A Turn to the Dark Side

Reckoning with 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled historians to rethink the Civil War and its

(Shawn Goldberg/Alamy)
(Shawn Goldberg/Alamy)

A decade and a half ago, I published This Republic of Suffering, a book about death and the American Civil War. I had been moved to write it after encountering the diaries and letters of southern women, whose voices rang clear and strong across the century and a half that separated us. What concerned them most about the conflict that their husbands, fathers, and brothers had launched was not southern independence or the future of slavery, subjects that have preoccupied historians for more than a century. Nor was it visions of honor and glory. What mattered most to them was death—the loss of relatives, neighbors, and friends. As the war ground on, an unanticipated and mounting death toll heightened their anxiety and made their fears realities. Death, its proximity and actuality, became the war’s most widely shared experience, and not just for the South’s slaveholding women, but for all Americans.

Since 2008, an outpouring of new scholarship has elaborated on my book’s findings and revised a few of its assumptions. Even our understanding of something as seemingly fundamental as the war’s death toll has significantly altered. The effort to capture the meaning of Civil War death by attaching it to a number has persisted since the time of the war itself, as if an accurate statistic could somehow grasp the complexity of otherwise unfathomable loss. Yet given the incompleteness of our sources, the irregularity of recordkeeping on both sides, and the destruction of documents, especially Confederate materials, in the chaos of war’s end, we will never have an exact count. The prevailing estimate 15 years ago was 620,000 combined Union and Confederate dead, although those of us who used this number customarily did so with caveats, recognizing it as at best an approximation. Until that time, historians had cobbled together military records such as muster-out rolls (registers of disbanded units) and made more or less educated guesses about the fatalities that might not have been counted.

In 2011, however, based on new research and more sophisticated tools of demographic analysis, University of Minnesota historian J. David Hacker published an article that took an entirely different approach. Using samples from 19th-century censuses recently released to the public, he compared male survival rates between the 1860 and 1870 enumerations with those in surrounding censuses. Hacker frankly acknowledged the shortcomings of his method—the unreliability of both the 1860 and the 1870 censuses, for example, and the inevitable inclusion in his tally of nonmilitary male deaths. Nonetheless, he pointed out why the traditional estimate of 258,000 Confederate dead—originally put forward in 1900 by a Union veteran–turned–amateur historian as little more than an educated guess—was not only based on incomplete records of battle casualties; it failed adequately to account for noncombat deaths from diseases or accidents. Hacker also noted that military enumerations on which the earlier totals had been based did not include northern or southern soldiers who died of wounds after the end of the conflict, losses he was able to assess through his use of the postwar census. Hacker’s careful consideration of available data led him to raise the estimated death toll by 20 percent: to 750,000, the equivalent of 7.5 million in terms of today’s population. The human cost of the Civil War was even greater and death more omnipresent than we previously knew. It was, Hacker concluded, “the greatest demographic shock in the nation’s history.”

Many of these new inquiries have focused not just on the years between 1861 and 1865 but on war’s aftermath, on the physical and emotional destruction that haunted its survivors, long after the guns went silent.

Hacker focused on soldiers’ deaths, but deepened knowledge of war’s realities suggests that we should assume a higher death toll among civilians as well. In large part, this changed view arises from the expansion over the past three decades of historical interest in the social history of the war, in the lives and circumstances of the common soldiers doing the fighting, not just the generals and statesmen who had occupied the stage in earlier scholarship. And historians have also looked more closely at the home front, at the experiences of white women in both North and South and of enslaved African Americans, studying the variety of circumstances that damaged and ended lives beyond the reach of the battlefields on which Civil War history had so long focused. We will never know how many civilians died as a result of the war—the data is episodic and anecdotal, if not entirely absent—but recent research indicates that the number was likely far more substantial than we had imagined. Battle and home front became in many ways indistinguishable.

Guerrilla warfare brought the conflict home in a particularly devastating way. Michael Fellman first addressed these grim realities in Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War (1989), and he continued to produce insightful work on unconventional warfare until his death in 2012. Fellman’s study of Missouri—“my book on Vietnam,” he once observed—rejected a triumphal Civil War master narrative of battlefield glory, nation building, and emancipation in favor of skepticism about what ends can ever balance the “indiscriminate slaughter” of war.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the unconventional combat that characterized our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did much to change historians’ perspectives on the Civil War’s guerrilla warfare. A number of scholars have drawn portraits of another kind of conflict, one of cruelty and unrestrained violence executed against men, women, and children alike. In border areas of the South, like Missouri, and regions that sheltered Unionist enclaves, like western North Carolina, historians have depicted a war within a war of hangings, torture, and executions. Irregular warfare, some recent work has even argued, played “the decisive role” in the conflict, subjecting civilians to untold cruelties and undermining men’s willingness to fight.

