The Work of Death

How the Civil War changed forever Americans’ relationship with mortality


This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust, Knopf, $27.95

On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, my great-grandfather, Robert Ferguson of the 53rd Virginia, and my great-great-grand­father, Thomas Upchurch of the 7th North Carolina, along with 15,000 other Confederate soldiers, attacked the Union lines outside Gettysburg in what history knows as Pickett’s charge. When it was over, Sergeant Ferguson had somehow survived, although 88 percent of his company was killed, wounded, or missing. But Private Upchurch was captured by the Yankees and, three months later, died of smallpox in the Union prison at Fort Delaware.

Bob Ferguson almost got through the rest of the war before a Union minié ball smashed his thigh at Five Forks on April 1, 1865. Two of my other great-grandfathers also fought until those final days but without becoming statistics: Sergeant Michael Harris of the 32nd North Carolina was hit in the thigh at Fort Stedman on March 25, captured in the hospital when Richmond fell, and imprisoned at Point Lookout until he took the oath of loyalty and went home. After the war, he fathered 14 children and was able to work with the help of a “patent electric magnetic machine” that he cranked to jolt his leg into action. His half brother and company commander, Lieutenant Jesse Furgurson, was shot through the palm of his right hand when Grant’s army overran Lee’s lines at Petersburg on April 2.

The mother of those two boys had sent five sons into Confederate service; only one made it all the way to Appomattox. I cite the travails of these ancestors not because they were exceptional but because many families, North and South, suffered as much and more. While it is well known that some 620,000 American soldiers died in the struggle, almost as many as in all our other wars together, few realize today that perhaps 50,000 others, black and white civilians, died on its fringes. All of them and then their families, during the war and for decades afterward, were immersed in what Drew Gilpin Faust describes as “the work of death.”

Faust, who completed This Republic of Suffering before becoming Harvard’s first woman president last summer, admits at the end of her book that she has a “fascination with death.” That is clear long before the end of this original, intensely personal meditation—which rests on wide historical research—examining how the Civil War affected the way Americans contemplate death, prepare for, manage, mourn, and remember it. Faust believes those years of forced familiarity with the inevitable, touching Americans high and low, “transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering.” After the war, she says, this “would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite.” I have never heard it put that way before. If mutual misery became a bond, it was not while musket balls were flying, while canister ripped bodies into unidentifiable shreds, which comrades had to leave on the field or drag into shallow graves marked by hastily scrawled headboards.

In the beginning, death in battle was a novelty. The fallen heroes of the earliest clashes were celebrated as martyrs. The first Union soldier killed in Virginia, President Lincoln’s young friend Elmer Ellsworth, was shot after ripping down a secessionist flag flying over Alexandria. His body lay in state at the White House and then was escorted down Pennsylvania Avenue in a military cortege between flags at half-staff and buildings draped in mourning. It was a sendoff more elaborate than most fallen generals would get in the bloody months ahead. But before his death, Ellsworth had done something that would soon be common, especially after Bull Run, when soldiers realized that the war would hurt more and last longer than a picnic outing. On the night before crossing the Potomac to Alexandria, he had written to his parents:

Whatever may happen, cherish the consolation that I was engaged in the performance of a sacred duty, and tonight, thinking over the probabilities of tomorrow, and the occurrences of the past, I am perfectly confident to accept whatever my fortune may be, and confident that He who noteth even the fall of a sparrow, will have some purpose even in the fate of one like me. My darling and ever-loved parents, good bye.

