Book explores how Civil War changed ways people thought about death

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LIVERMORE — Last week students and teachers gathered at the Norlands Living History Museum to discuss how the book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War changed death and dying in the United States.

This final book talk was part of the Local and Legendary Grant awarded to Spruce Mountain High School and Norlands Living History Museum by the Maine Humanities Council, Maine Historical Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  

Because of the grant, Spruce Mountain High School was able to offer a course called Our Hands on History. In addition to reading about the Civil War, students in the class have been scanning documents from the Norlands collection, transcribing them, and then uploading them to a page at the Maine Memory Network. On May 18th there will be a special program when the students will reveal the online exhibit they have created.

Dr. Elizabeth Biscof, history professor at the University of South Maine, led this discussion. The book, written by Drew Gilpin Faust, shares stories of soldiers and their families, northerners, southerners, nurses, poets, preachers, and statesmen. Through their voices, readers come to understand how the Civil War changed death for both individuals and the nation.

Biscof said advances in technology have increased the estimates for the number of soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War from 620,000 to 750,000. In today’s population numbers, the equivalent would be 6 million Americans.

Before the Civil War, most people died at home or close by. Biscof said, “90 percent died within 10 miles of home.” Family members took care of the deceased person and there were established mourning practices.

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People could recognize a family who had experienced a loss by the clothes and accessories worn. The mourning period lasted a year. Any lady who jumped out of mourning too soon were shunned, although mothers with young children could come out of mourning sooner so the youngsters wouldn’t be surrounded by death and dying.   

Although the practice of embalming was known, it was rarely used. 

The modern weaponry of the Civil War meant that more soldiers could be killed from a distance. This created mass casualties and mass burials. There were so many dying and not enough people to care for them. Those bodies that could be identified often had to be shipped long distances for burial at home, so embalming became a necessity.

Townspeople in villages where battles occurred looked to the government to take care of the bodies left behind. They didn’t think they should be responsible, but the smell in those towns soon became unbearable and something had to be done.

There were no policies in place to deal with such situations. People wanted to know what had happened to their loved ones and they wanted the numbers. There was no system in place to handle all of the dead. This led to the growth of organizations within the government to figure out how many were dead and where they were buried.

The living were also affected by the war. More than half of the men who went off to war were unaccounted for. People didn’t know the fate of their loved ones. “To not know drove people mad,” Biscof said.

Mis-identification of remains was often a problem. Biscof spoke of a Confederate soldier who is buried in a Gray cemetery because of such a mixup.

The economic impact was also huge. The country was primarily an agrarian society before the war. Afterwards there were few able bodied men surviving to farm the land and take care of the children. This led to huge outward migrations, especially in New Hampshire and Maine. 

Today, most experience a modern professional death with fewer people dying at home. The funeral business and the laws governing the dead are a legacy of the Civil War and the direct impact it had on both the living and the dead of that time.

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