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Under wartime conditions, Americans in general, and soldiers in particular, acquired a unique familiarity with human mortality.Regardless of the formidable presence of death in life during the antebellum years, the Civil War posed a series of new challenges for those affected by the carnage— which is to say nearly every American at the time— and produced new attitudes that reflected distinct modifications in how these Americans made sense of death and disposed of their dead. On the other hand, some perspectives demonstrated a degree of continuity with more traditional views on the meaning of death, and reinforced deeply rooted religious sensibilities circulating before the onset of the conflict.Many soldiers on both sides expressed a great deal of fear that their bodies would be left to the enemy, which was understood as a fate worse than death.The federal government and Union soldiers themselves tried to ensure that bodies were identified with at least a name, a desire that led some soldiers to go into battle with their names and positions pinned onto their uniform (foreshadowing the popular use of dog tags in subsequent wars).Chances of dying in childhood were also quite high, according to many studies.Infant mortality hovered around 200 per 1,000 live births, and roughly 10 percent of individuals between one year and twenty-one years died from a wide range of causes.While antebellum America demonstrated marked preoccupations with the reality of death in literature, material culture, religion, diaries and letters, and early medicine, the war led to the extreme escalation of certain tendencies emerging on the social scene, as well as to the production of entirely new views on death and the dead.
In contrast to the lack of ceremony surrounding the disposition of the dead on or near fields of battle, conditions in Union camps and hospitals allowed for more conventional burial practices that maintained older traditions.
In many cases, those assigned to burial duty—often African Americans, who performed a variety of noxious duties for the Union army—left the dead in their uniforms or placed a blanket around them before interment.
If such resources as pine coffins or burial containers were available, and time permitted, soldiers would be placed in them before being put in the ground, a procedure that rarely occurred in the early years of the war.
In the midst of war, unorthodox views on death and the dead body emerged out of the entirely unparalleled experience with human violence, suffering, and mortality in U. The Civil War forced Americans to reconsider what counts as appropriate treatment of the dead, as well as to reconceptualize the symbolic meanings of the dead body.
The confrontation, with brutally slaughtered masses of bodies or hopelessly diseased soldiers dying in hospitals or camps, upset conventional patterns of disposal, as well as established attitudes about communal duties, religious rituals, and personal respect in the face of death.