“What Means this Carnage?”

“How does God have the heart to allow it?”


What is Death?” Reverend John Sweet asked “a large assemblage” of mourners dressed in “somber black” who had gathered at services for Edward Amos Adams of the 59th Massachusetts in July 1864. Adams had died ten days after being wounded at Petersburg, a victim in the series of bloody assaults that Grant had launched in the effort to dislodge Lee’s army from its position some twenty miles south of Richmond. Age twenty-four, a member of Billerica’s Baptist church, a seaman turned teacher, Adams took his place in a long line of losses suffered by his community and his state. “Once again,” Sweet observed, “we are in the house of mourning.” Another soldier killed; another family bereaved; another funeral observed: “There is not a household exempt from the universal lamentation which ascends from a grief stricken people.” More than three years into the conflict Sweet turned to what had become a central question, even preoccupation, for many Americans of both North and South. Where had all those young men gone? Friends and relatives who rushed to battlefields in the effort to locate their bodies undertook what was in some sense just the first step in the search for the missing. Even if their material remains could be retrieved and decently buried, the fate of the self and the soul, as well as the meaning of the departed life, remained unknown. Survivors like those gathered on a New England midsummer’s day in 1864 asked with new war-born urgency what happened when life on earth ceased.1

Americans on the eve of civil war found their traditional systems of belief both powerfully challenged and fervently reaffirmed. Although the United States had been established as a secular state by founders wary of religious influences upon government, religion defined the values and assumptions of most mid-nineteenth-century Americans. Nearly four times as many attended church every Sunday in 1860 as voted in that year’s critical presidential election. Overwhelmingly Christian and Protestant, Americans were also increasingly evangelical, committed to the hope of salvation, and eager to seize their own responsibility for any future beyond the grave. Calvinist notions of predestination that had characterized much of American Christianity in the colonial era had yielded to waves of nineteenth-century revivals, culminating in widespread religious enthusiasm in the 1850s. Historian Richard Carwardine has concluded that by midcentury “over 10 million Americans, or about 40 percent of the population, appear…to have been in close sympathy with evangelical Christianity. This was the largest, and most formidable, subculture in American society.” With its concerted attention to salvation, evangelicalism made the afterlife the focus of American religious belief and practice.2

Still, reflective Christians in this nineteenth-century age of progress faced troubling questions about the foundations of their faith. New historical and philological scholarship and new forms of textual criticism had raised doubts about the literal truth of the Bible. As southerners amassed evidence of scriptural support for slavery, antislavery northerners sought and found different meanings. These divisions in interpretation marked more than just sectional disagreement; they represented a new uncertainty about the undisputed and indisputable power of the Bible itself, an unsettling contingency that struck at the very bases of conviction.

Even more disturbing than issues of biblical interpretation were the questions that science posed for religious belief. Geological discoveries about the vast age of the Earth discredited scriptural accounts of creation, suggesting a much diminished and distanced role for any divine creator. Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, published in the early 1830s, challenged the veracity of Genesis by demonstrating that the Earth was millions of years old, not the six or seven thousand postulated by Scripture. Darwin’s theories of evolution, shared and discussed in preliminary form with American scientists well before the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, further challenged biblical literalism and replaced notions of divine teleology and benevolence with the heartless mechanisms of natural selection.3

Nevertheless, traditional religious arguments from design, which understood God to be the prime mover behind all scientific processes, rationalized persisting faith in a divine presence; most Americans continued to regard science and religion as in alliance rather than in conflict well into the late nineteenth century. But this reconciliation required intellectual effort and left its adherents with a universe in which the place of both humans and God had changed. The possibility and plausibility of scientific explanation strengthened the claims of the rational and worldly against the force of the transcendent. Humans had been moved into the realm of animals, and God threatened a distressing indifference to the fall of every sparrow.4

Rather than emphasizing the compatibility of new discoveries with older beliefs, some Americans sought to fuel skepticism about revealed religion. The intellectual ferment of New England Transcendentalism challenged many accepted religious truths. As early as the 1830s Ralph Waldo Emerson announced in a lecture at Harvard Divinity School that he no longer believed in the divinity of Christ. “I regard it as the irresistible effect of the Copernican astronomy to have made the theological scheme of Redemptionabsolutely incredible.” Freethinkers like Robert Owen and Fanny Wright argued for a materialism that reduced human consciousness to nothing more than brain function, a position reinforced by widely hailed, if still controversial, neurological discoveries about cerebral localization. Phrenology, the belief that character and personality could be derived from the shape and contours of the head, brought these ideas to a wide popular audience. Poet James Russell Lowell described how this growing materialism had begun to define the age:

This nineteenth century with its knife and glass

That make thought physical.

Uncertainty about the relationship of biology and consciousness, of body and soul, troubled even the most devout, who speculated about the definition of the human spirit and the justification for belief in immortality.5

Into this environment of cultural ferment, the Civil War introduced mass death. For an increasingly humanitarian age, such suffering could not help but raise disturbing questions about God’s benevolence and agency. But this was more than an abstract intellectual issue for the hundreds of thousands of Americans bereaved by the war. Loss demanded an explanation that satisfied hearts as well as minds.

Religion remained the most readily available explanatory resource, even as it was challenged by rapid cultural and intellectual change. Reverend John Sweet’s all-too-timely query, “What is Death?” had long served as a foundation and central concern of Christian doctrine. Sweet’s answer, “It is the middle point between two lives,” reveals much of the substance and the solace of belief. In the face of war’s slaughter, mid-nineteenth-century religion promised that there need be no death. Only a willful failure to believe could bring humans to the dread “second death” that cast them into hell. “Turn ye! Turn ye! for why will ye die?” a chaplain’s powerful sermon demanded of Confederate soldiers; “Why Will You Die?” a widely distributed Confederate tract reiterated. Death was a matter of choice and could be consciously rejected in favor of immortality. Soldiers need not be victims; even if their earthly destiny was beyond their control, they remained the masters of their more important eternal fate.6

Such convictions, as we have seen in the ritual of the Good Death, made both dying and mourning easier. Some historians have argued that, in fact, only the widespread existence of such beliefs made acceptance of the Civil War death tolls possible, and that religion thus in some sense enabled the slaughter. Confidence in immortality could encourage soldiers to risk annihilation. Civil War Americans themselves would not have questioned what one Confederate chaplain called the “military power of religion.” It is hard to imagine today a letter like the one a northern nurse sent from the front to a friend in 1864: “I should hardly think it worthwhile,” she remarked, “for Rebecca to grieve much for a dead person for she certainly will soon be with them in heaven.” Firm conviction could yield confidence that bordered on heartlessness and, in some cases, behavior that approached recklessness. But the long tradition of Christian soldiery would have cast religion’s contributions to war more positively, emphasizing faith as a fundamental motivation to religious and patriotic duty. Evangelical tracts and preachers, for example, repeatedly invoked the word “efficiency” in their communications to the troops. The Christian soldier, these preachers and exhorters explained, would be an efficient soldier because he would execute his obligations “conscientiously” and would not be afraid to die.7

Thomas B. Hampton of southwest Virginia became an exemplar of such a man, filling his letters to his wife, Jestin, with professions of his steadily growing religious faith as his regiment passed through the trials of Chickamauga, Resaca, and Atlanta. When the Confederate army was convulsed by religious revivals from the fall of 1862 onward, Hampton increasingly looked toward refuge in a “heaven where wars & rumors of wars are no more.” His company, he reported, held prayer meetings “nearly every night…a beautiful and sublime sight.” War, he found, was weaning him “from the things of this world.” His anticipations of death as relief from the horrors of battle focused his mind on what preachers like John Sweet offered as a second life beyond the grave: “although I may fall by the sword or by the missiles of the enemy I will fear no evil for I verily believe that my sole will be loosed from this prision of mortality to traverse the regions of the celestial skies of Glory I may fall by some of the monsters Disease of camp but still I will put my trust in the Lord for he knoweth all things and doth all things aright.”8

