With all due respect to Wallace Stevens, death may or may not be the mother of beauty. It is, however, most certainly the offspring of war. There has never been military conflict without corpses. Yet as writer-director Ric Burns’s “Death and the Civil War” shows, America’s bloodiest conflict stands apart from other wars. The documentary, which is based on Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s 2008 book, “This Republic of Suffering,” airs Tuesday night on WGBH as part of PBS’s “American Experience” series.
Faust is among several talking heads in the film. Others include Yale historian David W. Blight, Harvard historian Vincent Brown, and poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch. Oliver Platt offers a simple, unobtrusive narration.
The documentary is divided into sections: “Dying,” “Burying,” “Naming,” “Honoring,” “Believing and Doubting,” “Accounting,” and “Remembering” (Memorial Day, originally Decoration Day, began as a commemoration of Civil War dead). Despite its subject matter, and the occasional gruesome period photograph, the documentary is neither morbid nor solemn. It is a bit overlong and sometimes scattered (how pertinent, exactly, is the Emancipation Proclamation?). But considering the conceptual and statistical nature of much of the material — in other words, not visual — Burns does well by his subject.
“With the coming of the Civil War,” Faust says, “the first mass war of the modern age, death would enter the experience of the American people and the body politic of the American nation as it never had before, on a scale and in a manner no one had ever imagined possible and under circumstances for which the nation would prove completely unprepared.”
What made the Civil War’s relationship different? Nearly 2.5 percent of the US population, an estimated three-quarters of a million people, died in it, a number equivalent in today’s terms to 7 million people. Daunting as that figure is, 20th-century warfare easily surpassed it several times. But there had never been anything like it before. Terrible as the number of deaths in the two world wars would be, they had a precedent of sorts — in the Civil War.
The technological timing of the war could hardly have been worse. Weaponry had been developed to new levels, and such innovations as railroads and steamships made it that much easier to transport men and munitions. Yet the medical ability to deal with the results of these other developments was rudimentary. Disease killed many more than bullets or cannonballs did.
Carnage on such a scale had a cascading effect. Bodies were left to rot on the battlefield in overwhelming numbers. It was several years before the Union army even had designated burial details. Countless dead soldiers went unidentified (there was no equivalent to dog tags). The extent of the war meant that civilians were affected to a previously unknown degree. The fighting led to there being large numbers of fugitive slaves, for example, who lived in contraband camps where death rates were shockingly high.
The most intriguing issue, if also the hardest to address in a visual medium, is the psychological impact on the culture of so much dying. “The United States embarked on a new relationship with death,” Faust says. It’s fitting that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the most famous speech associated with the war (indeed the most famous in US history), was given at the dedication of a cemetery. The documentary considers the speech at some length. James Cromwell, as the voice of Lincoln, delivers it offscreen. Other actors who read contemporary letters and other texts include Keith David, Robert Sean Leonard, and Amy Madigan.
The final third examines the aftermath of the war. The dying may have stopped, but its impact continued. The most striking example of this was the creation of a network of national cemeteries, in 1867, so that the bodies of dead soldiers could be reinterred. Nothing like such a system had ever existed before. Death, formerly a private and religious matter, now took on a civic dimension.
“This was a governmental engagement on a level so uncharacteristic of what the federal government had been and done in the years before the war that it represented a transformation in our understanding of what is a nation state,” Faust says. “To bury the dead is to say something to the citizens of the nation about a relationship that had not been acknowledged before.” Giving their lives to preserve the union, the fallen had begun reinventing it, too.