"Death and the Civil War" Makes An Obvious Connection, But Makes It Well Review

Relentlessly grim and sedate, Death and the Civil War will be a wake-up call to anyone who thought the American Civil War was all fun and games. Based on the noted history The Republic of SufferingDeath's thesis is rather broad, and doesn't always seem to extend beyond war being hell, as the relationship to death and wartime would seem to be fairly obvious. That said, the program makes a suitable case that in the pantheon of wars, the civil war was especially horrible, both in a spiritual and physical way. Even if its point never takes hold in the way that it means to, it's a sobering portrait of a terrible, terrible war.

Though numbers such as these are always contested, Death cites the total number of dead from the war as 700,000, all of them American, most of them grotesque. There is no catastrophe in our modern history to claim such a large piece of our population, and be so indiscriminate in selecting its victims. Though some segments were undoubtedly affected more than others (the cruel fate of most blacks on either side of the Mason-Dixon is covered at length), the war was a contest of attrition for all involved, and brought about a paucity of resources and mercy that none probably could have imagined when they first donned their blue and grey.

The primary casualty of the war was the social notion of the 'good death'; a meaningful death at the end of a life lived richly, observed reverently by loved ones. But such an idea was hard to square with the mass graves that came in the wake of battles like Bull Run, and the frequently senseless slaughter by cannon fire. If its implicit meanings about how the observance of death changed are occasionally difficult to grasp, Death and the Civil War nevertheless makes clear just how awful the civil war really was, in terms that are hard to overstate. Its inferences may be ethereal, but its details are powerfully real and convincing.


There are none.

"Death and the Civil War" is on sale September 18, 2012 and is not rated. Documentary. Written and directed by Ric Burns.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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