DEATH AND THE CIVIL WAR
8 p.m. today, UNC-TV, SC ETV
Not only was the carnage of the Civil War enormous, it was highly personal and reached nearly every household in the nation, one way or another.
Death is inevitable, a Confederate soldier wrote to his father as life seeped out of him through a shoulder wound. My horse and my equipment will be left for you. Your dying son, J.R. Montgomery.
In the four darkest years of the nations history, an estimated 750,000 men died about 2.5 percent of the American public then, a number that would translate in todays population to 7 million.
Filmmaker Ric Burns, in a PBS special Tuesday, examines the staggering toll and the changes it brought to the American society.
The slaughter begins
On July 21, 1861, 60,000 men blundered into one another near Manassas, Va., in the first major land battle of the war. By days end, nearly 900 men were dead.
People still hoped the war would end quickly, but in April 1862 came the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. More than 3,000 men were killed in unprecedented savagery.
At that point, the nation realized it wasnt going to be a war of attrition, but a great battle lubricated at every step by blood, says George Will in the documentary.
At Antietam Creek in Maryland, 150 years ago this week, the point was proven. Nearly 4,000 soldiers were killed outright and hundreds more were doomed by infection.
Overwhelmed surgeons dressed wounds with cornhusks. More American soldiers were killed on Sept. 17, 1862, than on any other single day in the nations history of combat. Casualties were higher than those of the entire two-year-long Mexican-American War, but accomplished in a mere 12 hours. Many historians say the battle ended in a draw.
Photography had by then reached a stage where it was no longer a studio art. Matthew Brady took pictures of fields strewn with corpses and exhibited the images two months later in New York. It brought the vivid slaughter to Northerners for the first time, and they were horrified.
A new way of death
Improvements in weaponry were behind the vast bloodletting. Smooth-bore rifles inflicted wounds over a longer range, and outmoded strategies of mass charges played to the strength of the guns. Camps were filthy places and an estimated two-thirds of the deaths in the war were from disease.
From this came a new generation of military hospitals, sanitary commissions, the ambulance corps and national cemeteries. And the nation developed a new relationship with death.
No longer could one assume he would die at home among a circle of family and friends, ready to pick up in heaven where life fell off on Earth. Embalming became a mainstream practice so bodies could be returned home, but many of the dead were never identified. Thousands were left to decay where they fell.
Carolinas suffered most
In the South, 20 percent of white men of military age died in the Civil War. No state gave more than North Carolina. At Gettysburg, 700 North Carolinians died, a third of the Confederate toll.
North Carolina sent 125,000 men to the war, and 40,000 were believed to have died. Thats more than twice the number for South Carolina, which suffered the second highest toll, believed to be about 18,000.
Neither of the two national governments had a formal mechanism to notify next of kin of a soldiers death. It fell to newspapers to break the news through long lists of casualty reports.
Half the dead from the war were never identified, many quickly interred in mass graves to spare them the indignity of ravaging by wild animals.
Death in the Civil War concludes by describing the hideous grief borne by hundreds of thousands of families for an entire generation.
It was a cruel fantasy, but there was always a chance, for the rest of their days, that their missing sons or husbands could still one day walk in the door. Death they could understand and could deal with. There was a religious frame for that.
But eternally missing? Never.