The foregrounding of terroristic, unconventional warfare has been one essential component of a broader “Dark Turn” in Civil War history. Authors of recent, revisionist studies have placed merciless violence and suffering at the center of their interpretations and have challenged idealized renderings of a “good war,” where violence is redeemed by the liberation of the enslaved and the salvation of the American nation as humanity’s “last best hope.”

“War is always about damage,” Stephen Berry declared in his introduction to Weirding the War (2011), a collection of essays on subjects such as ruins, starvation, atrocities, torture, amputations, persisting postwar trauma, and resulting suicides. Part I of the volume is titled “Death Becomes Us: The Civil War and the Appetite for Destruction.” The nation learned to define itself by death, the double entendre suggests—and, worse yet, seems to have come to like it. Several chapters in the collection have since become books and have been joined by a proliferation of other studies of brutality and loss, of human suffering and environmental devastation.

Many of these new inquiries have focused not just on the years between 1861 and 1865 but on war’s aftermath, on the physical and emotional destruction that haunted its survivors, long after the guns went silent. Examinations of afflicted veterans, the disabled, the widowed, and the orphaned extended war’s darkness well beyond its chronological limits. Even after it ended, the war remained terrible. The dead were gone yet remained as a powerful emotional, cultural, and political force. Historians have investigated the ways in which the slain were remembered in cemeteries and ceremonies, at once drawing from and enriching larger themes of Civil War memory that traced the emergence of a Lost Cause to celebrate the Confederacy and justify another century of racial oppression.

An earlier direction in Civil War writing, originating in the 1960s and influenced by the ideals of the civil rights movement, had foregrounded the war’s success in overturning slavery and heralded the agency of the enslaved in seizing their own freedom. During the Dark Turn, however, historians have published more detailed studies of what that freedom had cost and expressed disillusionment about what freedom came to mean. With the defeat of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow, how different from slavery did freedom actually turn out to be? Careful studies of the process of emancipation depicted frequently unchecked, retributive violence against those who remained on wartime plantations and widespread illness, misery, oppression, and destitution among those who fled from slavery into Union contraband camps. The conflict portrayed by the Dark Turn was one that exacted more human suffering and delivered less human betterment. Far from a “good” or noble war, or the nation’s vaunted defining moment, the conflict was, in the eyes of historian David Goldfield, “America’s greatest failure.”

This Republic of Suffering appeared near the outset of this new wave of scholarship. I wrote not knowing the directions these studies would ultimately take, unaware that my book would become part of a larger thrust of reinterpretation. After the book’s publication, I received questions about whether I had intended to argue that the war should not have been fought. It had not occurred to me that my work might be seen to make such a claim. As a historian, I have never liked counterfactual questions; I prefer to regard what happened as needing to be explained and understood rather than judged or second-guessed. I had not undertaken a study of death in order to assess the war’s value. But I did want to illuminate the war’s cost. Like Michael Fellman, I am of the Vietnam generation, and I was an active opponent of that war. But I am also the daughter of a World War II veteran and grew up imbued with a sense of the conflict as necessary and perhaps even good, though I have always struggled to countenance or justify violence.

I had hoped to remind readers that we must anticipate and understand what war costs when we ask soldiers to fight. I had watched as we fell into the quagmire of Vietnam one escalation at a time, without confronting the terrible price that Americans and especially the Vietnamese would be required to pay. And as our Forever Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became all-but-forgotten and all-but-ignored conflicts waged by less than one percent of the population, we as a nation once again failed to accept accountability for what we ask of those who fight our battles. I hoped as well that This Republic of Suffering could remind us of the price our forebears had paid for a reunited nation committed to a new birth of freedom and our consequent obligation to make good on their sacrifice. It was a freedom long constrained and long delayed; it is a freedom still far from achieved. But unlike many historians writing today in the shadow of the Dark Turn, I have no doubt that freedom, even the eviscerated freedom of the late 19th and much of the 20th centuries, was far better than slavery. Yet I fully recognize what historians have in recent years so powerfully demonstrated: that emancipation involved violence, cruelty, suffering, and persisting racial oppression. Black freedom was not simply the shining, bright, and happy outcome of a destructive military conflict. It too was shrouded in war’s darkness.

From 9/11 to the wars begun in its aftermath to the Covid-19 pandemic—“there are lessons for our time in the experience of Civil War Americans.” (Wikimedia Commons)

During the past three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have found myself often thinking of the experiences of my Civil War subjects. Just as Civil War Americans had to embark on a new relationship with death, we too have been compelled to confront the bonds of our mortality under circumstances we could not have imagined. More Americans have died from coronavirus than in the four years of the United States’ most bloody war. The links between our time and theirs, moreover, have frequently astonished me—particularly as I have been confronted by what has not changed and what we have not learned. I began This Republic of Suffering with a quotation from an 1862 sermon by a Georgia bishop: “We all have our dead.” We are indeed all mortal. But I understand that differently now than when I first borrowed his words.

