Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Booknotes: Spectacle of Grief

New Arrival:
Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War by Sarah J. Purcell (UNC Press, 2022).

Drew Gilpin Faust's broad study of the Civil War's landscape of death in This Republic of Suffering augured a number of new studies examining the personal and cultural impact of the conflict's death and destruction, among them modern analyses of Civil War suicide, mental illness (including what we would diagnose today as PTSD), amputation, addiction, and more. Historian Sarah Purcell contributes to this growing body of literature with Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War Era. In it, Purcell "examines how the public funerals of major figures from the Civil War era shaped public memories of the war and allowed a diverse set of people to contribute to changing American national identities."

Expansive public funeral events helped the populations of both sections deal with the scale of death wrought by the conflict as well as the loss of important generals and other popular military and civilian figures. From the description: "These funerals featured lengthy processions that sometimes crossed multiple state lines, burial ceremonies open to the public, and other cultural productions of commemoration such as oration and song. As Sarah J. Purcell reveals, Americans' participation in these funeral rites led to contemplation and contestation over the political and social meanings of the war and the roles played by the honored dead. Public mourning for military heroes, reformers, and politicians distilled political and social anxieties as the country coped with the aftermath of mass death and casualties."

To illustrate those themes (which included elements of national reconciliation, memory-building, and unresolved grievances), the book revolves around public funerals conducted before (Henry Clay), during (Elmer Ellsworth and Stonewall Jackson), and after (Robert E. Lee, philanthropist George Peabody, Charles Sumner, Joe Johnston, Frederick Douglass, and Winnie Davis) the Civil War. More from the description: Purcell "shows how large-scale funerals for figures such as Henry Clay and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson set patterns for mourning culture and Civil War commemoration; after 1865, public funerals for figures such as Robert E. Lee, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, and Winnie Davis elaborated on these patterns and fostered public debate about the meanings of the war, Reconstruction, race, and gender."

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