For hundreds of thousands of soldiers, some believers before their enlistment but many converted by revivals that swept armies of both North and South, death became a fixation. But often it was not so much as a fear but as a promise—of relief, of salvation from war and suffering, and of an escape into a better world. “I rather believe,” Thomas Hampton wrote, “if my friends knew the hardships that is incumbent on a soldier that they would scarsely begrudge a withdrawal from this Tabernacle of Mortality to that of Immortal Glory for which I often long to see.” Death offered these devout men a “change” but not an ending; the celestial skies of Glory became more alluring than the bloody fields of Georgia or Virginia. Spared the direct experience of combat, civilians were less likely to acknowledge death’s attractions, but they too found in religious doctrine the means to diminish its horror and to manage the losses war inflicted upon them. As Hampton’s wife explained, “I suffer all the time about you. Not half So much as I should if I knew you were not prepared. That is the greatest comfort of all believing if you fall by the hand of the enemy or disease you will rest in heaven…if it was not for the great hope I have I never could bear up under the present distress.”9

Thomas Hampton survived until the very last month of the war, when he was mortally wounded near Bentonville, North Carolina. His obituary reported that he died “in the full triumphs of faith.” Hampton sent word to Jestin “not to greave for him for he was going to be far better off than…in this troublesome world.” He would see her again in “Bright mansions above.”10

There has been much discussion in our own time of the denial of death, of the refusal of contemporary American culture to confront or discuss it. In widely read books and essays published in the 1970s and early 1980s, historian Philippe Ariès accused Western Europe and the United States of making death “invisible.” Modern dying, he argued, had been medicalized; mourning was regarded as “indecent.” Death had become as unmentionable as pornography.11 In the Civil War death was hardly hidden, but it was nevertheless, seemingly paradoxically, denied—not through silence and invisibility but through an active and concerted work of reconceptualization that rendered it a cultural preoccupation. Redefined as eternal life, death was celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century America. But its centrality, in popular culture as well as religious discourse, suggested that great effort was required to control and repudiate its terrors. Songs, poems, and stories struggled to answer the same question Reverend Sweet had posed to his afflicted congregation. “My God! What is all this For?” the title on one songsheet demanded:

“Oh great god! What means this carnage,

Why this fratricidal strife,

Brethren made in your own image

Seeking for each other’s life?”

Thus spoke a dying Federal soldier,

Amid the clash of arms he cried;

With hope he fixed his eyes on heaven,

Then bid adieu to earth—and died.12

These verses left their own question unanswered, with heaven only a hope, but other songs promised that an afterlife would “turn our mourning into joy” and assured, “Mother, I die happy,” for “I see the angels coming, / With bright garlands for my brow.” To a chorus that asked, “Shall we know each other, shall we know each other, shall we know each other there?” a ballad published in New York confirmed that “Ye shall join the loved and lost ones / In the land of perfect day…‘We shall know each other there.’”13

Heaven would re-create earthly ties in a realm of perfection and joy. Death as termination of life simply did not exist. A July 1863 poem in a popular Philadelphia magazine decisively erased death, even as more than six thousand soldiers were expiring in a Pennsylvania town little more than a hundred miles away.

There is no Death! The stars go down

To rise upon some fairer shore;

And bright in heaven’s jeweled crown

They shine forevermore.


And ever near us, though unseen,

The dear, immortal spirits tread;

For all the boundless Universe

Is Life— There are no Dead.14

The prominence of heaven in the discourse about Civil War death derived in part from the attractive place it had gradually become during the preceding century. The publication of Emanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell in 1758 marked the origins of an important movement away from a conception of heaven as forbiddingly ascetic, distant from earth and its materiality, and highly theocentric. Instead, a more modern notion of heaven began to emerge as a realm hardly separate or different—except in its perfection—from Earth itself. “Man after death,” wrote Swedenborg, “is as much man as he was before, so much so as to be unaware that he is not still in the former world…Death is only a crossing.” At the same time, hell became less and less a subject for worry or dread.15

Swedenborgianism as an organized denomination never came to hold more than a marginal place within American religious life. But Swedenborg’s ideas attracted widespread attention in the United States, and Americans from Johnny Appleseed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher and Henry James Sr. cited its influences. “This age is Swedenborg’s,” Emerson proclaimed in 1858. Swedenborgian thought made a significant mark upon Transcendentalism and encouraged tendencies toward a softening view of heaven across American religious denominations. As historian James H. Moorhead has demonstrated, the second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a muting of the “negative images traditionally associated with life’s end.” A new eschatology that influenced nearly all of Protestant thought “sought to narrow the distance between this world and the next, even to annex heaven as a more glorious suburb of the present life.”16

But this transition remained incomplete as the Civil War opened. Emily Dickinson was not alone in the concerns she voiced about the forbidding nature of the afterlife in her wartime poetry and letters: “Heaven is so cold!” “I don’t like Paradise—Because it’s Sunday—all the time.” The transformation of heaven intensified as war made questions about immortality more immediate and more widely shared. Historians Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang have noted that more than fifty books on heaven were published in the United States between 1830 and 1875, but this total does not include fictional works, or the dozens of Civil War funeral sermons appearing as printed pamphlets that made heaven a central theme, or the many periodical and newspaper articles with titles like “Heaven, the House of God” (which appeared in the columns of the Daily South Carolinian in 1864), or popular poetry that addressed the nature of the afterlife in rhyme (like “Hereafter” or “Up to the Hills,” from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine). In 1863Harper’s Weekly announced a second edition of William Branks’s Heaven Our Home as a promising “New Source of Consolation” and reported it to be “having a large sale.” It was one of three titles Branks produced about heaven during these years. Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan counts nearly a hundred books on heaven in the decade after the war alone. The geography and society of the afterlife persisted as widespread concerns, for even when the slaughter had ceased, loss and grief remained.17

An issue of particular focus in this literature, and in the struggle to come to terms with death, was the fate of human relationships in the afterlife. If death was no longer to be an ending, it would also no longer be a parting. Earlier visions of heaven had focused almost exclusively on the connection between God and man within the heavenly kingdom, even to the point of denying the persistence of earthly ties of family and friendship. But Swedenborg and thinkers influenced by his views created the foundation for what now came to seem a necessary component of an adequately consoling portrait of paradise.

Presbyterian Robert Patterson acknowledged in his Visions of Heaven for the Life on Earth, published a decade after the war, that earlier conceptions of heaven that had excluded the continuation of love and friendship were “very chilling.” The era of Victorian domesticity could not tolerate the obliteration of these cherished ties of home and family. The widespread assumption among Civil War Americans that they would one day be reunited with lost kin was fundamental to the solace of religious faith. When Harper’s Weekly published its notice of the best-selling Heaven Our Home,the aspect of the book it found most worthy of comment was that its author supported “the comforting belief of the recognition of friends in Heaven, which to him is a home, with a great, and happy and loving family in it.” Seven of the book’s chapters were specifically devoted to “Recognition of Friends in Heaven.” If soldiers needed to be assured they would not really die, survivors yearned to know their loved ones were not—even if they were missing or unknown—forever lost. “They will not leave us long,” one South Carolina woman affirmed. They were “only gone before.” Jews as well as Christians invoked these consolations. Rebecca Gratz comforted her brother Ben about his son’s death in 1861 by reassuring him “they shall be reunited in another world.” The Civil War made urgent the transformation of heaven into an eternal family reunion, encouraging notions of an afterlife that was familiar and close at hand, populated by loved ones who were just “beyond the veil.”18

Many bereaved Americans, however, were unwilling to wait until their own deaths reunited them with lost kin, and they turned eagerly to the more immediate promises of spiritualism. A series of spirit rappings in upstate New York in the late 1840s had intensified spreading interest in the apparent reality of communication between the living and the dead. To an age increasingly caught up in the notion of science as the measure of truth, spiritualism offered belief that seemed to rely on empirical evidence rather than revelation and faith. If the dead could cause tables to rise, telegraph messages from the world beyond, and even communicate in lengthy statements through spirit mediums, an afterlife clearly must exist. Here was, in the words of one popular spiritualist advocate, “proof palpable of immortality.”19

