‘Death and the Civil War’ is gruesome and spiritual
Television • “American Experience” recounts how war changed our attitudes toward dying.

By Scott D. Pierce

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: September 17, 2012 09:07AM
Updated: January 7, 2013 11:30PM
Courtesy photo "American Experience" executive producer Mark Samels, president of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust (who is also author of This Republic of Suffering) and filmmaker Ric Burns discuss the political and social changes wrought by the pervasiveness and fear of death during the Civil War.

Filmmaker Ric Burns spent five years immersed in the subject of the War Between the States. Working with his older brother, Ken, he was one of the writers of the 10-hour documentary series “The Civil War.”

“I cut my teeth with Ken making that series on the Civil War from 1985 to 1990,” Burns said. “And to be sure, it was a seismic event in our lives to work on the subject then.”

But even that award-winning series was not exhaustive. When Ric Burns was asked to adapt Drew Gilpin Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering into an “American Experience” documentary, he discovered he wasn’t returning to familiar territory. Faust’s book is about death and how the horrifying number of casualties in the Civil War changed America forever.

“It’s not that we overlooked it,” Burns said. “Our emphasis in ‘The Civil War’ was someplace else.”

He pointed to the First Battle of Bull Run, which was treated in the 1990 documentary series as the point when both sides realized it would be a much different war than they expected and “began to gear up for a much larger campaign.”

But in “Death and the Civil War,” it “really had to do with the complete lack of preparation that either side had for death tolls and casualties on this scale,” Burns said. “It’s as if no one was in charge. It’s as if no one had any idea that war was going to be fought on this scale with casualties of this tremendous number.”

If the same percentage of Americans died today as did during the Civil War, the death toll would be more than 7 million. And in the 1860s, there was no system for identifying and burying the dead. No system to notify next of kin. No way to return bodies to their families. The Union Army didn’t even have an ambulance corps until 1864, three years after the war began.

“That, to put it mildly, was completely new to me.” Burns said. “I was sort of shocked that hiding in plain sight was this ghastly new reality [that] was cast over the entire body politic of the American people. And it changed people inside and out, North and South, black and white, in the government, in the way we bury people down to this day.”

Faust, who is featured prominently in the documentary, writes and talks about how the Civil War changed 19th-century America’s view of “the good death” — one that was peaceful and planned for — and the reality that accompanied the war.

“The book also deals with questions of meaning and religion and transformation in psychology and belief,” said Faust, president of Harvard University. “And I think this film captures that part of it so magnificently — the human suffering that extended not simply to those who died, but to the survivors who had to grapple with what that meant about how they understood religion, how they understood the nation state, and how they understood their lives.”

“Death and the Civil War” deals with bigger questions, but it’s also a gruesome reminder of the horrors of that war. The two-hour documentary is filled with shocking black-and-white photos of the fields after the battles.

“We were determined to show the war in its full gruesomeness as both the photographic record and the manuscript record would allow us access to it,” Burns said. “Sometimes the gruesomeness was actually more available through the imagined horror of receiving a letter from [a soldier] as he lay dying on the battlefield at Antietam.”


“American Experience”

“Death and the Civil War” airs Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. on PBS/Channel 7. It’s the day after the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. Approximately 23,000 Union and Confederate troops were killed, wounded or listed as missing.