"Death and the Civil War" - Tonight on PBS

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Tonight on the PBS series American Experience, Ric Burns brings us Death and the Civil War, a bleak and wrenching documentary about the 750,000 people who died in the American Civil War. "Never before and never since have so many Americans died in any war, by any measure or reckoning," the narrator says, then Drew Gilpin Faust explains that in today's population that would mean 7 million dead. "What would we as a nation today be like, if we faced the loss of 7 million individuals?" Faust asks. This is a documentary about a nation learning what death on a terrible scale means -- what it means to die, what our wishes are after we die, how we bury our dead, what our responsibilities are to our veterans (and enemy veterans) who die, and also what our responsibility is to our veterans who live. It is an utterly devastating film, and you should watch it. Here's the trailer:

Watch Death and the Civil War Extended Promo on PBS. See more from American Experience.

The results of the Civil War included national cemeteries, policies about notifying next-of-kin, and state-level veterans' homes (which eventually led to the VA system we know today). Prior to that war, none of these existed in the United States -- and this documentary explores how we collectively came to understand how and why we honor the dead who serve our country.

The Civil War By the Numbers

Here's a snippet from American Experience's Civil War By the Numbers page:

From 1861 to 1865, the Civil War ravaged America. It still holds several notorious records, such as the highest number of average deaths per day (504). Read more of the shocking statistics from the War that divided our nation.

  • 4:1               The ratio of people who attended church weekly to those who voted in the 1860 election
  • 2.5               Approximate percentage of the American population that died in the Civil War
  • 7 mil           Number of Americans lost if 2.5% of the population died in war today
  • 2.1 mil        Number of Northerners mobilized to fight for the Union army
  • 880,000    Number of Southerners mobilized for the Confederacy
  • 50                Estimated percentage of Civil War deaths that occurred in the last two years of the War
  • 40+             Estimated percentage of Civil War dead who were never identified
  • 66                Estimated percentage of dead African American Union soldiers who were never identified
  • 2 out of 3   Number of Civil War deaths that occurred from disease rather than battle
  • 68,162        Number of inquiries answered by the Missing Soldiers Office from 1865-1868

The Gettysburg Address, Examined

The battle of Gettysburg incurred death on a scale that we can hardly imagine. With an estimated 51,000 casualties and 7,786 dead, the scale of carnage overwhelmed the town of Gettysburg, which itself only had 24,000 residents. There was simply no way the people there could properly care for the wounded and dead. As the film's narrator explains: "In three days, Union and Confederate forces had suffered almost as many casualties as in all previous American wars combined." Add to that, 3,000 dead horses lay dead on the battlefield. The task of burying the dead fell to Union soldiers and the townspeople, who faced the unimaginably grim work of burying these people in the summer heat. This is when the North truly felt the impact of the war, as this terrible battle literally brought death home. The stench of decay was so powerful and pervasive that when frost came, months after the battle, townspeople were still smearing peppermint oil on their faces to mask the odor. Let me say that again: the battle ran from July 1-3; people could still smell the carnage when the ground froze.

The most powerful part of Death and the Civil War is its treatment of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address. The film offers so much context for that speech, it's hard to imagine discussing the speech lacking this specific understanding of what was going on around Lincoln as he spoke. Imagine that you lived in Gettysburg, and you had to bury your country's dead in mass graves, and you had to live with that experience for months. Imagine then that a massive new cemetery, one of the first national cemeteries, had been constructed just south of town, and it was so large that it became a primary feature of your local landscape; the government paid to re-bury Union soldiers in that new cemetery at a rate of $1.59 per body. And then imagine that your president arrives in November, with the stench of death still in the air, and speaks -- he dedicates that Soldiers' National Cemetery (now Gettysburg National Cemetery), but also speaks to the larger responsibilities of the nation to its dead. He speaks in a cemetery where half of the coffins haven't even been buried yet. And this is what he says:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here's the first 11 minutes of the film. This gives you a clear idea of what it's like.

Watch Death and the Civil War, Chapter 1 on PBS. See more from American Experience.

And here's Executive Producer Mark Samels discussing how the documentary came about:

Watch Why we made Death & the Civil War on PBS. See more from American Experience.

The film airs on PBS stations tonight, September 18, at 8pm/7pm Central (check your local listings to be sure -- the program is American Experience and lasts two hours). If you miss the broadcast, the film will be available online on iTunes. The film is inspired by Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, and Faust appears in the film, framing the war and how it changed America's relationship with death.

Blogger disclosure: I was not specially compensated for this review. I requested a screener after seeing Ric Burns's New York: A Documentary, and found this film to be even more powerful.

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September 18, 2012 - 8:55am
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