Men and women began to participate in regular spirit circles in hopes of communicating with the dead. By 1853 one spiritualist estimated that thirty such groups met regularly in the city of Philadelphia alone, and that thirty thousand mediums were operating across the country. The Spiritualist Register reported that just before the outbreak of war 240,000 inhabitants of New York State—6 percent of its total population—were spiritualists. Strongest in the Northeast, where it often attracted abolitionists, feminists, and adherents of other radical social movements, spiritualism had its southern disciples as well, an estimated 20,000 in Louisiana, for example, and 10,000 in Tennessee. In the mid-1850s South Carolina planter and politician James Henry Hammond and author William Gilmore Simms, both vigorous proslavery advocates, explored spiritualism as an alternative to what they regarded as the unconvincing tenets of revealed religion. Simms believed he had successfully communicated with his dead children, and Hammond developed a series of questions for the dead that Simms posed to a medium on a visit to New York.20

By the time war broke out, spiritualist notions were sufficiently common to influence and engage even those who were not formal adherents, and the war made spiritualist doctrines increasingly attractive. Mary Todd Lincoln sought regularly to communicate with her dead son Willie. She sponsored a number of séances at the White House, some of which the president himself was said to have attended. Henry Bowditch was no spiritualist but found deep comfort after Nathaniel’s death in the explicitly spiritualist outlook of the author of the poem “My Child.” John Pierpont, fellow New Englander and fellow abolitionist, offered Bowditch

The promise That in the spirit-land,

Meeting at thy right hand,

’Twill be our heaven to find that—he is there!

Bowditch’s struggle to grapple with—to “realize”—the loss of his son was made considerably easier by Pierpont’s assurance that he was only invisible, that he lived on in another, only temporarily inaccessible world. Swedenborg’s comforting ideas about heaven were central to spiritualist ideology and spiritualism’s appeal, and such sentiments played a prominent place in Nathaniel’s funeral sermon as well, which assured mourners that “he is just the other side of the thin veil…He stands there, waiting till you come.”21

In New Orleans an officer of the Native Guard led an active spiritualist circle called the Grandjean Séance. Within weeks of André Cailloux’s death, the group made contact with their departed hero. “They thought they had killed me but they made me live,” Cailloux reported from the afterlife. “It will be I who receive you into our world if you die in the struggle, so fight!” He consoled his black comrades that “there must be victims to serve as stepping stones on the path to liberty.”22

Extensive marketing of the planchette, precursor of the Ouija board, during the 1860s, and especially in the years immediately following the war, offered everyone the opportunity to be a medium and turned spiritualist exploration into a parlor game. A heart-shaped piece of wood on three legs, the planchette was believed to move in response to spiritual forces passing through the hands that rested upon it. The device, often equipped with a pencil, could point to letters of the alphabet or actually write out messages from the dead. In the North planchettes were available in a variety of woods and decorative styles; they transformed spiritual communication into a fashionable and “novel amusement.”23

Spiritualists held their first national convention in Chicago in 1864, marking a growing prominence and self-consciousness that extended well beyond the realm of popular amusement. “Virtually everyone,” historian R. Laurence Moore has observed, “conceded that spirit communication was at least a possibility.” Amid a war that was erasing not only lives but identities, the promise, as one spiritualist spokesman wrote, of the “imperishability of the individual and the continuation of the identical Ego” after death was for many irresistible. “And you will never lose your identity,” John Edmonds and George T. Dexter assured readers of Spiritualism, first published in 1853 and then reprinted throughout the rest of the century. “Physical death does not affect the identity of the individual.”24

Spiritualism responded to a question of pressing importance to the soldier and his kin. As an 1861 article in the spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light posed it, “he desires to know what will become of himself after he has lost his body. Shall he continue to exist?—and, if so, in what condition?” Each issue of the paper provided a chorus of answers, a “Message Department” of “Voices from the Dead” transmitted through “Mrs. J. H. Conant, while in a condition called the Trance.” Confederates and Yankees alike chimed in; soldiers of all ranks and origins reported that they had died well, that they had met relatives in heaven, and that, as one voice declared, “death has taken nothing from me, except my body.” Stonewall Jackson weighed in to defend his actions (“I adopted the course I took because I felt it was right for me to”), and Willie Lincoln sent regular communications.25

Philip Gregg, a Confederate killed three months before his appearance in print in April 1862, observed that “the emotions of the returning soldier, who has yielded up his life upon the battle-field, can be scarcely imagined.” Those who indeed found the notion of posthumous emotions too much to imagine were presented with his vivid description, although Gregg cut the rendering of his feelings short, concluding, “What I would say to my family the world has no right to hear.”26

Many messages contained the kind of information found in condolence letters written to inform relatives about the deaths of kin in hospital or battle: affirmations of a Good Death and of the principles of the ars moriendi. Whether or not Mrs. Conant was able to communicate with the dead, she certainly channeled the concerns of the living. Lieutenant Gilbert Thompson asked “as a favor of you to-day, that you will inform my father, Nathaniel Thompson of Montgomery, Alabama, if possible, of my decease. Tell him I died…eight days ago, happy and resigned.” Leander Bolton wanted to “give my mother a little sketch of the manner of my death.” Charlie Hiland reported, “I lost my life in your Bull Run affair, and the folks want to know how I died and what became of me after death…I should like to inform them.” Families were promised relief from that “dread void of uncertainty” about both the earthly and spiritual fate of their sons and brothers.27

Caleb Wilkins, private of the 11th Indiana, described from his own experience how bodies persist into the afterlife. At the same time he offered an explanation of a puzzle that had tormented thousands of wounded men: why amputated limbs so often continued to hurt. “I can understand some things now that I couldn’t before death,” he confirmed. Wilkins reported that his leg had been amputated and that several days later he had bled to death. (“The surgeons did n’t tie the arteries well.”) When Caleb met his brother in heaven and took a look at himself, he declared, “that aint my body…I lost a leg, and this body is perfect.”28

His brother, already practiced in death, explained that Caleb was looking at his spiritual body. His “spirit foot and leg” were perfect, and the pain he had felt after his amputation in his absent foot had been a consequence of the separation of his material from his spiritual appendages. “The sudden severing of the mortal from the spirit leg caused pain, which lasted some minutes after the material leg had been amputated.” His amputation had been a kind of pre-death, a forerunner of the disjunction of material body and spirit yet to come. Wilkins and his brother helpfully provided readers with an explanation of the relationship of body and soul, as well as the assurance that no man, and indeed not even any leg, was truly lost.29

There is no Caleb Wilkins of Indiana, or Gilbert Thompson of Alabama, or Leander Bolton of Pennsylvania in the database of 6.3 million records of 3.5 million soldiers that the National Park Service has compiled with the assistance of the tools of our computerized age. The Banner of Light did not present the story of any reader’s actual kin; it did not provide accurate details of deaths and burials, the kind of information families sought as they flocked to battlefields or inundated the Sanitary Commission’s Hospital Directory with tens of thousands of anxious inquiries. The consolation of spiritualism lay in its promise that there could and would be answers to these questions, even if it did not itself immediately provide them. There would be an ending to uncertainty—perhaps through contact with the spirit world but certainly through reunion in the world beyond. The unfinished narratives of so many lives would ultimately have a conclusion.30

The Message Department of the Banner of Light, which continued to carry communications from dead soldiers for more than a decade after the war, affirmed for its community of readers that individual soldiers were neither dead nor lost. They were still their definable and particular selves—still, as they described themselves, eighteen-or twenty-two-or twenty-four-year-olds, still men of six feet or five foot six or five foot eight inches tall, still northerners or southerners, still black or white, each still possessing his own identity and name. And they were struggling to reach out to those they had left behind in order to console them with the reassurance at spiritualism’s core: “I Still Live.”

