"The Dead, the Dead, the Dead"
The omnipresence and power of death during the Civil War cannot be overstated. Death’s stench clung to battlefields and campsites, and drew a dark fog of grief, pain, and rot across the country. Soldiers feared the anonymity and anguish of death on the battlefield, while those at home anxiously scanned their local newspapers each week praying that they would not see a familiar name printed under the list of newly dead. Some lucky soldiers—if they may be called fortunate—were able to contact their families in their final moments through deathbed letters that attempted to provide relief and closure.
Dying of wounds suffered at Gettysburg, Jeremiah Gage wrote to his mother on July 3, 1863 and warned, “This is the last you will may ever hear from me.” Though the war would claim thousands of men, Gage and other soldiers would attempt to transcend the battlefield’s chaos by declaring that they faced their impending deaths with grace and acceptance: “I have time to tell you that I died like a man,” continued Gage as he slowly slipped into the ranks of the dead, requesting that his family “Bear [his] loss as best [they could].”
The Civil War remains the historical apogee for American wartime losses with approximately 620,000 killed—a figure equal to the total number of deaths in American wars from the Revolution to the Korean War. Men entered the conflict because of their desire to uphold their beliefs on citizenship, nation, and statehood, and subsequently, their passions fueled the fray. The deeply personal reasons for fighting intensified the violence, for the men felt as if they had more at stake in the battles.
The war, however, divorced death from its script as bodies lay faceless and maimed on fields and in hospitals. Often dead men would remain unburied or lumped into mass graves, and families were unlikely to ever obtain the bodies and offer them a proper burial. Total war denied the protection of the physical body in death, thus, threatening the men’s likelihood of attaining deliverance because their physical forms lay lost or destroyed. Gage recognized the anxiety his family would endure at not receiving his body and attempted to assuage their grief by writing, “You must not regret that my body can not be obtained. It is a mere matter of form anyhow.” However, Gage spattered his blood on his letter, the rusty dots representing, perhaps, a desperate desire to send home at least some portion of his expiring body. “This letter is stained with my blood,” were the final words he wrote.
“The Dead, the Dead, the Dead,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman, capturing with his simple lament the scale and devastation of death during the Civil War, as well as suggesting its capability to erase men’s identities. To prevent from being pooled into Whitman’s collective “Dead,” the soldiers pursued methods of self-memorialization in order to save themselves from the war’s cruelty and erasure. Memorialization began with naming, but ultimately, portrait photographs would prove most capable of preserving the soldiers and transmitting their experience.
Naming quickly recorded the existence of rapidly dying men, and Comrades literally collected the names of their fallen friends, as exemplified by the A. Kellogg notebook. In this small, leather-bound booklet, the owner collected clippings of Civil War casualties and scribbled down names and dates quickly and purposefully. In graphite and ink, the writer could attempt to reclaim some of the dead men’s identities, especially if the war would steal their bodies.
Walt Whitman, too, during his time observing the horrors of battle while caring for soldiers in hospitals and camps found it critical to gather the names of the dead and the dying by collecting names, dates, and notes about the men. Sometimes Whitman assembled the details neatly into little notebooks, but there exists a pile of scraps of paper—torn from booklets, the backs of newspapers, and from a wide variety of sources—where Whitman mainly wrote down the names. He included date of death, date of birth where he could, and most poignantly, notes on the whereabouts of remaining relatives with the intention, perhaps, of contacting the living and informing them of their newly dead.
Though Whitman primarily cared about the writings, the scraps themselves are perhaps the most significant and expressive: the dead in the war fell so rapidly and so numerously that Whitman barely had time to identify them all. The frantic bits of the soldiers Whitman amassed would ultimately preserve the memory of their being after their deaths; however, portrait photographs commissioned by the soldiers themselves would more firmly memorialize the men.