Photographs of dead soldiers on the battlefield, even when archival,
are jarring to America's younger generations, unaccustomed to seeing
what war costs. In a world filled with wall-to-wall, immediately
available news, many remain unaware and unexposed to the realities. My
own cosseted existence may be why I found the American Experience documentary Death and the Civil War so
compelling. Through interviews, thoughtfully read letters from the
battlefield, and a rich supply of wartime photos you may never have seen
before, this is an exhaustive exploration of the cultural changes
surrounding America's relationship with death during the 1860s.
A country familiar to the “Good Death” at home and surrounded by loved
ones was in no way prepared for the toll of over 750,000 taken by the
Civil War in just a few years (this was 2.5% of the population, which
would be 7 million people today), sometimes more than 20,000 in a day.
“Improvements” in weaponry made killing easier and more efficient, while
the now-primitive medical techniques of the day did the rest. Everyone
in the nation lost someone they knew, and explored here are the records
of how they grappled with this seismic shift in the world.
Examined here is the acceleration of death; the vast scale of having too
many to bury slides quickly from individual internment to mass graves.
The national psyche was shaped by not knowing if your loved one was
still alive as your daily scanned exhaustive and frequently inaccurate
lists of names. National cemeteries must be created and the seeds of
soldier's dog tags are planted.
There are moments in Death and the Civil War
where you may find yourself moved by the sheer scale of this nearly 150
years old grief and loss. At two hours this may be too long and
measured a documentary to hold the casual viewer's attention, but time
is taken to thoroughly unpack and explore cultural impact of so worthy a
subject. There are rich and fascinating rewards here for those who
From acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns, Death and the Civil War
explores an essential but largely overlooked aspect of the most pivotal
event in American history. With the coming of the Civil War, and the
staggering casualties it ushered in, death entered the experience of the
American people as it never had before - permanently altering the
character of the republic, and the psyche of the American people. Based
on Drew Gilpin Faust's groundbreaking book, "This Republic of
Suffering," the film tracks the increasingly lethal arc of the war down
through the struggle, in the war's aftermath, to cope with an American
landscape littered with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
None available on the screener copy.
Death and the Civil War
is an edifying, rewarding meditation on the changing relationship the
living have with death when it arrives on a grand scale. Perhaps to slow
for some, but extremely interesting.