In the midst of war, unorthodox views on death and the dead body emerged out of the entirely unparalleled experience with human violence, suffering, and mortality in U. The Civil War forced Americans to reconsider what counts as appropriate treatment of the dead, as well as to reconceptualize the symbolic meanings of the dead body.The confrontation, with brutally slaughtered masses of bodies or hopelessly diseased soldiers dying in hospitals or camps, upset conventional patterns of disposal, as well as established attitudes about communal duties, religious rituals, and personal respect in the face of death.
Many soldiers on both sides expressed a great deal of fear that their bodies would be left to the enemy, which was understood as a fate worse than death.
The federal government and Union soldiers themselves tried to ensure that bodies were identified with at least a name, a desire that led some soldiers to go into battle with their names and positions pinned onto their uniform (foreshadowing the popular use of dog tags in subsequent wars).
It also made lasting cultural impressions across imaginative and material American landscapes, including the gradual growth of a complex tourist industry built upon memory, patriotism, and consumerism, and the immediate expression of a deeply rooted, though politically sensitive, religious attachment to a distinctly southern way of life.
The Civil War, however, was a major turning point in American history for another reason as well: it transformed attitudes toward death and practices surrounding the corpse in the United States.
Another significant difference between this war and other wars after the Revolution is the proximity of the battles to American communities.
The Civil War not only took place on American soil, it pitted neighbor against neighbor, family against family, countrymen against countrymen.
In many cases, those assigned to burial duty—often African Americans, who performed a variety of noxious duties for the Union army—left the dead in their uniforms or placed a blanket around them before interment.
If such resources as pine coffins or burial containers were available, and time permitted, soldiers would be placed in them before being put in the ground, a procedure that rarely occurred in the early years of the war.
The deadly power of disease swept through the ranks because of the incredibly poor conditions in camps, resulting from inadequate shelter, contaminated water supplies, unhealthy diet, and a limited knowledge about proper sanitation and safe hygienic practices.
As the war progressed, the Union forces worked especially hard to improve the living conditions of soldiers and patients—death became an urgent public health issue that could be combated with sound, rational decisions about such simple things as clean water, healthy food, and adequate sanitation.
What counted as proper and appropriate action to usher the dead from the land of the living in an earlier time often proved impossible during the conflict, though in some cases efforts were made to treat the dead with a dignity that evoked prewar sensibilities.