Historians are interested in putting the American Civil War into context. For instance, 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in the war. The number itself is staggering, but what does it really mean? If we add up American deaths in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, they still do not surpass American deaths in the Civil War.
But again, what does that mean? Here’s another way to put it. 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War; in other words, the war claimed the lives of about 2 percent of the population. If we had a similar war today, we would lose about 6 million American soldiers.
What would that do to us? What would that do to our collective psyche? Such loss would not only manifest itself in our political and military affairs, but it would certainly influence our movies, music, and literature.
More and more Civil War historians have begun asking those questions. A recent book by Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, asks some of those questions.
More specific studies, such as Garbor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech that Nobody Knows, examine the apocalyptic scenes of death and dying that take place just after a battle.
Drew Gilpin Faust has a new book coming out next year called This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Faust is interested in uncovering some of what Walt Whitman assured us “will never get in the books.”
Not only am I looking forward to Faust’s new book, but I am intrigued by this new direction many Civil War scholars have chosen to take.
The topic reminds me of one of the most popular songs of the era, called “A Vacant Chair.” Here are the lyrics:
We will meet but we will miss him,
There will be his vacant chair;
We will linger to caress him,
While we breathe our evening prayer;
When a year ago we gathered,
Joy was in his mild blue eye,
But a golden chord is severed,
And our hopes in ruin lie.
We will meet, but we will miss him,
There will be his vacant chair,
We will linger to caress him
While we breathe our evening prayer.
At our fireside, sad and lonely,
Often will the bosom swell
At remembrance of the story,
How our noble father fell;
How he strove to bear our banner
Through the thickest of the fight;
And uphold our country's honor,
In the strength of manhood's fight.
True, they tell us wreaths of glory
Ever more will deck his brow,
But this soothes the anguish only,
Sweeping o'er our heartstrings now.
Sleep today, Oh early fallen,
In thy green and narrow bed.
Dirges from the pine and cypress
Mingle with the tears we shed.