nearly half the dead remained unknown, the fact of their deaths supposed but undocumented, the circumstances of their passage from life entirely unrecorded. Such losses remained in some sense unreal and thus “unrealized,” as the bereaved described them, recognizing the inhibition of mourning that such uncertainty imposed. The living searched in anxiety and even “phrensy” to provide endings for life narratives that stood incomplete, their meanings undefined.3

This crisis of knowledge and understanding extended well beyond the problem of the unidentified dead to challenge, in Melville’s words, “the very basis of things.” Individuals found themselves in a new and different moral universe, one in which unimaginable destruction had become daily experience. Where did God belong in such a world? How could a benevolent deity countenance such cruelty and such suffering? Doubt threatened to overpower faith—faith in the Christian narrative of a compassionate divinity and a hope of life beyond the grave, faith in the intelligibility and purpose of life on Earth. Language seemed powerless to explain, humans unable to comprehend what their deaths—and thus their lives—could mean.4

Man had been at once agent and victim of war’s destruction. Both as butcher and butchered, he had shown himself far closer to the beasts than to the angels. The vaunted human soul had seemed to count for little in the face of war’s fearsome physicality, its fundamental economy of bodies, of losses and casualties, of wounding and killing. Mutilated and nameless corpses challenged notions of the unity and integrity of the human selves they once housed, for by the tens of thousands these selves had fragmented and disappeared. Death without dignity, without decency, without identity imperiled the meaning of the life that preceded it. Americans had not just lost the dead; they had lost their own lives as they had understood them before the war. As Lucy Buck of Virginia observed, “We shall never any of us be the same as we have been.”5

The nation was a survivor, too, transformed by its encounter with death, obligated by the sacrifices of its dead. The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny, one designed to ensure that lives had been sacrificed for appropriately lofty ends. So much suffering had to have transcendent purpose, a “sacred significance,” as Frederick Douglass had insisted in the middle of the war. For him, such purpose was freedom, but this would prove an unrealized ideal in a nation unwilling to guarantee the equal citizenship on which true liberty must rest. Slavery had divided the nation, but assumptions of racial hierarchy would unite whites North and South in a century-long abandonment of the emancipationist legacy.6

Instead, the United States’ new and elevated destiny became bound up with the nation itself: its growing power, its wealth, its extent, its influence. Debates about nationalism had caused the war; national might had won the war; an expanded nation-state with new powers and duties emerged from war’s demands. And both the unity and responsibilities of this transformed nation were closely tied to its Civil War Dead.

The meaning of the war had come to inhere in its cost. The nation’s value and importance were both derived from and proved by the human price paid for its survival. This equation cast the nation in debt in ways that would be transformative, for executing its obligations to the dead and their mourners required a vast expansion of the federal budget and bureaucracy and a reconceptualization of the government’s role. National cemeteries, pensions, and records that preserved names and identities involved a dramatically new understanding of the relationship of the citizen and the state. Edmund Whitman had observed with pride after his years living among the dead that the reinterment program represented a national commitment to a “sentiment.” In acknowledging that decent burial and identifiable graves warranted such effort and expense, the United States affirmed its belief in values that extended beyond the merely material and instrumental. Soldiers were not, as Melville articulated and so many Americans feared, “operatives,” simply cogs in a machinery of increasingly industrialized warfare. Citizens were selves—bodies and names that lived beyond their own deaths, individuals who were the literal lifeblood of the nation.7

Without agendas, without politics, the Dead became what their survivors chose to make them. For a time they served as the repository of continuing hostility between North and South, but by the end of the century the Dead had become the vehicle for a unifying national project of memorialization. Civil War death and the Civil War Dead belonged to the whole nation. The Dead became the focus of an imagined national community for the reunited states, a constituency all could willingly serve—“the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all (all, all, all, finally dear to me),” Walt Whitman chanted.8

In 1898 President William McKinley announced to the South, in a much-heralded speech in Atlanta, that “the time has now come in the evolution of sentiment and feeling under the providence of God, when in the spirit of fraternity we should share with you in the care of the graves of the Confederate soldiers.” The sons and grandsons of “these heroic dead” had in the preceding year risked their lives in a new American war; the brave Confederates should be officially honored alongside their Union counterparts.9

To Frederick Douglass’s despair, the reasons for which men had died had been all but subsumed by the fact of their deaths. “Death has no power to change moral qualities,” he insisted in a Decoration Day speech in 1883. “Whatever else I may forget,” the aging abolitionist declared, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” But many even of those who had fought felt otherwise. “The brave respect the brave. The brave / Respect the dead,” Ambrose Bierce wrote in a poem chiding one “Who in a Memorial Day oration protested bitterly against decorating the graves of Confederate dead.”

Remember how the flood of years

Has rolled across the erring slain;

Remember, too, the cleansing rain

Of widows’ and of orphans’ tears.

The dead are dead—let that alone:

And though with equal hand we strew

The blooms on saint and sinner too,

Yet God will know to choose his own.

The wretch, whate’er his life and lot,

Who does not love the harmless dead

With all his heart and all his head—

May God forgive him, I shall not.10

And Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who had as a young soldier facing death so resolutely rejected the solace of Christianity, came to embrace war’s sacrifice as the one foundation for truth. His “Soldier’s Faith” speech, delivered on Memorial Day 1895, became emblematic of the elegiac view of the war that hailed death as an end in itself. “I do not know the meaning of the universe,” Holmes baldly declared. “But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds,” he had found one certainty: “that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” The very purposelessness of sacrifice created its purpose. In a world in which “commerce is the great power” and the “man of wealth” the great hero, the disinterestedness and selflessness of the soldier represented the highest ideal of a faith that depended on the actions not of God but of man. “War, when you are at it,” Holmes admitted, “is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine.” War may have shattered the young Holmes’s beliefs, but for the old man, war became the place where man’s confrontation with annihilation had made him “capable of miracle, able to lift himself by the might of his own soul.” Man’s ability to choose death became for both Holmes and Bierce the most important experience and memory of the war.11

We still live in the world of death the Civil War created. We take for granted the obligation of the state to account for the lives it claims in its service. The absence of next-of-kin notification, of graves registration procedures, of official provision for decent burial all seem to us unimaginable, even barbaric. The Civil War ended this neglect and established policies that led to today’s commitment to identify and return every soldier killed in the line of duty.

But even as the Civil War brought new humanity—new attentiveness to “sentiment”—in the management of death, so too it introduced a level of carnage that foreshadowed the wars of the century to come. Even as individuals and their fates assumed new significance, so those individuals threatened to disappear into the bureaucracy and mass slaughter of modern warfare. We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world. We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists. The Civil War generation glimpsed the fear that still defines us—the sense that death is the only end. We still work to live with the riddle that they—the Civil War dead and their survivors alike—had to solve so long ago.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!