Thursday, May 08, 2008

Dying in the Civil War

In Central Pennsylvania, there was big national news recently: On April 14, 2008, the National Park Service opened a new Museum and Visitors' Center at the Gettysburg National Military Park, in Adams County, PA.

Gettysburg holds a special place in American history, not only as a turning point in the war, but as the site of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, in which he outlined his vision for the nation.

Completion of this $135 million project will enable the [Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum] Foundation and the National Park Service to make Gettysburg a classroom of democracy: a place that educates and inspires; a place that honors America by promoting a better understanding of the forces that shaped our national character. * * * [Link for quote]
This is national news, because the Battlefield at Gettysburg is a treasure of our American history:
The Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War, the Union victory in the summer of 1863 that ended General Robert E. Lee's second and most ambitious invasion of the North.

Often referred to as the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy", it was the war's bloodiest battle with 51,000 casualties.

It also provided President Abraham Lincoln with the setting for his most famous address. * * *
Born, raised, & still resident in Central Pennsylvania 25 miles northwest of Gettysburg, I have long been acquainted with the Battle.

Now older, as a "trust & estate" lawyer, I contemplate more seriously those "51,000 casualties" -- soldiers who were killed, wounded, or lost in action -- during three hot days on acreage away from home that can be toured now -- from one end to the other, and through both armies' lines -- in one day by car.

In the aftermath of the battle, every farm field was a graveyard and every church, public building and even private homes were hospitals. Medical staff were strained to treat so many wounded scattered about the county. * * *

By January 1864, the last few remaining patients were gone and so were the surgeons, guards, nurses, tents and cookhouses. Only a temporary cemetery on the hillside remained as a testament to the courageous battle to save lives that took place at Camp Letterman. * * *

Prominent Gettysburg residents became concerned with the poor conditions of soldiers' graves scattered over the battlefield and at hospital sites, and pleaded with Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin for state support to purchase a portion of the battlefield to be set aside as a final resting place for the defenders of the Union cause.

Gettysburg lawyer David Wills was appointed the state agent to coordinate the establishment of the new "Soldiers' National Cemetery", which was designed by noted landscape architect William Saunders.

Removal of the Union dead to the cemetery began in the fall of 1863, but would not be completed until long after the cemetery grounds were dedicated on November 19, 1863. * * *
News reported locally during the Civil War was collected in searchable text made available online by the "Valley of the Shadow" historical project, created by the Virginia Center for Digital History, affiliated with the University of Virginia.

That Project digitalized and also cataloged the contents of
three local Union newspapers published in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and three local Confederate newspapers published in Augusta County, Virginia, that reveal the views of "two communities in the Civil War".

As a T&E lawyer, I found myself searching that Project's records under such terms as "estate", "probate", "death", and "court". The resulting death notices and announcements confirmed that there was an administrative aftermath to many deaths where property was owned by a decedent.

Estates back then were administered under state law (without any concern for federal law) in a simplified, but public fashion that mirrors the basic approach retained today in Pennsylvania -- probate of a last will or application of intestate laws, notifications to creditors, collection of assets, administration by a personal representative, litigation if necessary, final accounting to the Orphans' Court, and distribution of net assets to those entitled.

While browsing the Project's content, I was drawn back to the Battle of Gettysburg. Reading some newspaper articles published in July, 1863, I could experience the North's terror from the insurgents' "invasion", and the South's fervor for a final victory to end the conflict.

According to Confederate Field Orders issued by General Robert E. Lee, reprinted in the Franklin Depository on July 15, 1863, high morality motivated the invading army:
Headquarters Army Northern Virginia, Chambersburg, Pa., June 27, 1863
General Orders No. 73

The Commanding General has observed with marked satisfaction the conduct of the troops on the march, and confidently anticipates results commensurate with the high spirit they have manifested.

No troops could have displayed greater fortitude, or better performed the arduous marches of the past ten days. Their conduct in other respects has, with few exceptions, been in keeping with their character as soldiers, and entitles them to approbation and praise. * * *

It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed [illegible] and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.* * *

The Battle of Gettysburg culminated on the third day in Pickett's Charge, the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy", where "[s]o much carnage [occurred] in such a small place -- it is difficult for us today to realize the horror those young men faced * * *."

