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Civil War documentary shows a country ill-prepared for painful impact of tremendous number of deaths

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

“Your son, R.A. Rash, is no more,” a companion soldier of the young man writes in haste. “The grim monster, death, has ravished him.”

The Rash family was among the fortunate few during the Civil War to be notified with certainty that their beloved had been killed.

Another letter sent to a military hospital reads, “I wonder if anyone there would be so kind as to write a few lines back whether my father is dead or alive. If I cannot pay you, the Lord will.”

As PBS’ “Death and the Civil War,” to air on KUED on Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m., painfully chronicles, the United States was completely overwhelmed and unprepared for the massive carnage of the war and its aftermath. There were no established methods to identify the dead or notify next of kin and no provision for burying the dead. Hospitals were ill-equipped to offer relief to the wounded. There was no effective ambulance corps or relief organizations.

“It was inconceivable that there would have been a need for the scale of intervention that they should have had,” says scholar Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University. “And as the numbers of the dead consistently increased over the first years of the war, each battle surprised people because the deaths were more than they thought possible. Tshey were always one assumption behind.”

It was Faust’s award-winning book, “The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” that prompted documentarian Ric Burns to create the powerful, sobering program. This new film is an addendum to the earlier, groundbreaking “The Civil War” series he made with his brother, Ken.

The book’s author “took the essential fact that there were 750,000 dead Americans and made us understand how little we grasp that experience,” Ric Burns said in a promotional interview.

While it’s well-known that there were more deaths in the country’s first war than all other American wars combined, it is staggering to consider that when the toll is considered in perspective, the dead represented 2.5 percent of the U.S. population at the time, which translates to more than 7 million people today. Add to that the fact that two out of three deaths were due to disease. And compounding the pain to survivors, half of the Civil War dead were never identified.

According to Burns, “We need to know what (the war) cost. We need to feel it. We need to see the bodies.”

Most poignant about the documentary is the dramatic reading of archived letters of soldiers — some of them writing as they lay dying, with blood dripping on the paper — and family journals by such notable actors as James Cromwell, Amy Madigan and Robert Sean Leonard. Oliver Platt adds striking narration to the two-hour film, which is divided into six segments: Dying, Burying, Naming, Honoring, Accounting and Remembering the Dead.

There is no greater love, we have learned, than a man giving his life for another. Out of the suffering of the Civil War, Americans began to appreciate the tremendous sacrifice and to honor the country’s fallen heroes.

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