'Here was a city of the dead'

Published:July 1, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Petersburg, Virginia. Dead Confederate soldier in trenches of Fort Mahone (LC-B811- 3188)

Last week, the blog Shorpy posted a series of photographs of the dead from the Civil War battlefield of Petersburg. Like the one above, they’re tough to look at and even tougher to consider fully for all their moral, political, social, military, and even aesthetic ramifications. There’s a lot going on, in other words.

The Shorpy editor frames the series by titling each photograph with a quotation from the Latin requiem mass—suggesting religion, sacrifice (a word that has the same root as sacred), and remembrance. Commenters, meanwhile, wonder about the purpose of such morbid snapshots, muse about Victorian mores, and speculate about the origins of the modern entertainment industry.

I appreciate these sorts of discussions, and this one reminded me of a talk that Drew Gilpin Faust recently gave at the University of Richmond. The Harvard president was on hand to honor her fellow Civil War scholar (and Encyclopedia Virginia Editorial Advisory Board member) Edward L. Ayers on the occasion of his own presidential inauguration. She spoke about death and the Civil War, which is also the topic of her new book, This Republic of Suffering.

In a war that cost 620,000 soldiers their lives, Faust said, about half of the bodies were never identified. “For their kin, this left what one Pennsylvanian called ‘a dread void of uncertainty.'” For the federal government, it left the question of responsibility. How to honor, how to memorialize, how to take care of all these dead?

In the immediate postbellum years, Faust explained, the federal government mounted a huge reburial program, “with Union soldiers sent to scour the southern countryside—battlefields, roads, byways—in search of every Union soldier’s grave.” More than 300,000 of the dead were reburied in seventy-four new national cemeteries, and 54 percent of the bodies were identified. The scale of this program was unprecedented. And the humanity behind the project, Faust pointed out, helped to affirm values “that the war had undermined and challenged.”

“Now what I’ve just described was only for Union soldiers,” Faust noted. “The Confederate dead were excluded from this program. This was much resented by white southerners, and under the lead of southern women, white southerners took up the task on a voluntary basis, much of it, very intensely, done here in Virginia. Women organized the gathering of bodies around Richmond, around Atlanta, and small towns across the South.

“And the scale of this was remarkable, too. As you know, in Petersburg, there are 30,000 Confederate dead in the Blandford Cemetery. And the prewar population of Petersburg was only 18,000. Here was a city of the dead that far exceeded the city of the living that had preceded it.”

And so, too, does that soldier pictured above now belong to that city of the dead. May he rest in peace.

Faust’s full talk, along with comments by Ayers and University of Virginia history professor Gary W. Gallagher, can be found here.