Tellingly, Reverend John Sweet had used this very same phrase to explain death’s meaning to the Baptist congregation mourning Edward Amos Adams. Adams was not sending spiritualist messages from the world beyond, and Sweet, a devout Baptist pastor, was no medium. But Sweet still designated Adams as one of the “speaking dead,” a man whose life and death in themselves—“a life and character that still moves and acts among us”—represented certain immortality. “They whom we call dead have voices for us” and “speak to us by the lives which they have lived.” Like the spiritualist dead, Sweet affirmed, Edward Amos Adams too “still lives.” Mainstream denominations shared many of spiritualism’s consoling tenets and its promise that the dead remained, in important ways, still with them.31

The reassurances of spiritualism reached their broadest audience through popular fiction. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling book of the nineteenth century was Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Gates Ajar. If Stowe’s novel, as Lincoln reportedly remarked to its author, helped to cause the war, Phelps’s work dealt with the war’s consequences. Within twenty years of its 1868 publication, The Gates Ajar had been reprinted fifty-five times. Enterprising marketers even devised Gates Ajar funeral wreaths, cigars, and patent medicines.

Phelps began to write the book in 1864, when she was just twenty years old, at a time, she said, when the “country was dark with sorrowing women.” A soldier with whom she was in love had been killed at Antietam, but she recognized that her own personal grief was simply part of an inescapable “material miasma” of loss and pain. Phelps wrote in order to “say something that would comfort some few…of the women whose misery crowded the land.” Looking back thirty years later, Phelps remembered that she had not “thought so much about the suffering of men—the fathers, the brother, the sons.” The mourners she sought to console were the women, “the helpless, outnumbering, unconsulted women; they whom war trampled down, without a choice or protest.” Men had fought and died, but now they were beyond help. It was the victimization and sacrifice of the women who continued to suffer that attracted her concern. After her book appeared, these women wrote her by the thousands. “For many years,” Phelps reported, “I was snowed under by those mourners’ letters…signs of human misery and hope.”32

The Gates Ajar is structured as the journal of Mary Cabot, a young woman who has just learned that her brother Roy has been “shot dead.” Unable to reconcile herself to his loss or resign herself to God’s will, she is near despair when her aunt Winifred arrives for an unexpected visit. A widow with a young child, fittingly named Faith, Winifred offers Mary a new understanding of heaven, together with the assurance that she will be reunited with Roy, “not only to look at standing up among the singers,” as an angel with a harp, but “close to me; somehow or other to be as near as—to be nearer than—he was here—really mine again.”33

Mary’s pastor has provided her only an unsatisfactory vision of a place dedicated to “harping and praying” and to endless glorifying of God, a place that would “crowd out all individuality and human joy,” a place beyond any special personal human attachments. “He gave me glittering generalities, cold commonplace, vagueness, unreality, a God and a future at which I sat and shivered.” Mary is clear-sighted about what she needs to believe. “I wanted something actual, something pleasant, about this place into which Roy has gone.”34

Winifred readily offers it. Harps, choirs, white robes, pearl gates, she explains, are all just symbols, not the reality of heaven at all. Instead the future life is very like Earth at its most ideal, with trees and mountains, with houses filled with books, pianos, and pictures, and with individuals preserved as themselves, looking as they did in life, maintaining their own bodies and identities. Roy is, Winifred assures Mary, “only, out of sight…not lost, nor asleep, nor annihilated,” but continuing to love those from whom he has departed.35

Phelps, speaking through Winifred, stumbles a bit on the question of the body and its fate after death. “A little complication there!” Winifred admits. Deferring to the realities of science, she acknowledges that “popular notions of resurrection are simply physiological impossibilities,” and she cites as an example the problem of the material destiny of “two Hottentots, one of whom has happened to make a dinner of the other one fine day.” But without resolving these intractable complexities, which were all too relevant in a war in which amputation was so widespread, Phelps simply affirms that a real body that can be heard and touched and kissed will be preserved. To try to “speculate” exactly how, she concludes, is “a waste of time.”36

The authority on which Winifred and Phelps rest their claims for the afterlife is not that of Scripture or science but of distress and desire. What humans most need is what a benevolent God would want to provide for them. Most important in Phelps’s vision of the future is the continuation of the self, of an identity that is defined by a body and by a set of relationships that seem to include both people and domestic objects. These are the essence of what the heaven of The Gates Ajar promises to restore to the bereaved. Heaven is reconceived as a more perfect Earth: Victorian family and domesticity are immortalized, and death all but disappears.

But many bereaved sufferers could not duplicate Mary Cabot’s escape from despair to certainty. The “rebellious state of mind” in which Mary found herself at the outset of the novel, the firm declaration “I am not resigned,” echoed the diaries and letters of real-life mourners who found themselves unable to understand why a benevolent God would afflict them—and indeed the world—with such suffering. As Confederate poet and novelist Sidney Lanier wondered, “How does God have the heart to allow it?” The venerable problem of theodicy—of how and why God permits evil—presented itself forcefully to those witnessing the devastation of civil war. One solution to the dilemma was to discount or dismiss evil, and that indeed was the strategy of those who denied death’s horrors and focused on the attractions of a highly Earth-like heaven. If death was to be not dreaded but welcomed, it need not challenge God’s fundamental goodness.37

But many were unable to console themselves with a vision of heaven that transcended war’s afflictions, and they instead confronted doubts about the very foundations of their faith. In the Confederacy, where one in five white men of military age would die in the war, mounting death tolls brought widespread and all but unbearable suffering. Catherine Edmondston of North Carolina understood the meaning of the summer of Gettysburg and Vicksburg firsthand, when in September 1863 she called at the houses of eight neighbors and found each one in mourning for a lost husband, brother, or son. Accepting such loss began to seem impossible, especially to women for whom the imperatives of family conventionally took precedence over those of politics. It was increasingly hard to simply murmur, “God’s will be done.” Susan Caldwell of Warrenton, Virginia, a town located at the very seat of war, anguished over the “loss of our brave and gallant men” on the battlefields all around her and found herself unable “to gain power over my own rebellious heart…Oh! how hard to be submissive.” War-weary Americans invoked the trials and patience of Job, reminded themselves that the Lord “doeth all things well,” and dutifully and almost ritually affirmed, “Thou he slay me, yet I will trust in him.” But like Susan Caldwell, many feared they could not “stand a great deal more.”38

For some, consolation derived not just from assurances of a close and comfortable heaven but also from visions of transformations on Earth. Death would be not just easy but purposeful. Southerners and northerners alike elaborated narratives of patriotic sacrifice that imbued war deaths with transcendent meaning. Soldiers suffered and died so that a nation—be it the Union or the Confederacy—might live; Christian and nationalist imperatives merged in a redemptive vision of political immortality.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is perhaps the best-known example of such an explanation and justification of war’s carnage. Determined that “these dead shall not have died in vain,” Lincoln hallowed and sacralized a nation and its purposes with biblical cadences—even as he scarcely mentioned God. In the address the dead themselves become the agents of political meaning and devotion; they act even in their silence and anonymity. Lincoln immortalized them as the enduring inspiration for an immortal nation. Unlike the “honored dead,” the Union would not “perish from the earth.” Soldiers’ deaths, like Christ’s sacrifice, become the vehicle of salvation, the means for a terrestrial, political redemption.39

Lincoln’s providential view of the war and its carnage appeared with perhaps even greater force a year and a half later, as both the conflict and his life neared conclusion. In the Second Inaugural of March 1865 Lincoln again offered an explanation for wartime slaughter, but this time it was God, not man, who gave it meaning. An Old Testament God of justice is avenging the sins of slavery. The Civil War and its deaths are not so much sacrifice as atonement. “Yet if God wills that it continue until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”40

