Reviewed by Tim Talbott
Death was central to the American Civil War. An estimated 750,000 soldiers died during the four year conflict from a host of causes. Untold thousands of civilians also died due to disease, hunger, and accidents directly related to the war. How Americans dealt with the loss of friends and loved ones on such as large scale, and how those deaths have influenced American’s memory of the Civil War has received significant scholarly attention over the last couple of decades.[i] However, until Final Resting Places: Reflections on the Meaning of Civil War Graves appeared this year, Civil War enthusiasts previously found little available that provided such deep, personal, and introspective stories about the burial places of the war’s participants.
Providing a stellar and thought-provoking Forward, David W. Blight sets readers minds in the right direction to prepare them for the illuminating essays that follow. In addition, editors Brian Matthew Jordan and Jonathan W. White offer a compelling and richly illustrated Introduction that explains the pervasiveness of death during the conflict, the power of the war’s final resting places to this day, and clarifies the book’s themes.
Over the following 28 chapters, which are divided into three parts—“Common Soldiers and Sailors,” “Generals and Their Steeds,” and “Civilians”—some of the top scholars in the field of Civil War-Era studies offer essays about individuals, groups, (and one animal’s) graves. The essays are a diverse array of well-known personalities such as Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—all individuals who survived the war, but whose graves became iconic. But also here are the less well-known, like Capt. David Acheson, William H. Johnson, Samuel Calvin Lamar, John D. Johnson, and Michael Johnson, as well as the unnamed 20 African American South Carolina soldiers who drowned in the Stono River, the 38 Dakota Indians hanged in Minnesota, or the enslaved individuals who labored and were buried on the University of Alabama campus.
Each author brings a passion to their particular article’s subject. Some contributors knew about the grave in their specific article from previous research projects; others felt a need to create greater awareness about the people and events associated with their subject’s final resting place.
Readers are sure to quickly notice the diversity of burial locations covered in the book. From graves in expected places like Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery and Arlington National Cemetery, to faraway Brazil, to those on a lonesome hill in western North Carolina, under the sands on the South Carolina coast, or in Marshall, Missouri; regardless of the burial place, all have rich stories to share and impart valuable information.
Numerous images throughout the book help readers better understand the people mentioned in the articles and the places the writers note. While many of the images are historic photographs or drawings, numerous high-quality modern color photographs also grace the pages and help illustrate the book. An endnotes section provides the sources cited by the authors in the articles. Author biographies are also included for all the contributors. In addition, a helpful index allows readers to quickly find people, places, ideas, and other information contained within the book’s articles.
Final Resting Places: Reflections on the Meaning of Civil War Graves makes a valuable contribution to the expanding body of work about Civil War-Era death and memory. Not only are each of the articles extremely informative, they are well researched, and written in a style that both experts and general audiences will find educational and accessible.
[i] See William A. Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, University of North Carolina Press, 2004; Jim Downs, Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 2015; Angela Esco Elder, Love and Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss, University of North Carolina Press, 2022; Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Knopf, 2008; Meg Groeling, The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead, Savas Beatie, 2015; Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause, University of North Carolina Press, 2008; John R. Neff, Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation, University Press of Kansas, 2005; Donald C. Pfanz, Where Valor Proudly Sleeps: A History of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, Southern Illinois University Press, 2018; Sarah J. Purcell, Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, 2022; Mark S. Shantz, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death, Cornell University Press, 2008; Ashley Towle, African Americans, Death, and the New Birth of Freedom: Dying Free during the Civil War and Reconstruction: Lexington Books, 2022; Brian Steel Wills, Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War, University Press of Kansas, 2017; among others.