War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North

War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North

by Frances M. Clarke


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The American Civil War is often seen as the first modern war, not least because of its immense suffering. Yet unlike later conflicts, it did not produce an outpouring of disillusionment or cynicism, as most people continued to portray the war in highly sentimental and patriotic terms. While scholars typically dismiss this everyday writing as simplistic or naïve, Frances M. Clarke argues that we need to reconsider the letters, diaries, songs, and journalism penned by Union soldiers and their caregivers to fully understand the war’s impact and meaning.

In War Stories, Clarke revisits the most common stories that average Northerners told in hopes of redeeming their suffering and loss—stories that enabled people to make sense of their hardship, and to express their beliefs about religion, community, and personal character. From tales of Union soldiers who died heroically to stories of tireless volunteers who exemplified the Republic’s virtues, War Stories sheds new light on this transitional moment in the history of war, emotional culture, and American civic life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226108629
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2011
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Frances M. Clarke is senior lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Sydney.

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Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North
By Frances M. Clarke

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-10862-9

Chapter One

Suffering in Victorian America

NOT ALL WARS are the same. When people suffered in the Civil War, they had experiences that were in many ways unique. Bullets continued to pierce skin and bone in later wars, memories of suffering still recurred unbidden, but the way these impacts were felt and understood necessarily changed over time. Pain, and by extension suffering, has never been simply a bodily phenomenon. Suffering exists at once in the body and the mind. It is impossible to separate the physical sensations of pain from the context that makes sense of those sensations. Pain exists "only as we perceive it. Shut down the mind and pain too stops. Change the mind (powerfully enough) and ... pain too changes." Emerging at the intersection between mind, body, and culture, suffering has been experienced and understood variously in different times and places. It has been used differently as well, as individuals mobilized their culture's specific understandings of suffering for their own particular ends. To comprehend why Northerners responded to suffering in certain ways, or told certain stories about their response to war's carnage, it is thus necessary to start with the range of historically and culturally specific meanings that were given to suffering and sympathy in Victorian America.

People shared an intimate acquaintance with suffering at this time. Women entered the birthing room knowing they had a high likelihood of dying. Parents commonly lost young children, and their offspring regularly stood at the gravesides of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Even as late as 1870, fewer than 10 percent of Americans reached the age of fifteen with both of their parents and all their younger siblings still living. Average life expectancy at mid-century stood at a mere thirty-nine years of age. Rampant diseases like cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever periodically tore through cities and towns, leaving behind thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dead. Shocking numbers were killed or maimed at work, left to fend for themselves without the aid of pensions or workplace safety rules. Equally frightening, spiraling cycles of inflation and depression constantly threatened to bring misery down upon the heads of vulnerable wage laborers.

Individuals responded to this abundant suffering in class-specific ways. Privileged Americans are well known for having created an elaborate cult of death in an effort to tame the terrors of the grave. Far from keeping death hidden, they laid out bodies in family parlors and actively monitored the dying to ensure they adhered to prescribed ideals of deathbed behavior. The bereaved did not look for "closure" when funerals ended in the manner of modern Anglo-Europeans. Instead, they continued to hold death close, cherishing physical mementos of the departed in the form of post-mortem photographs, mourning jewelry made from the deceased's hair, or printed eulogies. Creating what historian Mark Schantz calls a "death embracing culture," genteel Americans communed with the dead at spiritualist séances, constructing intricate bereavement rituals, ornate cemeteries, and a literary culture saturated with sentimental death scenes. And they shared class-based understandings of suffering, too, especially a belief that other classes and races were less prone to suffering and less capable of sympathizing with distress.

The fiction of an insensible working class helped to rationalize enormous disparities in suffering among different classes in Victorian America. In poor urban neighborhoods low wages, inadequate diets, and unsanitary living conditions all took their toll, contributing to astronomical rates of disease and mortality. Living hand-to-mouth, wageworkers confronted the constant prospect of job loss and thus the distinct possibility of starvation. Nor could they escape the suffering of others. The poor were daily surrounded by the sights and sounds of pain: the howls of animals being slaughtered in city abattoirs or sliced apart in open butcher shops; the shrieks and groans of the sick in neighboring tenement rooms; the whipping of draft animals on city streets. Refusing to submit passively, sizable numbers of working-class men chose to stare down violence and danger instead. Some did so by consuming newspapers filled with lurid murders; others followed the fictional exploits of heroes who set out to conquer alien lands and peoples or joined in blood sports like bare-knuckle prize-fighting, bear baiting, ratting, or cock-fighting. Continuing a long tradition of reveling in displays of aggression and riotous disorder, these popular urban pastimes implicitly shunned an evolving middle-class embrace of nonviolence and respectability.

