Review of Mark S. Schantz, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).
WITH AWAITING THE HEAVENLY COUNTRY, Mark S. Schantz contributes to a growing body of scholarship that explores the veritable “culture of death” shared by many Americans during the Civil War era. Such research, much of it published only during the last few years, stands to improve our understanding of the motivations and beliefs that sustained the war’s participants for four bloody years. More to the point, these studies can help us better fathom why millions of Americans were willing to risk horrific injuries and death on the battlefield. “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,” Schantz argues in his Introduction: “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. They saw how notions of full citizenship were predicated on the willingness of men to lay down their lives” (2).
As the above lines indicate, Awaiting the Heavenly Country investigates more than how a belief in the afterlife allowed Americans to better cope with the reality of 600,000 wartime deaths. Indeed, Schantz studies numerous facets of nineteenth-century life North and South, demonstrating that in both regions there existed, even long before the war, a pervasive interest in death as both a concept and an ideal. Subjects of inquiry include theology, popular advertisements, the study of Greek literature, antebellum and wartime poetry, the rural cemetery movement, the visual arts, historical memory, and political rhetoric. A chapter titled “Better to Die Free, Than to Live Slaves” does the admirable work of studying African-American attitudes toward death. Considering the enormous stakes of the war for black Americans, it is fascinating to read about what Schantz terms “the interplay between slavery and death” (129). Slavery could itself be considered a kind of death: a half-life at best. For many black Americans, a far better end (a “Good Death,” in the parlance of the day) would be to fall in battle, or to die while performing some other service meant to hasten the end of slavery. Here the depth of Schantz’s research is characteristically impressive, enabling him to reflect on the lives and words of obscure runaways – some of whom killed themselves rather than return to slavery – no less than on the contributions of well-known black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass.
One of the most arresting and effective qualities of the book is its use of black and white illustrations and photographs. These works do not merely accent the textual analysis; rather, they often provide the essential evidence necessary to support Schantz’s arguments. Multiple images of memorial lithographs, each similar to the next, support his discussion of the medium’s “relentless consistency” (167). Similarly, reproductions of pictorial works such as Washington Welcoming Lincoln into Heaven (68) clarify what Schantz means when he discusses nineteenth-century America’s “strongly materialist notion of the heavenly reunion” (67). Some images of death reproduced in Awaiting the Heavenly Country will be familiar to students of Civil War history: the Alexander Gardner photographs of dead and skeletonized soldiers, for example. Other images, such as the postmortem photograph of a deceased child posed on the lap of her mother, will most likely be new to most readers. Whether new or familiar, these images all demonstrate that America of the nineteenth century had a far closer proximity to death than did America of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. How that proximity affected the minds and art of those experiencing the Civil War is a story Schantz tells with skill and clarity. He therefore achieves one of the goals established at the outset of the book, to meet the historian Edward Ayers’s challenge to scholars to “place more distance between nineteenth-century Americans and ourselves, the very distance that lets us see ourselves more clearly” (qtd. 5).
But while true that Americans of that older period “participated in a culture of death that may seem alien to us” (209), that culture may not have appeared alien to the people of other nations during the nineteenth century, nor to non-Americans of later periods. Indeed, a potential problem connected to Schantz’s project is that his readers may adopt a kind of historical tunnel vision, believing the wartime actions and attitudes of nineteenth-century Americans to be without parallel. For instance, he begins by noting that suicidal charges “punctuate the narrative of the war from start to finish,” and that “men slaughtered each other with a zeal we still grope to comprehend” (1). But people of other nations have, in other conflicts, demonstrated the same willingness to embrace and inflict death. During the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British suffered nearly 20,000 combat deaths in a single day. During World War II, the Red Army endured over one million casualties in the Battle of Stalingrad alone; in the Pacific, during the fighting for the tiny atoll of Tarawa, all but seventeen of 5,000 Japanese soldiers fought to the death. These later wars involved machine guns and other advanced weaponry that made killing far more efficient than during the Civil War, yet men still charged gamely into the teeth of enemy positions. On what grounds, then, can we claim that Americans of the Civil War era possessed a set of beliefs and sensibilities uniquely attuned to self-sacrifice and mass bloodletting?
Schantz largely avoids the question of later wars by speaking of the Civil War’s “unprecedented” destructiveness (3). And to be fair, he acknowledges briefly the culture of death motivating suicide bombers of the twenty-first century – persons he labels as “shadowy figures” (3). Yet had Schantz shed more light into those shadows, and devoted space to the cultures of other nations and eras, he might have done more to complicate and contextualize his conclusions about the views to which antebellum Americans adhered. What about that culture of death was fundamentally American, or fundamentally Western? How did American politics and ideals prompt attitudes toward dying that differed from those found in other countries? To what extent did American perspectives on death, before and during the Civil War, depend on the limitations of medicine, weaponry, and transportation – all of which changed dramatically by World War I? A comparison of the prevailing Western attitudes toward death in the years leading up to 1861 and 1914 would prove particularly instructive.
Ultimately, however, the desire for this book to do even more speaks to its fascinating subject matter and careful delivery. Schantz’s fine work prompts an array of questions for other scholars to now take up and consider. Readers already familiar with the works of Drew Gilpin Faust, Franny Nudelman, and Alice Fahs will find that Awaiting the Heavenly Country offers new insights into how Americans thought about life and death in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. For those readers entirely new to the subject, Schantz’s book will serve as an excellent introduction. Its careful research, clear writing, and wealth of illustrations will appeal to anyone who appreciates engaging, accessible scholarship.
CRAIG A. WARREN
Penn State Erie, The Behrend College
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