Weeks before the first notable battle, hours before the easy occupation of a rebel city in which he was the only Union casualty, Ellsworth was already preparing his family for what Faust calls “the Good Death.” That was a collaboration among the soldier, his comrades, commanders, doctors, and chaplains: the whole community would assure his family that he had been ready and unafraid to die, had done his duty nobly, had made his peace with God and remembered his loved ones as he closed his eyes. But later there were thousands who died abruptly, unexpectedly, who had not had the time or perhaps the literacy to set the stage for their proper departure. Thousands simply disappeared, their bodies never found, listed forever as missing. Fathers and mothers flocked to Washington, Richmond, and the battlefields trying to find what remained of their sons. They wrote to regimental comrades for information of their whereabouts, for some recollection of their sons’ last deeds and words, for any scrap to hold and cherish. In the North, the Sanitary Commission, which was formed to help commanders protect the health of their troops, expanded its mission to nurse the sick and wounded, and then answered desperate pleas to trace the missing. Eventually the federal government, for the first time, took on the responsibility for finding and burying its dead, creating what became a network of national cemeteries.


Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., lying wounded at Antietam and afraid he might die anonymously, wrote on a scrap of paper, “I am Capt. OW Holmes 20th Mass. V, Son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, M.D., Boston.” As Faust says, “If a soldier could not save his life, he hoped at least to preserve his name.” She tells of the nurse Katherine Wormeley trying to record the names of the casualties pouring onto a Union hospital vessel off the Virginia Peninsula—“To die without an identity seemed to Wormeley equivalent to surrendering one’s humanity, becoming no more than an animal.” But like animals is how bodies were often treated; the book is replete with pictures of bodies, bodies, bodies, stacked, strewn on the field, embalmed, pictures mostly unseen by the public—not because of political censorship, which forbids photographing even flag-covered coffins returning from today’s war, but because newspapers then were not equipped to print photographs.

Faust summons Ambrose Bierce, who knew what war was like, who had been seriously wounded in battle, to describe a Federal soldier left dying, his brain oozing from his skull, and to reflect on what it meant to him:

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!

Bierce’s bitterness and Holmes’s realism were rooted in their own combat experience; the good gray nurse Walt Whitman, mourning Lincoln in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” would epitomize the gentle, elegiac mood that Faust suggests overtook wartime resentment.

The seeds of Faust’s eloquent book must have been planted during work on her Mothers of Invention, which was justly lauded for its portrayal of how upper-class Southern women, left alone by war, managed to cope with deprivation, restive slaves, and the loss of loved ones. In the Confederacy, the proportion of losses was much higher than in the North—Faust says that 18 percent of all Southern white men of military age died during the war. The accompanying destruction was vastly greater—cities, towns, and farms devastated in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and beyond. There was no Southern Sanitary Commission and no federal care for the Confederate dead and their widows. The national cemeteries were for Union soldiers only. The burden of “the work of death”—first to care for, then to mourn, and later to memorialize the fallen—fell on Southern women. It was part of their lives for decades, for generations.

In the Virginia and Carolina of my childhood, there was still a melancholia in old ladies’ voices that I know was inherited from their mothers, the wives and widows of soldiers. Sometimes I imagine that I hear that same strain in the conversation of genteel Southern women today. Indeed, I listened for a trace of it in a reading by Drew Gilpin Faust, because she was brought up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. But she is only 60 years old, she has spent her distinguished professional life in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and now I find that she was born in New York City. Perhaps it is having lived in both the north and the south that enables her to empathize with postbellum parties on both sides and to conclude that shared suffering united the North and South. There is ample evidence that it did, especially many of the men who had fought each other, had been through what all soldiers have to endure. As early as 1897, former Confederate generals James Long­street and John B. Gordon led a gathering of respectful ex-Rebels to help dedicate Grant’s tomb in New York. A year later, none other than Robert E. Lee’s nephew, the ex-Confederate cavalry general Fitzhugh Lee, was back in U.S. uniform, commanding American troops in Cuba. At Gettysburg in 1913, thousands of veterans gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of the battle, and when old Confederates emulating Pickett’s charge approached the Union line, old Yankees rose from behind the stone wall to embrace them as brothers.

Reunion, yes. But then there’s the part about how shared suffering has somehow overridden the “persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood.” That’s taking a lot longer.

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Ernest B. Furgurson is a former Washington and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and has written six books of history and biography, including, most recently, Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War.


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