Working-class Northerners also had their own ways of confronting death. They did not simply imitate middle-class mourning practices. Most lacked the funds needed to purchase specially designed outfits or ornaments testifying to their grief. They could not cloister themselves for a designated mourning period, send out black-bordered stationery announcing their loss, erect a decorative headstone, or purchase post-mortem photographs of the dead. Such complex and costly expressions of grief were only available to people who had the time, money, and motive enough to engage in them. The death of a poor Northerner was a relatively austere affair: a short church service for the lucky ones, followed by burial in a pine box beneath a grave marked by a simple wooden or stone headboard, and perhaps a day of two of grieving with family and friends before work resumed.

Yet although class differences divided Northerners in terms of the extent of their suffering and responses to bereavement, powerful assumptions about pain and suffering also cut across and blurred class lines. Most important, no matter their station, all nineteenth-century people were born in a prebacteriological era. This simple fact had important ramifications for the way suffering was understood. Most crucially, it meant that physicians could not claim a monopoly over the treatment and comprehension of affliction. Since they were unable to diagnose or cure disease successfully, their professional standing was necessarily limited. Why pay a hefty fee to a physician with dubious healing credentials when one could rely on patent medicines or prayer to have an equally beneficial impact? Tens of thousands of ordinary people asked themselves this question, judging by the increasing volume of homemade remedies and popular elixirs consumed in the first half of the century. Moreover, physicians not only had to compete with itinerant salesmen and traditional treatments, they also had to contend with a growing range of alternative healing therapies and theories—ranging from homeopathy to hydropathy—all of which promised ordinary people the power to manage their own health and well-being. When it came to comprehending suffering, professional medicine was just one voice among a plethora of others.

It was also the case in the prebacteriological era that trained physicians and healers did not necessarily want to eradicate suffering, for many viewed pain as a positive sign of medical intervention. For doctors, a patient's visible discomfort proved that they had acted decisively on the body. Until well into the nineteenth century, these external proofs were all that physicians had to go on in gauging the effect of their treatments. Their senses—not stethoscopes, microscopes, or x-rays—were their only guides. Believing that disease was identical to its symptoms—that all illnesses produced exterior signs, without which no illness existed—physicians imagined that removing symptoms cured disease. Judging their treatments solely in terms of their external impact, physicians could at least be sure that painful therapies would always produce "visible and predictable physiological effects."

Moreover, some nineteenth-century physicians believed that pain itself could be medically efficacious. Anesthetics like ether and chloroform had been tested with great fanfare in America by the 1840s. Yet for decades thereafter, doctors refused to dispense pain relief indiscriminately, even during some forms of major surgery. Part of the reason lies in their understanding of the therapeutic and moral value of pain. In drawing the line between life and death, medical men accepted the fact that pain signaled vitality, whereas loss of consciousness tended to augur death. Pain thus seemed critical for well-being and for life itself. "Painful ... sensations all require sound and healthy organs," declared one physician in an American medical journal in 1826. "It is, therefore, our axiom, that the greater the pain, the greater must be our confidence in the power and energy of life." Given this belief that pain was integral to existence, both physicians and laypeople typically thought of suffering as functional in medical treatment. Bodily discomfort offered both patients and their doctors the reassurance that at least something was being done to alleviate symptoms, that symptoms were responding to a physicians' intervention. Indeed, patients sometimes preferred painful remedies "because they could feel them working"—a fact that makes it a little easier to understand why so many submitted to treatments, such as blistering or the use of powerful emetics, that must have been agonizing.

At the same time, physicians assumed that various social groups experienced pain in different ways. Few thought of individuals as utterly unique in this era. Most took it for granted that human variations, where they existed, were capable of being classified, codified, and predicted—and doing so, of course, was a favorite Victorian pastime. Imagining that certain kinds of people felt more pain than others (both physiologically and psychologically), privileged white spokespeople such as novelists, philosophers, and physicians classified sensitivity to pain in hierarchical terms. At the top were refined white women, their delicate nerve fibers so responsive to the slightest sensation that they were constantly overcome by headaches, flutterings of the heart, and fits of weeping. This imagined chain of human sensitivity descended all the way down to those deemed "savage," whom many whites supposed to be practically immune from pain. Class, social condition, age, race, sex, nationality, and overall health were all crucial determinants in the arrangement of this hierarchy. In the minds of white commentators, black women were impervious to many of the sufferings that afflicted white ladies; above them on the chain were stoic white yeomen, supposedly less vulnerable to pain than educated and cultured white men, but more susceptible than either brutalized slaves or the toughened and debased Irish working class, paupers, criminals, and so on. In line with this hierarchy of suffering, notes historian Martin Pernick, physicians dispensed anesthetics to some patients rather than others, based on beliefs about how much pain different individuals could or should bear.

