American Tribute: Death and the Civil War

by Andrea Elizabeth

Death and the Civil War is the most important documentary ever made. It is important because never before had death occurred in so great a scale. Physically it was due to the advances in weapon technology, but that isn’t the only reason, and not the thing dwelt on for 2 hours in this beautiful, what’s the word, not tribute, not commemoration. Groan. Yes, that’s the word. This documentary expresses the groan of the earth at receiving so many dead for those reasons. And thanks for that critique of the Gettysburg Address, by a black man even!

It may not have been completely about slavery, but the other reasons are pale to us now. People talk about the importance of the Union. I say, what’s a union? A line moved back on a map? Explain Manifest Destiny to me and the Indians again? Is it so bad that Canada and Mexico exist? They talk about the importance of state’s and individual’s rights. I say, why can’t we regulate ourselves? The weirdest thing the documentary explains is how much more of a Christian nation we were back then. How everyone went to Church. How can Church-going Christians treat black people so badly? How can Christians hate and slaughter each other with such abandon? No wonder we’re not Christian anymore.

It was a Hindu that taught the black people a better way. When will the white folks learn it?

That’s not totally fair. There were peaceful abolitionists, but they weren’t allowed a voice in the south. There was a demon of oppression, mainly in the south, but the documentary exposes northern prejudice and unequal treatment too. How can Christians be so possessed? I was brought up to believe they can’t be. If they can’t be, does that mean they aren’t Christians? I hope not or I’m doomed.

What are the dead bodies saying to us? I died for a more perfect political union? I killed and was killed because of hatred? I killed and was killed because I loved my heritage and my family and my comrades? I killed and was killed because black people were meant to serve me? I killed and was killed because you are wrong? My heritage is deeply southern and so the third reason calls to me for my own, and the last reason calls to me for darn Yankee so-called superiority, whatever that is.

The documentary ends with this poem by Walt Whitman. The person who read it and the scenery in the documentary of beautiful America (more beautiful than Canada or Mexico? seems so somehow) are fitting accompaniment.

Pensive on her dead gazing I heard the Mother of All,
Desperate on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battlefields
(As the last gun ceased, but the scent of the powder-smoke linger’d,)
As she call’d to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk’d,
Absorb them well O my earth, she cried, I charge you lose not my
sons, lose not an atom,
And you streams absorb them well, taking their dear blood,
And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly impalpable,
And all you essences of soil and growth, and you my rivers’ depths,
And you mountain sides, and the woods where my dear children’s
blood trickling redden’d,
And you trees down in your roots to bequeath to all future trees,
My dead absorb or South or North–my young men’s bodies absorb,
and their precious precious blood,
Which holding in trust for me faithfully back again give me many a
year hence,
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence,
In blowing airs from the fields back again give me my darlings, give
my immortal heroes,
Exhale me them centuries hence, breathe me their breath, let not an
atom be lost,
O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial sweet death, years, centuries hence.