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Harvard University President Drew Faust and Filmmaker Ric Burns Discuss the Civil War

During the American Civil War, between 2 and 3 percent of the nation’s population died. Transposed to today’s population, this percentage of deaths would amount to seven million American citizens dying in one war, according to Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University and American historian.

Faust and Ric Burns, a documentary filmmaker, visited Andover’s Cochran Chapel on April 15 to discuss the effects of the war on the nation’s policies and the societal view of death as an intimate part of life itself.

The presentation was a part of “Lest We Forget,” a series of events hosted by the Andover Historical Society in conjunction with other supporters to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the part that it played in the history of the town of Andover.

Burns’s documentary “Death and the Civil War” is based off of Faust’s acclaimed book “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” The book won the 2009 Bancroft Prize, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the “The New York Times”’s “Ten Best Books of 2008.” Andover students had the opportunity to see the movie at a screening last Friday or through Andover’s Mediaspace hosting server.

“What I love about history is I see myself differently when I see the past making different assumptions than the ones we make today. What struck me in my journey into 19th-century death was how we as a society don’t talk about death and try to hide death. In the 19th century, they needed to think about death all of the time, because only then could you live your life to the fullest,” Faust said.

Today, relatively few members of the United States population are involved in war. Unlike the 19th century, when it was expected that every male citizen would fight, less than 2 percent of families in the nation have members who participate in the military. Death permeated all households during the Civil War, exasperating the sense of loss throughout the nation, according to Faust.

“We can compartmentalize our wars in a way that was not possible to do in the Civil War, as Andover so powerfully represents. Despite this distance from the frontline, the war took place here for the families of the loved ones who lost their lives,” said Faust.

Burns said that, before the Civil War, the federal government did not have methods and procedures for handling the dead and notifying the kin of the fallen soldier. There were no ambulances or army hospitals. Bodies would remain on the battlefields for days. What once was the duty of the widows and kin to find their missing loved ones and give them proper burial services became a national responsibility.

“When we think about 19th-century history in the United States, I think that we have to think of the nation as in mourning and uncertainty and ask ourselves how much of what we look at when we look back needs to be considered in the context of that loss and of the people who had no basis for what we call today ‘closure,’ just because they didn’t know what had happened to their loved ones. It’s made me revise my whole understanding of what came after the war,” Faust said.

Burns added, “Death was preserved in individuals and their families and maybe a group of people who lived in their town before the Civil War. The work of death, which [Faust’s] book has shown so many of us, was the work of communities, families and individuals. We did not think of the work of death as being the work of the country.”

National cemeteries, including Arlington and Gettysburg, were direct results of the war and the initiatives taken to rebury soldiers who had previously been interred in hastily-made, shallow graves, according to Burns.

In particular, African-American soldiers saw the worst of this carnage. Oftentimes, they were the soldiers given the task of moving the corpses into makeshift graves, according to Faust.

“The experience of death was so much more common and so much more part of the familiar tool kit of experience for enslaved African-Americans in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries,” said Burns. “There were a myriad of ways to die. The normal ways in which one assumes they have some control — you have control over your body, you cannot be killed without justice being visited upon your murderer — these were things not available to slaves.”