Providential views of the war had abounded from the earliest days of the conflict, when North and South competed to claim God for their side. The Confederacy, as one southern clergyman declared, would be the “nation to do His work upon earth.” Deo Vindice,with God as vindicator, the official Confederate seal proclaimed. But only as the enormous cost in lives became clear did it seem imperative explicitly to link providentialist notions to war’s losses, to impart to these deaths both transcendence and meaning. As Georgia bishop Stephen Elliott explained this necessity in an 1864 sermon, “To shed such blood, as we have spilled in this contest for the mere name of independence, for the vanity or the pride of having a separate national existence, would be unjustifiable before God and man. We must have higher aims than these.” War’s dead and war’s cost were changing and amplifying the understanding of its ends.41

But as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, delivered on the eve of victory, insisted, God “has his own purposes” and makes his own judgments. He, and neither Yankees nor Confederates, would define the reach of his providence. Both sides in the terrible conflict “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered.” Northern success and southern defeat necessarily altered providential explanations of war and its carnage. Northerners were reinforced in their conviction that lives had not been lost in vain and were encouraged in their sense of national mission; Confederates confronted what for many became a profound test of faith.42

A little more than three months after Appomattox, northern clergyman and theologian Horace Bushnell celebrated northern victory by placing the dead and their sacrifice at the center of war’s accomplishment. The slain, he declared, were “the price and purchase-money of our triumph.” You get what you pay for, his oration implied; only war’s cost had ensured its transformative impact. Bleeding, he asserted, was necessary to God’s expansive—and expensive—purposes for America, and “in this blood our unity is cemented and forever sanctified.” The Christian narrative of redemption through suffering and sacrifice framed Bushnell’s rendering of the war and its meaning. Death was not loss, but both the instrument and the substance of victory.43

Early in the conflict, on the Sunday after the Union defeat at First Bull Run in 1861, Bushnell had delivered a sermon entitled “Reverses Needed,” calling for the nation’s resolve and devotion to be tested. Four years later he could affirm that America had passed its trial. The war’s suffering had guaranteed that “we are not the same people that we were, and never can be again.” A new understanding of nationhood as the incarnation of God’s design had been purchased by “our acres of dead.” Because, like Christianity, history “must feed itself on blood,” the United States now “may be said to have gotten a history.” The nation was “no more a mere creature of our human will, but a grandly moral affair.” Its purposes were now God’s purposes. “Hallowed” by “rivers of blood,” the United States claimed its place as the redeemer nation. “Government is now become Providential.” The “mournful offering” of war’s deaths had “bought a really stupendous chapter of history.” And the blood that had been shed to achieve God’s design of freedom, emancipation, and inspired nationhood, he explicitly recognized, was black as well as white, sacrificed at Fort Pillow and Fort Wagner as well as at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Shiloh.44

Bushnell closed his oration by invoking a manifest destiny of national expansion, impelled in no small part by the need to compensate for war’s cost. There was a need, Bushnell emphasized, “to wind up and settle this great tragedy in a way to exactly justify every drop of blood that has been shed in it.” Like Confederate bishop Stephen Elliott, he too sought still “higher aims” to balance the flow of “such blood.” War’s destructiveness called for broadened purposes. “Ours be it also, in God’s own time,” he concluded, “to champion…the right of this whole continent to be an American world, and to have its own American laws, liberties, and institutions.”45

Bushnell spoke as a victor. One also suspects that he could talk so enthusiastically about blood because he had spent the war in Connecticut, distant from the battlefields “black with dead” that he described. But Providence had favored him, and he could thus claim its purposes as his own. His dead, the northern dead, could be explained as part of a larger purpose and grander plan. But for the defeated South, war’s terrible losses could only seem meaningless.46

As Confederate fortunes faltered, some white southerners “plainly indicated,” one woman reported, “that if our cause failed, they would lose all faith in a prayer answering God.” Confederate poet Henry Timrod had in fact suggested in “Ethnogenesis,” his 1861 celebration of the southern nation’s birth, that “to doubt the end were want of trust in God.” What then did it mean actually to see the end and to face defeat? What then of God’s trustworthiness? Surrender made war’s sacrifices seem purposeless; losses would remain unredeemed; southern fathers, brothers, and sons had not died that a nation might live.47

Even the most devout struggled to reconcile themselves to defeat and to find meaning for the slaughter. The Presbytery of South Carolina observed in the fall of 1865 that “the faith of many a Christian is shaken by the mysterious and unlooked-for course of divine Providence.” Baptist leader Samuel Ford recognized that “‘Where is God’ seemed to be the anxious questioning of each heart…Is there a God? many many asked.” Virginian Mary Lee felt herself “like a ship without a pilot or compass.” She could see no God at the helm.48

Some believers, like the Presbyterian editor John Adger, reminded their fellow southerners, as clergy had indeed reiterated throughout the trials of four years of war, that God chastened those he loved. Defeat was simply another burden to be borne with the unwavering patience that Job had exhibited in the face of divine affliction. “Yes! The hand of God, gracious though heavy, is upon the South for her discipline.” In Richmond, Reverend Moses Drury Hoge confessed that defeat “enwraps me like a pall.” But he determined not to “murmur” at God and instead would “await the development of his providence.”49

Many felt they had endured enough. After Appomattox Grace Elmore of South Carolina wrote in despair, “I know not how to bear it. I cannot be resigned.” She acknowledged that “hard thoughts against my God will arise.” She had lost two cousins to the war, had dealt with Yankee invaders in her own house, and had lived through the burning of Columbia with “flames before, behind and around us.” She struggled to fit her experience into Christian narratives of suffering and redemption, but with the resurrection of the Confederate state all but impossible, she saw little hope of salvation. “Night and day in every moment of quiet,” she wrote, “I am trying to work out the meaning of this horrible fact, to find truth at the bottom of this impenetrable darkness…Has God forsaken us?” Widowed, homeless, and destitute, Cornelia McDonald of Virginia shared Elmore’s feelings of abandonment. She described lying immobile on a sofa through “dreadful hours of unbelief and hopelessness.” But gradually memories of God’s mercies crept over her, and she resolved once again to trust in him despite her afflictions.50

Like McDonald, most former Confederates would suppress their doubts and return to religious belief and observance. Churches grew dramatically in the South in the years after the Civil War, setting the stage for the region’s emergence as the Bible Belt in the twentieth century. But many white southerners remained bewildered, as Mary Lee put it, by God’s mysterious ways in subjecting them to the anguishing losses of war. The cult of the Lost Cause and the celebration of Confederate memory that emerged in the ensuing decades were in no small part an effort to affirm that the hundreds of thousands of young southern lives had not, in fact, been given in vain.

The victors’ providential view of the conflict and of Union and emancipation offered white northerners and African Americans throughout the nation a consoling narrative of divine purpose and sacrifice. But not all Americans were satisfied with such a justification of war’s cost. The horrors of battle and the magnitude of the carnage were difficult to put aside. The force of loss left even many believers unable to abandon lingering uncertainties about God’s benevolence. Doubters confronted profound questions not just about God but about life’s meaning and the very foundations of both belief and knowledge.

In his study of a group of prominent mid-nineteenth-century intellectuals clustered around Harvard, Louis Menand has argued that the Civil War not only “discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it” it destroyed “almost the whole intellectual culture of the North.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose father had rushed to find him after he was wounded at Antietam, was one of these men, and Menand believes he never recovered from the mental impact of his experiences. The younger Holmes had volunteered to fight, Menand explains, because of certain moral principles, but “the war did more than make him lose those beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs.” This was more than just a loss of faith; it was an issue of both epistemology and sensibility, of how we know the world and how we envision our relationship to it.51

One product of the horror of the Civil War was the proliferation of irony, of a posture of distance and doubt in relation to experience. Literary scholar Paul Fussell has written that wars always beget irony because intentions are so often overturned by circumstance; war’s outcomes are so much more terrible than we can ever anticipate. Certainly this was true of the American Civil War, which began with statesmen assuring one another of all but bloodless victory. But the predominant response to the unexpected carnage was in fact a resolute sentimentality that verged at times on pathos. Songs abounded in which soldiers entreated their mothers to “come, Your Boy is Dying,” to “bless me…ere I die,” or “kiss me once before I go,” or “make me a child again just for tonight.” Novels and stories shared the enthusiastic earnestness of The Gates Ajar. But another, contrasting sensibility emerged in the course of the war as well, often appearing in direct reaction to the gap between the conventions of Victorian sentimentality and the reality of modern industrialized warfare.52

Parody was one mode for this response. In the realm of popular song, “Mother Would Comfort Me” was countered by “Mother Would Wallop Me,” a quite different take on the nature of domesticity. One lyricist mocked the countless ballads on motherhood by linking more than a dozen titles together to create the words to “Mother on the Brain,” to be sung to the tune of “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

“It was my Mother’s customs,” “My gentle Mother dear”

“I was my Mother’s darling,” for, I loved my lager beer.