A report in the
Stanton Spectator on July 28, 1863, focused on the commitment and courage of the Confederate soldiers, but could not deny the carnage inflicted by the opposing Union army.
An eye witness testifies that they formed into line of battle as coolly and deliberately as if forming for dress parade.

Headed by their gallant officers, the column being led by General Pickett himself, they moved forward to the carnage across a plain, some 500 yards in width, subjected to the action of guns smoking like a hurricane of death all over the field.

The noble and gallant Pickett, commanding then pressed up to the ugly ramparts of the enemy. It is believed that a more gallant and heroic charge was never made on this continent.

Pickett's division has been in the hardest fighting of this bloody war. The division have borne themselves well and nobly, always and everywhere. But the crowning glory of those patriot heroes was achieved in the assault upon the ironclad crest of Gettysburg.

The list of casualties tells, in terms of truer eloquence, the bravery and patriotism of that blood-stained and self-honored division, than can any figures of rhetoric or poetry. Every Brigadier fell, and a long catalogue of Colonels and other officers.

The division went in from five to six thousand strong. Three days after the battle but fifteen hundred reported for duty. * * *
The Franklin Repository, on July 29, 1863, reflected on the sacrifices displayed on the battlefield:
On Tuesday evening after the fight, we found ourselves among the crowd of visitors to the battle field of Gettysburg.

There were many whose sad faces and anxious inquiries proclaimed their errand. Others, again, were busily attending to the necessities of the wounded; but perhaps in every breast there was felt something of that strange feeling which instinctively draws us to a battle field.

It is not a morbid curiosity as some would claim. It is with a feeling more akin to reverence that we draw nigh to the broad and bloody altar, on which thousands of our fellow beings have so freely laid down their lives for our redemption.

Such spots are shrines to which true patriots will ever make their pilgrimages; and we may rest assured that the nation is nigh destruction when it can forget or walk thoughtlessly over its battle grounds. * * *
A newly-released book provides an analysis how the people of that era were willing to die or to support causes that resulted in such massive casualties.

Professor Rea Andrew Redd, of the Eberly Library, Waynesburg College, in Waynesburg, PA, just posted on his blog, the Civil War Librarian, a notice about a new book, Awaiting the Heavenly Country, by Mark S. Schantz (2008, Cornell University Press, 256 pages).

The book analyzes attitudes towards death in America in the mid-nineteenth century.
See: Just Released---From The Hearth, Through The Battlefield, To The Grave (05/06/08):

How much loss can a nation bear?

An America in which 620,000 men die at each other's hands in a war at home is almost inconceivable to us now, yet in 1861 American mothers proudly watched their sons, husbands, and fathers go off to war, knowing they would likely be killed.

Today, the death of a soldier in Iraq can become headline news; during the Civil War, sometimes families did not learn of their loved ones' deaths until long after the fact. Did antebellum Americans hold their lives so lightly, or was death so familiar to them that it did not bear avoiding?

In Awaiting the Heavenly Country, Mark S. Schantz argues that American attitudes and ideas about death helped facilitate the war's tremendous carnage. Asserting that nineteenth-century attitudes toward death were firmly in place before the war began rather than arising from a sense of resignation after the losses became apparent, Schantz has written a fascinating and chilling narrative of how a society understood death and reckoned the magnitude of destruction it was willing to tolerate. * * *
He quotes this passage from Mr. Schantz' book:
Americans came to fight the Civil War in the midst of a wider cultural world that sent them messages about death that made it easier to kill and to be killed.

They understood that death awaited all who were born and prized the ability to face death with a spirit of calm resignation.

They believed that a heavenly eternity of transcendent beauty awaited them beyond the grave. They knew that their heroic achievements would be cherished forever by posterity.

They grasped that death itself might be seen as artistically fascinating and even beautiful.
See also: "In the Mourning Store", a review of that book by Adam Gopnik, published in The New Yorker Magazine on April 17, 2008.

Today, the quiet, well-marked,
Gettysburg National Military Park embodies everything that is "fascinating and even beautiful" about death in combat for a cause. The new Museum and Visitors' Center, with its architecture, collections, & illustrations, should aid our contemplation about the past tumult there.