Popular Anglo-European travel writing helped to substantiate these views. For over a century, intrepid explorers had returned home bearing witness to the pain-free existence of primitive others. They described men who faced ritual mutilation with stolid indifference and women who gave birth effortlessly, briefly withdrawing for a quick, trouble-free labor before returning to work with an infant strapped to their backs. These images of stoic savages seemed to confirm that social progress necessarily led to an increasing susceptibility to pain and suffering. Over time, suffering itself thus became a marker of whiteness, refinement, and class status, in turn signaling civilization and full humanity.

Whereas the experience of suffering offered a convenient yardstick for measuring superiority, a range of additional arguments, drawn from theology, medicine, and philosophy, lent added support to the idea that pain had a measure of value. Certain strands of Christianity emphasized pain as divine punishment for human sinfulness, a useful warning to mend one's ways. The diverse medical sects and theories that sprang up in the first half of the nineteenth century were similarly united in viewing pain as a helpful cautionary device. From hydropaths to homeopaths, all imagined that pain derived from and signaled a transgression in need of correction, despite their various assumptions about the source of transgression (with some pointing to the contravention of "natural laws" and others to failures in personal hygiene, intemperance, or faulty environments).

Beyond these specific arguments lay an older and more amorphous valuation of pain, one that still exists today, although to a much more limited extent: that is that anything gained without suffering is worthless. Philosophers updated this timeless precept in the late eighteenth century by suggesting that pain and suffering were essential elements of human freedom. Scottish common-sense philosophers, in particular, argued that without consequences, freedom would be meaningless and autonomy correspondingly diminished. Freedom lay not in abolishing pain, in their view, but in the ability to make choices and to experience the costs or benefits of one's actions—a doctrine that was pervasive in nineteenth-century American religious and political thought.

Yet while pain itself continued to hold an array of positive meanings in Victorian culture, the opposite held true for the purposeful infliction of suffering. By the early nineteenth century, the act of causing suffering or taking delight in another's pain had increasingly come to indicate primitiveness or perversity. Alongside their exotic tales of people living devoid of pain, travel writers had catalogued a litany of foreign practices—including cannibalism, head hunting, scalping, and human sacrifice—all seemingly designed to inflict maximum suffering on enemies. They used these ritualistic inflictions of pain as a sure indication that so-called primitive cultures were lacking in progress and enlightenment. Conversely, they assumed that advanced civilizations were fundamentally less aggressive and bloodthirsty, capable of dealing with transgressors or enemies through nonviolent statecraft or legal sanction.

A broad shift in modes of discipline, underway since the Enlightenment, helped to buttress these arguments. By the early nineteenth century, authorities no longer routinely demonstrated their power by publicly inflicting painful or deadly punishments. Whippings and executions in the town square—once relatively common spectacles in the Anglo-European world—had by this time given way to allegedly more humane prison sentences or other forms of private, legally sanctioned redress. A host of social movements had arisen simultaneously, aimed at curtailing the instrumental use of pain. Antiflogging societies had been formed to agitate against whipping sailors; pacifist societies were asserting the immorality of war; abolitionists had started speaking out against the cruelties of slaveholders; antidueling societies were critiquing the resort to pistols; childrearing experts had begun counseling parents to spare the rod; antivivisection societies had mobilized to limit the cruel treatment of animals; and reformers across the North were taking up the cause of all manner of powerless sufferers, from asylum inmates to schoolchildren. Everywhere in the so-called civilized world, humanitarianism was on the rise.

This flourishing of sympathy generally relied on an extension of compassion to groups or individuals once considered unworthy of such regard. Yet at a time when many believed the disenfranchised felt no pain, how could someone judge whether another person was suffering in a fully sentient way that demanded sympathy and respect? Such judgments depended entirely on who was doing the judging. Martin Pernick identifies the way Victorians distinguished between "insensitivity" and "endurance." Whereas the "insensitive" supposedly lacked the human capacity to feel pain and were thus contemptible, those who "endured" did so in spite of their agony, nobly conquering their pain and thereby becoming worthy of respect and compassion. Deciding between these alleged states ultimately came down to subjective moral judgments (is this person worthy? Is he or she behaving as I would under like circumstances?), although this was not generally recognized at the time. What many Victorians clearly did see is just how crucial such judgments were in determining who received social, legal, and political rights. It is no accident that abolitionists linked their appeals so closely to images of slave bodies in agony or supplication. In order to gain white support, abolitionists first had to subvert slaveholders' pronouncements that their human property was content, incapable of fully registering the pain of family separation, oppression, or physical punishment. They did this by trying to demonstrate that what slaveholders depicted as slaves' insensitivity was actually either heroic endurance or intense agony. In other words, they worked to turn the hierarchy of feeling on its head, picturing anguished slaves tormented by callous and debased white slave-owners.


Excerpted from WAR STORIES by Frances M. Clarke Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago Press . Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue 1

1 Suffering in Victorian America 8

2 Heroic Martyrs 28

3 Exceptional Sufferers 51

4 Labors of Love 84

5 Noble Monuments 113

6 Honorable Scars 144

Epilogue 175

Notes 189

Index 245

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