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Glorification of the Death of Heroes - Review Essay of Awaiting the Heavenly Country

Glorification of the Death of Heroes

Review Essay of Awaiting the Heavenly Country

by Rana Salimi
Schantz, Mark. Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Publisher: Cornell University Press
Author: Mark Schantz

Format: Paperback
Published on: Apr. 2008

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In Awaiting the Heavenly Country, Mark S. Schantz argues that American attitudes and ideas about death helped facilitate the Civil War's tremendous carnage. Asserting that 19th-century attitudes toward death were firmly in place before the war began — rather than arising after the losses became apparent — Schantz has written a fascinating and chilling narrative of how a society understood death, and reckoned the magnitude of destruction it was willing to tolerate.

About the author: Mark S. Schantz is Professor of History and Director of the Odyssey Program at Hendrix College.

About the Reviewer

For the past 7 years, Rana Salimi, Ph.D has researched Palestinian bombers, especially female bombers, who choose the path of violent resistance — risking the lives of their victims, their family members, and the lives of their own.

Her doctoral dissertation, "Visual Representation of Palestinian Female Martyrs Inside and Outside of Muslim Culture", deals with the issue of self-sacrifice for a higher cause: how individual volunteers — motivated by either nationalist, religious, or political agendas — transform into "political performers" before carrying their bombing missions.

Rana Salimi received her Ph.D from UC San Diego, department of Theater and Dance. Currently, she lectures at UC San Diego and National University on a variety of subjects, including theater, history and language arts.

In Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death, Mark S. Schantz notes that during the Civil War era Americans encountered death in “myriad and intimate ways.” Pointing to the ever-present shade of death as a result of high infant and childhood mortality rates, the pervasiveness of tuberculosis, and frequent epidemics, Schantz argues that “Americans  . . . taught each other how to die.”

Antebellum Americans wanted a “good death,” one that came at a ripe old age, took place in the bosom of the family, and enabled the dying person to “utter last words that would reveal not only the disposition of their soul but also serve as a spiritual lesson to those who attended the death.” Daniel C. Eddy, the author of Angel Whispers; or the Echo of Spirit Voices Designed to Comfort Those Who Mourn (1857), promoted a religious view of disease and even wrote about the “advantages of consumption” because it gave the dying person plenty of time to undergo authentic conversion in preparation for eternal life. Instead of focusing on the corporeal death of the individual, Eddy and his contemporaries highlighted the significance of the soul. 

Schantz argues that religious beliefs about death were deeply significant for the Civil War. Soldiers marched off to war secure in the belief that their bodies would be restored and they would be reunited with loved ones in heaven. In a conflict that violently took the lives of 620,000 men, who were not just killed but “ripped apart,” these beliefs sustained soldiers on both sides of the conflict who wrote about heaven as a home where death and suffering would be no more. Schantz writes that such beliefs about death insulated soldiers and their families from the horrors of the war. Thus, religious notions of life and death served political purposes and set the ground for the bloodiest war in American history.

Schantz turns his attention to a group of Americans who rarely had the opportunity to die the “good” death, African American slaves, for whom the ideas of freedom and death were part of a daily calculation. He traces the thought of African American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, who argued that the hope of freedom rested on the willingness of slaves to risk death. For Schantz, this notion goes even deeper: if African Americans were to “grasp the fruits of freedom fully,” they would need to “make friends with the prospect of death.” For abolitionists and former slaves, slavery was already a form of death, what Frederick Douglass called “a life of living death.” Schantz points out that this concept anticipated sociologist Orlando Patterson’s notion of “social death” by many decades. Choosing to die while resisting slavery was a distinctly African American version of the “good death.” Schantz then turns this lens on African American soldiers who volunteered for service in the Civil War. Although their willingness to kill and be killed were viewed, and rightly so, as an indication of their commitment to racial equality and their desire for citizenship, Schantz argues that it was the already familiar equation of the risk of death in the pursuit of freedom that helps us understand why African Americans were willing to risk so much in the Civil War. Noting that black soldiers risked death just as willingly as their white counterparts, Schantz points out that only in death did black soldiers achieve the status of American heroes.

