In “Burying,” a chapter in Drew Gilpin Faust’s thought-provoking book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War,” the author argues that burying the dead during the American Civil War created a peculiar challenge for soldiers. Faust claims that the war had so many casualties that coming up with a strategy on how to dispose of them “defied both administrative imagination and logistical capacity” (233). Another confounding problem to this issue was the assumption that the dead needed to be treated appropriately, which was a common belief among nineteenth-century Americans.
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According to Faust, the dilemma of how to bury the dead during the war was deepened due to religious beliefs at the time about the possibility of reincarnation as promised in eternal life. Even soldiers were worried about how their remains would be disposed of, especially as the reality of war set in and the customary reverence of the deceased started to fade away. The author gives examples of soldiers writing from the battlefield expressing their fears of being neglected upon their death.
For instance, Confederate Thomas J. Key wrote, “It is dreadful to contemplate being killed on the field of battle without a kind hand to hide one’s remains from the eye of the world or the gnawing of animals and buzzards” (235). Faust highlights these concerns to show how soldiers, in their efforts to preserve the humanity of the dead as demanded by their beliefs, struggled to reconcile the reality on the ground. Clearly, burying the dead was increasingly becoming a nightmare as the war intensified.
In July 1861, General Order no. 75 was issued commanding officers to decently inter soldiers who died within their jurisdiction and submitted such records to the office of the adjutant general. Six months later, General Orders no. 33 was issued to ensure that all fallen soldiers were interred properly, but the language of the orders – “as far as possible…when practicable” painted a grim picture of the situation on the ground. While the orders demanded the decent burial of dead soldiers, they did not specify how such a herculean task would be accomplished in the midst of war, whereby even accessing the dead would be problematic at times.
The enemy would not stop fighting to allow Confederate soldiers to enter their dead, and as for Faust mentions, in such a cruel war, the generals were forced to focus on the living. The capacity to attend to the injured was limited, let alone the dead. As such, the author argues that burying the dead at the time became an act of improvising whereby prisoners of war and civilians would be enlisted to accomplish the task.
The author gives detailed accounts of how the battlefields were littered with half-buried dead bodies, forcing nearby residents to carry bottles of peppermint oil or pennyroyal to counter the stench that rented the air. The challenges of disposing of the dead forced the involved armies to invent techniques for the management of the process. Dead soldiers would be tied on the legs and torso and be dragged to a single location for burial. Mass graves were common in cases where the military men had the opportunity to access the dead and offer decent burial. These grotesque exercises dehumanized the dead and appalled the living at the same time.
However, some fallen soldiers were lucky, especially when their comrades were not retreating from the battle or in a hurry to execute some duties. During such times, the deceased would receive decent burials. Soldiers also paid homage to their departed comrades out of respect and for personal purpose as a way of reasserting their commitment to the sanctity of human life. The author traces how burying the dead evolved throughout the war, starting with decent burials, which would later progress into makeshift cemeteries as the fighting intensified. Ultimately, the permanent military burial sites were established as the war eased and moved towards its closure.
Faust argues that both the Union and Confederates endeavored to treat their fallen soldiers with respect where possible. Specifically, bodies of prominent soldiers would be handed over to their comrades. Even in the midst of the fighting, a flag of truce would be raised to achieve this seemingly important duty. Slaves also played an important role in the burial process as they would retrieve and take home for burial their fallen masters belonging to the Confederate Army. Embalming was also common as a way of preserving dead bodies before being transported to burial sites or handed over to their loved ones, but this option was only available to the rich, as it was an expensive process.
I believe what the author says concerning the challenges surrounding the burial of many fallen soldiers during the war against the backdrop of limited resources. The author uses primary information from the battlefields to support his claims, and thus I believe his account of what happened. Additionally, Faust is convincing in his arguments by using detailed descriptions to deliver the gripping horrors of the American Civil War.
Faust, G. Drew. “Burying.” United States History to 1865: Reader.