I was attracted to the questions surrounding war’s cruelties because of their timelessness, because of the underlying sameness of confronting death as a human being in any time and place in spite of the differences of belief and circumstance that separate us across centuries and geographies. Human beings inevitably die; Montaigne wrote that life is about learning how to do so. There could be no more interesting subject. But I did not expect these connections between the Civil War past and the 21st-century present to assert themselves as forcefully as they did in 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic represented an assault upon much of what we had taken for granted about our modern world, demonstrating how little control we actually have over our lives and destinies. We had felt almost smugly complacent when we compared ourselves to an earlier, less sophisticated, less technologically advanced world. We had come to believe that vaccines and antibiotics had conquered infectious disease, that the power of science had minimized our vulnerabilities. Even AIDS, which had challenged what medical historian Frank Snowden has called “an age of hubris,” seemed tractable once protease inhibitors emerged in the mid-1990s and changed the course of the disease. But with the scale and breadth and mystery of its deadly reach, SARS CoV-2 robbed us of our illusions of safety. Suddenly I recognized circumstances that seemed taken from my research, seemingly alien to the wealthy and modern society that I was confident had long since bypassed such suffering and inhumanity.

What do we do with the bodies? Civil War Americans had asked as they faced enormous and unanticipated numbers of casualties after Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. In the spring of 2020, New York City, the pandemic’s early U.S. epicenter, was confronting the same question as morgues filled, corpses were piled in refrigerated trailers, coffins became unavailable, funeral homes ran out of chemicals for embalming, crematoria could not keep up with demand, and the city began mass trench burials of the dead. The effort to ensure a “good death” that had animated so many Civil War soldiers returned as a matter of widespread concern when contagious patients, like so many of those soldiers, died away from family members desperate to share their last words and hours. And like soldiers who entrusted comrades or nurses with final messages to pass along to loved ones, or gazed at photographs of wives and children as they lay dying on the field, so too modern Americans improvised, saying goodbye to their kin not face-to-face but with iPads. In both eras, death’s customary and consoling rituals became impossible; the rupture of bereavement could not be countered with the affirmation of community and continuity.

Suddenly I recognized circumstances that seemed taken from my research, seemingly alien to the wealthy and modern society that I was confident had long since bypassed such suffering and inhumanity.

Civil War soldiers and civilians alike worried that so much death and suffering would render them numb and unfeeling, demoralizing them in a literal 19th-century sense of the word—removing their moral compass. Indifference, they feared, would undermine their very humanity. “We have grown used to it,” nurse Cornelia Hancock ruefully observed of the suffering in a Union field hospital. Yet ultimately, Civil War Americans refused to grow inured to death, recognizing the ethical and emotional perils of numbness and committing themselves to public and private acts of memory and mourning that persist even into the present. Memorial Day, after all, is a Civil War invention. Yet today, as medical historian Richard Keller has observed about the pandemic, the United States is engaged in “an active process of forgetting.” “How Did This Many Deaths Become Normal?” asked journalist Ed Yong in a March 2022 article in The Atlantic. We have not—at least not yet—confronted or processed the meaning and trauma of a million deaths.

We have been accustomed to a very different relationship with death than our 19th-century predecessors. Many of us in the United States had the luxury not to consider our mortality, to deny death and push it to the margins of consciousness, to postpone thinking about it until life’s very final days. Efficient and systematic, both medicine and the funeral industry whisked death’s evidences out of sight, aiding us in our desire to keep them out of mind. Nineteenth-century Americans, by contrast, believed that a consciousness of death enabled a more purposeful and intentional life. Constant awareness of its finitude made human existence more precious and gave each moment of life deeper meaning. Americans today seem to want little part of such awareness. In the summer of 2022, even as new Covid variants arose, we endeavored to deny not just death but disease itself, ending public health regulations and protocols, and insisting that life return to pre-pandemic “normal”—even as the virus continued to mutate, spread, and kill.

Epidemics and wars are very different phenomena. No one chooses a pandemic or expects it to have an uplifting purpose. By contrast, humans themselves create wars and seek to imbue them with redemptive meaning. The pandemic dead are victims, not heroes, no matter what courage they may have displayed as they faced their demise. But in spite of these contrasts, there are lessons for our time in the experience of Civil War Americans. Loss claims a presence; it remains insistent in the minds and lives of those who have been bereaved. The experience of profound and shocking vulnerability is not easily forgotten. Divisions amplified and underscored by crisis are not easily healed. We will live with the effects of this pandemic well into the future. It will have an aftermath no matter what efforts we may make at denial. Americans of the Civil War generation confronted mortality and tragedy in ways that can enlighten us still if we are willing to listen to their voices and seek to understand their lives. They solved what, in a poem called “The Armies of the Wilderness,” Herman Melville called “a riddle of death.” For us, it remains a puzzle.

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Drew Gilpin Faust is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Research Professor at Harvard, where she served as president from 2007 to 2018. She is the author of seven books, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize and was a National Book Award finalist. This essay is adapted from an anniversary reissue of that book.


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