Schantz explores the rise of rural cemeteries and the emphasis on the proper burial of the deceased in the antebellum and war years. The growth of cemeteries throughout America created what Schantz calls a “liminal spiritual terrain,” hovering between heaven and earth, where the dead would be properly buried and remembered, where Christians would find solace in the face of grief. Grief, in this new setting, became a family affair, one that included the young and the tender. Memorialization of the dead was meant to bring together the living in a climate of support and solidarity. However, as Schantz points out, the inclusiveness the cemetery promised “stopped hard at its gates.” Most new cemeteries were for white Protestants only; large groups of Americans, including African Americans, Native Americans, Catholics, and Muslims, were excluded from these pastoral refuges for the dead and grieving.

The last chapter of the book is dedicated to the items Americans used to complete proper mourning. The “art of mourning” that helped families confront and come to terms with the death of their loved ones included many physical remembrances, such as memorial lithographs, postmortem photographs of the loved one, and cemetery monuments. These material evidences of mourning were intended to preserve individuals and their families. Schantz briefly touches on the gendered nature of grief; in the “vital tasks of weeping and mourning for the dead,” women had an elevated role.

In contrast to the focus on the needs of families cemeteries represented, Civil War battlefield photographs had a political agenda. In addition to glorifying the martyred soldiers of the war, sanitized photographs of battlefields indicate the desire of the American public for an aesthetic view of the war. Dead bodies were arranged carefully for the camera and the landscape occupied the photograph more than the dead soldiers. Such “recordings” of traumatic events helped the public come to terms with the unimaginable by giving it images that could be comprehended. In Civil War photographs, the dead bodies are always peaceful and complete without a trace of gunshots or dismemberment. The “beautiful death” was visualized on a body that had apparently not been ravaged by death; these were not photographs of soldiers who experience the far more common fate of being blown to bits. The peacefulness and wholeness of the dead hero implied that the martyr in a higher cause never dies but remains intact and memorable. The photographers who produced such images publicized the political agenda of the pro-Union war.

The construction and political system of U.S. society in the Civil War era demanded that its citizens sacrifice their lives and commit violence against their fellow countrymen so the nation as a whole could survive. The dominant religious ideology, literature, and the arts of the time imposed the culture of “good death” on the nation and required citizens to voluntarily exchange the mundane world for the heavenly rewards of the afterlife. In other words, the individual could achieve the eternal life in heaven and could be commemorated as a hero if, and only if, he was ready to sacrifice himself. However, the individual never acted alone. It was the pressing torment of war that completed the doctrines of the “good” and honorable death. It was the reality of a nation perishing in the course of a devastating war that urged the culture to seek peace in the death of its children.

In the twenty-first century, political upheavals and social systems similarly shape the decisions and actions of the individuals who are identified, rightfully or otherwise, as terrorists. It is in individual sacrificial violence (the death of the corporeal body) that freedom is achieved, the nation liberated, an ideology preserved, and the hero commemorated. The oppressed individual who experiences “social death” on a daily basis feels the urge to find solace in a rewarding and heroic ending. Self-sacrifice promises an ending that is at least regarded as a “good death,” even though it does not resolve the critical issues. Schantz’s scholarship suggests that readers ponder the Civil War in an attempt to understand the ones who “fought the American Civil War in such a way that respects both the manner in which they lived and the ways in which they died.” Perhaps the same profound, scholarly, and clear comprehension is required for reading between the lines of violent protests that create turmoil in the world today.

In his epilogue, Schantz cautions against assuming that we are the same as the mid-nineteenth-century Americans he writes about. He argues that in their embrace of mass death, they are in fact alien to us, concluding that “if we participate in the nineteenth-century culture of death today, it is most evident perhaps in our willingness to honor and valorize the past.” I wonder if this is accurate. It depends on who “we” is. If we expand the definition beyond the borders of the United States, the values Schantz writes about seem very present in our modern world. Jihadists who believe in death as a means of redemption, activists who engage in acts of violence to protest corrupt political systems, and religious and national ideologies that promote self-sacrifice share certain values with the Civil War society of the United States. The difference perhaps is that in the Civil War, the enemy was from within; today’s volunteers for martyrdom draw attention to the crushing power of occupation, colonization, and defeat at the hands of external forces. Just as the overwhelming pressure of slavery induced many individuals to choose death as a form of freedom, oppression today initiates the response of extremist violence around the world, even when that violence necessitates the death of the actor.