Death and the Civil War
Directed by Ric Burns (PBS) 2012
This PBS documentary explores the unprecedented level of casualties during the US Civil War and its effect on future federal and military policy.
The Civil War was the first technology-heavy war of the modern era, ie employing weapons designed to kill large numbers of men at a distance. Two and a half percent (750,000) of the US population died in the civil war – this would equate to 7 million deaths today.
Prior to the Civil War, there were no military hospitals or cemeteries, no dog tags to identify dead soldiers, no systematic method of notifying their families and no pension system to support bereaved survives
When Lincoln first declared war on the Confederacy, he expected it to last only 90 days. Three months later, the Battle of Bull Run produced half the number of casualties (900 killed, 2,700 wounded) as the entire Mexican-American War (1846-1848). By 1862, both sides realized the Civil War would be a war of attrition.*
Two-thirds of Civil War deaths stemmed from infectious diseases in military camps.
Without adequate military infrastructure to address Civil War casualties, Lincoln authorized the formation of private women’s groups to address them. The US Sanitary Commission and the Christian Association supported sick and wounded Union soldiers, and church and state-based relief organizations supported those from the Confederacy. US Patent Office employee Clara Barton (eventual founder of the Red Cross) took charge of raising funds to provide food and medical supplies for wounded Union troops.
In 1863. the first federal military cemeteries were established, with Gettysburg being one of the first.
For the most part, however, neither the North nor the South dealt with the 100,000+ unidentified, unburied bodies scattered across the eastern continent until Lee surrendered. In 1865, all Union bodies (tracked through officers’ enrollment records) were moved from temporary graves to national cemeteries.
The refusal of President Andrew Johnson’s administration to assist the former Confederacy in recovering and burying their dead added to a number of grievances Southerners felt related to US military occupation during Reconstruction (1865-1877).
In 1868 Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day), became a federal holiday dedicated to decorating the graves of Union soldiers. in 1868 originally observed on May 30 from 1868 to 1970.**
*A war of attrition is one without a decisive victory for either side. Instead both sides try to wear down their opponents to the point via continuous losses in personnel and materiel.
**From 1868-1970, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. At present, it’s observed the last Monday in May. It’s celebrated on different days in Southern states.
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.
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