Culture At Large

The Civil War and the end of the "Good Death"

Andy Rau

We've all heard the phrase "there are no atheists in foxholes." It's not a particular accurate phrase, I suspect, but it came to mind while reading this review of Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. The book is not specifically about religion on the frontlines, but it does raise some interesting points about the effect of the Civil War on the American understanding of the afterlife. From the review:

[Before the Civil War,] the faithful looked forward to what was called a Good Death, with time to see the end approaching, accept it and declare to friends and family members their belief in God and his promise of salvation. The battlefield brutally truncated that serene process, and soldiers and their families alike worried about what that might mean for their chances in the afterlife. Survivors tried to provide reassurance. When one Union soldier was killed during the siege of Richmond, a comrade told his mother that while her boy had died instantly and without the opportunity to declare his faith, he had told his fellow soldiers the previous summer that he “felt his sins were forgiven & that he was ready and resigned to the Lord’s will & while talking he was so much overjoyed that he could hardly suppress his feelings of delight.” But sometimes candor trumped comfort: one Georgia soldier worried in a letter home that while his dying brother had “said that he hoped he was prepared to meet his God in a better world than this,” he was also aware “he had been a bad, bad, very bad boy.”

The Civil War saw the deaths of countless unidentified soldiers whose entry into the afterlife was accompanied by horrific brutality and bloodshed, rather than stately funerals and without time to review their lives or contemplate their spiritual state. Obviously, there were awful wars before the Civil War, but the sheer bloodiness of the Civil War must have stripped away whatever spiritual romanticism still clung to American concepts of death. It makes me wonder how America's modern wars—Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq—have affected our understanding of the "good" or "valiant" death, perhaps without us realizing it.

I don't have a strong point to make about this, and feel a bit guilty for kicking off the weekend with such a morbid piece—but it sounds like an interesting book. Any history buffs out there read it?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, History