Monday, April 21, 2008

The Dark Angel

The American Civil War claimed an estimated 620,000 lives, approximately the same number as in all of the nation's other wars put together. Compared to the size of the country's population, six times as many young men died between 1861 and 1865 as in World War II. Few American families, north or south, were unaffected.

Lincoln insisted at Gettysburg "that these dead shall not have died in vain." Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and President of Harvard University, has written a book that tries to measure the effect on the American psyche of the apocalyptic slaughter. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is an impressive and illuminating work that draws heavily on the letters and diaries of the millions of ordinary people, soldiers and their families, who struggled to cope with unprecedented loss.

There is a public, collective story here, of course: how the young nation and its government had to quickly invent or improvise ways to deal with and honor that vast number of bodies that piled up on the battlefields. More interesting is how the soldiers and their families made sense of the overwhelming shadow of the Angel of Death.

Faust takes note of the scientific background of the crisis. Mid-19th-century science was busy dismantling the literal underpinnings of biblical faith. Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, published in the early 1830s, challenged Genesis by asserting the great antiquity of the Earth. Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, replaced divine benevolence with the heartless mechanisms of natural selection. "Humans had been moved into the realm of animals, and God threatened a distressing indifference to the fall of every sparrow," writes Faust. Finally, new ideas about the neurological basis of thought and consciousness called into question traditional notions of the immortal soul.

The stark question of how a loving God could allow the horrors of the battlefields led some Americans into doubt and apostasy. For the majority, it seems, only the promise of a heaven where loved ones would be reunited made the suffering bearable. The scale of human loss in the war demanded an explanation that satisfied hearts as well as minds, writes Faust. Doubters and believers alike exalted the notion of the Good Death -- a brave, unflinching death in service to a noble cause.

Certainly, it is true that the science of the last two centuries offers little solace in the face of death, and this alone might largely account for the ongoing tension between science and faith. Whether we die in the hundreds of thousands in a great war, or alone in bed with family, each of us confronts the darkness in our own way. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was one of those who as a young Civil War soldier facing death resolutely rejected the Christian promise of everlasting life. He too praised the Good Death. What the war taught him was that every person is "capable of miracle, able to lift himself by the might of his own soul."

Faust concludes of the Civil War carnage: "We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world. We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists. The Civil War generation glimpsed the fear that still defines us -- the sense that death is the only end. We still work to live with the riddle that they -- the Civil War dead and their survivors alike -- had to solve long ago."