“Kiss me good-night, Mother,” and bring me a Bourbon plain—

“Mother dear, I feel I’m dying,” with Mother on the brain.53


“The Dying Soldier.” Song sheet. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Mark Twain took on The Gates Ajar in a “burlesque” entitled “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” Although he showed a version of it to William Dean Howells in the early 1870s, he dared not publish it until after the turn of the century and the death of his disapproving wife. Twain complained that Phelps’s novel “had imagined a mean little ten-cent heaven about the size of Rhode Island—a heaven large enough to accommodate about a tenth of one percent of the Christian billions who had died in the past nineteen centuries.” Twain’s hero had trouble managing his angel wings and flew so badly that he regularly collided with others. Stormfield was also startled to discover that the overwhelming proportion of American angels were in fact Indians, not white men, for Indians had been dying in the New World and accumulating in the American section of heaven for centuries. The combination of his poor aeronautic abilities and his minority status rendered Stormfield less than entirely comfortable in paradise. Twain reduced Phelps’s lugubrious earnestness to comic absurdity.54

Ambrose Bierce styled himself a wit, not a humorist, emphasizing the sardonic and cutting intent of his newspaper columns and stories. “Humor is tolerant, tender…its ridicule caresses. Wit stabs, begs pardon—and turns the weapon in the wound.” Raised on a midwestern farm where, as he later described it, “we had to grub out a very difficult living,” Bierce was the tenth of thirteen children—all given names beginning with A—born to parents he seems to have despised. He enlisted in the Union army when he was only eighteen. The most significant and prolific American writer actually to fight in the Civil War, Bierce saw nearly four years of combat and won multiple commendations for bravery before receiving a serious head wound at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864. After the war he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a journalist. Haunted all his life by what he described as persisting “visions of the dead and dying,” Bierce began in the 1880s to publish both fiction and nonfiction based on his military experiences. His writings about the war are often cited as the beginnings of modern war literature and as a major influence upon both Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway. Bierce crafted unromanticized depictions of battle that reflected his fundamental approach to both writing and to life: “Cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And…most important of all, endeavor to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.”55

The yawning discrepancy between the hopes that inaugurated the war and the experience of its horrors deeply affected Bierce’s subsequent view of the world. Surviving the war left him tormented by the “phantoms of that blood-stained period” and by a bitterness that derived not just from his own loss of innocence in war but from his sense that he was among the few truly to admit war’s terror and its price. He felt both isolated and angered by the denial and repression of loss that characterized the postwar world. Organized religion, which he believed to be filled with hypocrisy and self-delusion, was his particular bugbear; he defined it in his Devil’s Dictionary as “a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”56

Bierce’s writings about the war are preoccupied with the gruesome and the macabre and display what seems almost an eagerness to transgress proprieties of thought and representation. In “What I Saw of Shiloh,” published in December 1881, Bierce offers his memories of the battle—explicitly partial and personal rather than heroic and sweeping. His work contrasted sharply with the celebratory Century Magazine series on “Battles and Leaders,” which had just begun in the early 1880s to engage a wide popular audience in Civil War reminiscence and hagiography. Bierce’s essay contains one of the most graphic presentations of war death ever written, juxtaposing its sensory and moral horrors. He describes coming upon the site of the previous day’s fighting and finding

Men? There were men enough; all dead, apparently, except one, who lay near where I had halted my platoon…—a Federal sergeant, variously hurt, who had been a fine giant in his time. He lay face upward, taking his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men, whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.57

The particulars and the pain of death are unrelieved here; but convention prohibits mercy—“too many were looking”—and renders true compassion “cold blooded” the notion of a Good Death is made oxymoronic. “Death was a thing to be hated,” Bierce wrote elsewhere. “It was not picturesque, it had no tender and solemn side—a dismal thing, hideous in all its manifestations and suggestions.”58

Deaths—executions, suicides, battle casualties—constitute the central theme of Bierce’s war writing, and indeed he saw death, not glory or political purpose, as the fundamental reality of war itself. As Edmund Wilson observed in Patriotic Gore, death was Bierce’s “only real character.” A soldier was, in Bierce’s view, essentially an “assassin,” a man “in the business of killing his fellow-men.” Yet Bierce’s bitterness was hardly a manifestation of lack of feeling, as his at once chilling and deeply sympathetic description of the dying sergeant at Shiloh suggests.59

One of the most powerful of Bierce’s war stories portrays the night-long encounter of a “brave and efficient” young second lieutenant with a dead body. Assigned to guard the nearby Union encampment while his comrades sleep, Brainerd Byring finds himself alone in the woods with a Confederate corpse. A sensitive man, he has always appreciated the “exhilaration of battle,” but he possesses a particular loathing for “the sight of the dead, with their clay faces, blank eyes and stiff bodies, which when not unnaturally shrunken were unnaturally swollen.” As the night wears on, the body seems to begin to move. “What does it want?” the soldier demands. “It did not appear to be in need of anything but a soul,” the narrator wryly observes.60

Byring invokes the certitudes of fact and reason to combat growing anxiety about his dead companion. He rehearses in his mind all he knows about the history of attitudes toward the dead, about burial customs from ancient Europe and central Asia, and about the surprising cultural persistence of belief in the supernatural, which he does not share. “I suppose it will require a thousand ages—perhaps ten thousand—for humanity to outgrow this feeling. Where and when did it originate?” he muses in the effort to gain control of his intensifying feelings of dread. But his philosophizing cannot calm him; it is death, not he, that is in control. Even as he reassures himself that notions of the “malevolence of the dead body” are simply the vestige of antiquated myth, he sees that the body is “visibly moving!” The story ends with the discovery the next day by a Federal captain and surgeon of two dead bodies—one Confederate, already rotting, “frightfully gashed and stabbed” but with bloodless wounds; the second a young Federal officer with his own sword thrust through his chest. Confronted by a corpse, Byring is driven to try to annihilate both death and himself, embracing death as the only means to overcome his fear of it.61

Bierce, too, found the role of survivor troubling. The war had left him, he observed, “sentenced to life,” and the war dead haunted him and his prose, just as the Confederate corpse so disturbed Brainerd Byring. The line between battle’s survivors and battle’s dead is blurred for Bierce. “When I ask myself,” he once remarked, “what has happened to Ambrose Bierce the youth, who fought at Chickamauga, I am bound to answer that he is dead.” Rather than the purposeful and providential Christian death, Biercean death is often a surprise, sprung on the reader, as in the story of Byring, as it is on its victim—even, paradoxically, when it is suicide. The notion of death involving human preparation or agency, the central tenets—and hope—of the ars moriendi, is entirely alien in Bierce’s world. It is instead death that possesses agency—like the apparently moving corpse—to exert its claim upon the living, and it is in this sense that it becomes, as Wilson remarked, Bierce’s central character.62

Bierce’s best-known story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” exemplifies death’s surprise and man’s futility in its depiction of a southern spy about to be hanged. Peyton Farquhar seems to have escaped his fate when the rope snaps and plunges him into the creek, permitting him to flee the Yankees and return home to his wife. But his escape proves a fantasy in which the reader too has been fooled. The story ends with Farquhar swinging from Owl Creek Bridge. The power of Bierce’s irony derives from his insertion not just of the main character but of the reader into the gap he creates between appearance and actuality. Like Farquhar, his startled reader is left hanging.63

