September 25, 2012
Given Louisiana’s strong role in the history of the Confederacy, one doesn’t have to look far here for solemn commemorations of the Civil War, including vivid re-enactments of historic battles.
What’s too easily lost in such remembrances is the reality of what was left after the battles were over. In the case of the Civil War, more than any other war in American history, what persisted after the last shot on the battlefield was an enormous number of dead soldiers — a staggering death toll even by today’s standards of modern warfare.
All of this is made terribly immediate in “Death and the Civil War,” a two-hour documentary debuting at 7 p.m. tonight as part of public television’s “The American Experience” series.
To see tonight’s show, based on a gracefully written book on the subject by Drew Gilpin Faust, is to be reminded how shattering the Civil War was for both sides of the conflict.
By war’s end, the death toll stood at some 750,000 soldiers, more than in all of America’s other wars combined.
Before the Civil War, the U.S. government assumed little responsibility for locating, identifying, transporting and burying war dead. But the massive losses of the Civil War proved such a deep psychological wound that citizens petitioned their government for closure.
From that movement grew the observance of Memorial Day — and a national commitment to revere and remember those who die in combat.
It’s a tradition that still resonates today, as members of the American military continue to die in combat operations in Afghanistan.
In that way, the past chronicled in “Death and the Civil War” seems, sadly, not very distant at all.