Dissenting from his era’s romanticization of death, fully embracing Darwinian notions of “nature red in tooth and claw,” mocking the doctrines and authority of organized religion, Bierce had little faith in any afterlife. In his Devil’s Dictionary he defined the Dead with rhymed irreverence:

Done with the work of breathing; done

With all the world; the mad race run

Through to the end; the golden goal

Attained and found to be a hole!64

The afterlife for which so many Americans avidly searched was not heaven but simply the void of the grave. Death was “hideous,” and it was complete in itself; it was not a passage to another life; it was not the embodiment or instrument of patriotic or religious purpose. But Bierce was moved as well as horrified by the dead, which was why they continued to haunt him. Both the Confederate and the Yankee slain deserved reverent attention; just as death defined life, the dead represented the real meaning of the war. “We know we live, for with each breath / We feel the fear and imminence of death.”65

Herman Melville did not share Bierce’s extensive military experience, but he did understand the loss of innocence that rendered initial expectations absurd. Forty-two years old at the time of Fort Sumter, Melville spent most of the war on a Massachusetts farm, struggling to recover from what seemed to him the demise of his literary ambition in his critical and commercial failures of the 1850s. But the participation of close relatives in the army gave him a window into the conflict, and in the spring of 1864, on the eve of the Wilderness campaign, he undertook a tour of Virginia battlefields. He managed to secure an audience with Grant and to join a three-day excursion with a band of soldiers in search of Confederate partisan John Mosby. By the time of the southern surrender the following spring, Melville was launched on a new literary venture in an unfamiliar form. War would be his subject, and poetry his genre. His Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, published in 1866, presents the conflict in a collection of glimpses and fragments, not in the novelistic form of his most important earlier work. The choice reflected his judgment that “none can narrate that strife,” and even “entangled rhyme / But hints at the maze of war.” Melville recognized the momentousness of the nation’s experience; the conflict had been “an upheaval affecting the basis of things,” and those things included literary form and language as well as human purposes and values.66

The poems are arranged in a chronology, not of their composition but of the war itself, beginning with John Brown and the “Conflict of Convictions” that resulted in secession and continuing through Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, the Wilderness, the March to the Sea, the fall of Richmond, and the surrender at Appomattox. The volume opens with the “expectancy” of ignorant youth marching joyously off to battle. But Melville delineates the dashing of these hopes, the harsh education of these young who “perish, enlightened by the vollied glare.” As it does for Bierce, death comes with the irony of surprise. A glorious adventure undertaken with the enthusiasm and pleasure of “a berrying party” becomes a burying party of a quite different sort. War’s young soldiers had not “dreamed what death was—thought it mere / Sliding into some vernal sphere.” In their anticipations they had “leaped the grief” of war, but battle and Melville restore it.67

At the heart of Melville’s poetic inquiry rests “the riddle of death,” a question with which he had been personally much concerned before war propelled it to the center of national consciousness. Like so many other Americans of his era, Melville struggled to overcome his doubts about Christian doctrine in order to find a plausible foundation for reassuring faith in immortality. His friend Nathaniel Hawthorne had reported in 1856 that Melville “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief,” but had out of frustration with his indecision “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated.” The issue remained far from settled for Melville, however, when the outbreak of war gave death new prominence in both private and public life. Literary critic Daniel Aaron has judged Battle-Pieces to be Melville’s continuing inquiry into this question, “a sustained debate between belief and disbelief.”68

Annihilation took on a different meaning after 1861, and Melville rendered the texture of war’s destructiveness unblinkingly: the soldiers in the Wilderness meet “skull after skull” and green and rotting “shoes full of bones,” the remains of the dead still unburied from the previous year’s campaigns. “Few burial rites shall be,” as even the dignifying rituals of death are abandoned to the grim necessities of military slaughter. Glory, plumes, sashes, banners have become irrelevant; men are but operatives, cogs in a machinery of destruction, for war itself has been modernized and industrialized, as the ascendancy and “anvil-din” of the war’s ironclad warships vividly symbolize.

No passion; all went on by crank,

Pivot and screw,

And calculations of caloric.69

Death itself becomes war’s end, the product of its industrialized machinery; there is no more transcendent or glorious purpose; northerners and southerners lie mingled together, “fame or country least their care.” But they now understand what in their youthful zeal for battle they did not—“What like a bullet can undeceive!”—for the pieties and pomposities of war have dissolved. The dead have discovered as well the answer to the riddle that Melville cannot know, the riddle “of which the slain / Sole solvers are.” Beginning in such innocence, they are brought by war to an ultimate knowledge that even their survivors lack. The living remain captured in uncertainty.70


Skulls and bones left unburied on the field. “Battle-field of Gaines Mill, Virginia.” Library of Congress.

In Amherst, Massachusetts, where she rarely left her father’s house, Emily Dickinson lived even more removed from the war than Melville. But she too displayed a sense of the ironic disjunction between reality and appearance, expectation and experience. “Could Prospect taste of Retrospect,” Emily Dickinson wrote at the end of the war, echoing the notion of dark enlightenment that structured Melville’s Battle-Pieces.

My Triumph lasted till the Drums

Had left the Dead alone

And then I dropped my Victory

And chastened stole along

To where the finished Faces

Conclusion turned on me

And then I hated Glory

And wished myself were They.

“A Bayonet’s contrition / Is nothing to the dead,” the poem ends. Conclusion repudiates anticipation; regret cannot recuperate what is “finished” and rendered irreversible—what in another poem she describes as the “Repealless—list” of the fallen. Dickinson decries the incommensurability of victory and its human cost. Sentenced, like Bierce, to both survivor’s guilt and survivor’s glory, she cannot escape either. Irony rests in death’s destruction of the innocence and ignorance of prospect, as well as in the very notion of loss itself as irremediable annihilation rather than the redemptive sacrifice of Christian promise.71

Emily Dickinson is renowned as a poet preoccupied with death. Yet curiously any relationship between her work and the Civil War was long rejected by most literary critics, even though she wrote almost half her oeuvre, at a rate of four poems a week, during those years. Dickinson has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations. But her work is filled with the language of battle—the very vocabulary of war that she would have encountered in the four newspapers regularly delivered to the Dickinson house. Campaigns, cannons, rifle balls, bullets, artillery, soldiers, ammunition, flags, bayonets, cavalry, drums, and trumpets are recurrent images in her poetry.72

During the second year of the war Dickinson began a correspondence that would prove one of the most important of her life, with a man she came to call her “preceptor,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She had inaugurated the exchange in response to an essay he published about aspiring writers in the Atlantic Monthly of April 1862. But Higginson was more than a man of letters. Long an abolitionist, he accepted command of a regiment of black soldiers and early in 1863 departed for South Carolina. Although she would not actually meet him until 1870, Dickinson feared the grief his loss in battle would bring. “Could you, with honor, avoid death, I entreat you, sir—It would bereave Your Gnome”73

Dickinson understood loss, for citizens of her tight-knit Massachusetts town had already been claimed by war. The death of Frazer Stearns, son of the Amherst College president, at New Berne, North Carolina, in March 1862 had cast the whole community into mourning. Emily described her brother Austin as “stunned completely” by the news of his friend’s demise. She had seen young Stearns ride through Amherst with his sword and comrades at his side, and now “crowds came to tell him goodnight, choirs sang to him, pastors told how brave he was…And the family bowed their heads, as the reed the wind shakes.” Her fears about Higginson’s fate grew out of very direct experience with war’s cost.74

Emily Dickinson may have been preoccupied with the theme of death well before the outbreak of conflict, but national conflagration gave her a new language and a new context in which to contemplate its meaning. In writing to Higginson of the war, she herself acknowledged that the loss of friends to death that struck “sharp and early” had created in her “a brittle love—of more alarm, than peace.” And she understood that war placed her own despair in a new relationship to the afflictions of others around her. “Sorrow seems more general than it did, and not the estate of a few persons, since the war began; and if the anguish of others helped one with one’s own, now would be many medicines.” War provided Dickinson with inexhaustible material for her metaphysical speculations. The worth and meaning of human life were for her defined by death’s cost and promise, just as the war itself constantly demanded a balance sheet of loss and purpose. Her poetry uses the deaths of war to ask timeless questions, but her speculations at the same time engage more timely issues that also tormented her far less gifted contemporaries. She too sought to understand the meaning of war’s carnage, the price of victory and defeat, and the implications of Civil War slaughter for the Christian faith that shaped how most Americans lived their lives.75

Dickinson dwelled, as she wrote, “in Possibility.” In the face of doubt, she searched for “Paradise,” for firm foundations for belief, for signs of immortality to relieve her deep uncertainty. She felt herself isolated from the community of believers and once described her family to Higginson as “religious, except me.” Like so many reflective Americans of her time, she grappled with the contradictions of spirit and matter and with their implications for heaven and for God. Death seemed a “Dialogue between the Spirit and the Dust,” an argument left painfully unresolved. Dickinson wondered where she might find heaven (“I’m knocking everywhere”) and what an afterlife might be (“Is Heaven a place—a Sky—a Tree?”). She speculated too on the possibility of corporeal immortality: “I felt my life with both my hands / To see if it was there.” But she could not resolve her uncertainty and found no sure comfort in a “religion / that doubts as fervently as it believes.” Death remained inexorable.76

All but Death, can be Adjusted—


Death—unto itself—Exception

Is exempt from Change.77

Ironically, it was death, not life, that seemed eternal, for it “perishes—to live anew…Annihilation—plated fresh / With Immortality.” No terrestrial justifications, no military or political purposes balance this loss; victory cannot compensate; it “comes late” to those already dead, whose “freezing lips” are “too rapt with frost / to take it.” Dickinson permits herself no relief or escape into either easy transcendence or sentimentality. Instead she faces death in its horror, as “Piles of solid Moan,” and explores how death challenges God’s presence and benevolence, as it raises questions about her own worth and destiny. “It feels a shame to be Alive—/ When Men so brave—are dead.” She, like Bierce, finds herself “sentenced to life.” Dickinson makes clear that the soul’s internal battle is “of all the battles prevalent—/ By far the Greater One—.” But the circumstances of national conflict illustrated and objectified her inner turmoil and encouraged four years of extraordinary poetic productivity.78

Critics writing about Dickinson, Bierce, and Melville have identified in each of them characteristics associated with “modernity.” The challenge to certainty is an important dimension of this designation; each of these writers grapples with religious doubt, and all adopt an irony that reflects anxiety about deception and delusion. All three seek, to borrow Melville’s word, to “undeceive.” But their doubts affect the form as well as the substance of their work. Melville resorts to poetry from the impossibility of narrative. As Helen Vendler has written, Melville recognizes that the war requires “a new sort of language and rhyme.” No comprehensive understanding is possible; any vantage offers, as he writes in “Armies of the Wilderness,” only “glimpses” and only “hints at the maze of war.”79

Bierce similarly eschews any effort at synthesis or claim to omniscience. He writes only of what “I saw” at Shiloh, offers just “A Little of Chickamauga”—once again “what I saw of it.” He trusts his knowledge only of what he has directly experienced. His short stories are like snapshots. War cannot be understood or communicated as a grand panorama. It is real only in the context of individual lives—and deaths. This individualization undermines war’s coherence and ignores any larger purpose. Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionaryrepresents yet another presentation of fragments, within a form that undermines the very essence of its genre. Instead of a compilation of ordered meanings, Bierce offers definitions that challenge—even reject—meaning, with mockery and irony.

Dickinson’s poetry was revolutionary in its departure from the order and logic of prevailing poetic form.

The thought behind, I strove to join

Unto the thought before—

But Sequence ravelled out of Sound

Like Balls—upon a Floor,

she wrote in 1864. Marked by discontinuities, her poems were assailed after their posthumous publication by critics who deplored their travesties of grammar and syntax. But contemporary critics see in these attributes the embodiment of Dickinson’s doubts about the foundations of understanding and coherence. Shira Wolosky has argued that Dickinson’s poetry challenges “the whole question of linguistic meaning and of meaning in general.” This is a crisis of language and epistemology as much as one of eschatology; it is about not just whether there is a God and whether we can know him but whether we can know or communicate anything at all.80

Dickinson’s poems did not appear in print for three decades after the Civil War; Melville’s Battle-Pieces, published in 1866, sold about five hundred copies; Bierce was well known as a journalist but did not begin to publish his writings about the war until nearly twenty years after Appomattox. The significance of these authors’ understanding of war’s destruction does not lie in their influence upon popular thought. Nor can they be seen as representative of widely held views. Their writings instead provide access into one point on the spectrum of possible reactions to the crisis of belief that war presented to mid-nineteenth-century America. Dickinson, Melville, and Bierce transformed the need to grapple with the meaning of national conflagration into broad and lasting questions about the foundations of religion and of human understanding. Each of these authors has been regarded as a way station on the route to the modernist disillusion that would be associated with the even more destructive war that erupted in 1914. That very connection with the future suggests the tenuous relationship that each writer had with the prevailing assumptions and outlook of an earlier time. But the Civil War contributed to the ability of each of these authors to see the world in the framework and images that made his or her work possible. And in mapping the contours of doubt, Dickinson, Melville, and Bierce helped delineate the broader topography of belief and unbelief that grew from the war. It is, in fact, striking to see that their sense of a failure of knowledge and understanding was widely articulated by ordinary Americans.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called the experience of war “incommunicable.” Fellow soldiers felt the same and filled their letters and diaries with declarations of their inability to describe what they had seen. “Language would in no way express the true picture as it really was,” Confederate Reuben Allen Pierson wrote his father after Gaines Mill in 1862, emphasizing in his redundancy both the power and the inaccessibility of his experience. A depiction of Chickamauga, James Suiter of the 84th Illinois wrote in his diary, “would be an absolute impossibility.” Daniel Holt, a Union surgeon, proclaimed battle “indescribable” in its horror. John Casler of the Stonewall Brigade struggled for words to tell his parents about his first experience of combat: “I have not power to describe the scene. It beggars all description.” Like Melville, the soldiers found war beyond narration.81

Women nurses and relief workers responded to the suffering they witnessed at the front with a similar sense of verbal incapacity. In 1862, Cordelia Harvey wrote home from Tennessee to Madison’s Wisconsin State Journal, “There are times when the meaning of words seem to fade away; so entirely does our language fail to express the reality. This fact I never so fully realized as when attempting to depict the suffering, both mental and physical, which I have witnessed within the last ten days.” Confederate Kate Cumming reacted to her entry onto the wards in almost identical terms. “I do not think that words are in our vocabulary expressive enough to present to the mind the realities of that sad scene.” Suffering exceeded language and understanding.82

But even if they could not explain the experience of war, they could not escape it. “A battle is indescribable,” a Union chaplain wrote after Fredericksburg, “but once seen it haunts a man till the day of his death.” Like Bierce, who declared himself possessed “by visions of the dead and dying,” many witnesses to the Civil War could not exorcise the phantoms of war by transforming them into reassuring religious or patriotic narratives of redemptive sacrifice. They remained glimpses, fragments, “visions,” sights not stories, visual rather than explanatory in their effect.83

Civil War carnage transformed the mid-nineteenth century’s growing sense of religious doubt into a crisis of belief that propelled many Americans to redefine or even reject their faith in a benevolent and responsive deity. But Civil War death and devastation also planted seeds of a more profound doubt about human ability to know and to understand. In an environment in which man seemed already increasingly undifferentiated from animals, the failure of the uniquely human capacity of language represented another assault upon the foundations of the self. The Civil War compelled Americans to ask with intensified urgency, “What is Death?” and in answering to find themselves wondering why is death, what is life, and can we ever hope to know? We have continued to wonder ever since.

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