Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Awaiting the Heavenly Country

Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America's Culture of Death

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Cornell University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Awaiting the Heavenly Country
    Book Description:

    "Americans came to fight the Civil War in the midst of a wider cultural world that sent them messages about death that made it easier to kill and to be killed. They understood that death awaited all who were born and prized the ability to face death with a spirit of calm resignation. They believed that a heavenly eternity of transcendent beauty awaited them beyond the grave. They knew that their heroic achievements would be cherished forever by posterity. They grasped that death itself might be seen as artistically fascinating and even beautiful."-from Awaiting the Heavenly Country

    How much loss can a nation bear? An America in which 620,000 men die at each other's hands in a war at home is almost inconceivable to us now, yet in 1861 American mothers proudly watched their sons, husbands, and fathers go off to war, knowing they would likely be killed. Today, the death of a soldier in Iraq can become headline news; during the Civil War, sometimes families did not learn of their loved ones' deaths until long after the fact. Did antebellum Americans hold their lives so lightly, or was death so familiar to them that it did not bear avoiding?

    In Awaiting the Heavenly Country, Mark S. Schantz argues that American attitudes and ideas about death helped facilitate the war's tremendous carnage. Asserting that nineteenth-century attitudes toward death were firmly in place before the war began rather than arising from a sense of resignation after the losses became apparent, Schantz has written a fascinating and chilling narrative of how a society understood death and reckoned the magnitude of destruction it was willing to tolerate.

    Schantz addresses topics such as the pervasiveness of death in the culture of antebellum America; theological discourse and debate on the nature of heaven and the afterlife; the rural cemetery movement and the inheritance of the Greek revival; death as a major topic in American poetry; African American notions of death, slavery, and citizenship; and a treatment of the art of death-including memorial lithographs, postmortem photography and Rembrandt Peale's major exhibition painting The Court of Death. Awaiting the Heavenly Country is essential reading for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the Civil War and the ways in which antebellum Americans comprehended death and the unimaginable bloodshed on the horizon.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5925-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    Living under the shadow of postmodernity, where all historical “facts” are dimly perceived, at least one reality appears horribly luminous: that 620,000 men lost their lives in the American Civil War. Whether we think of the American Civil War as a “total war,” a “destructive war,” or simply as a “hard war,” students of it agree on its singularly bloody impact.¹ Beginning with the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, major engagements routinely produced casualty rates that rivaled those of Waterloo.² Suicidal charges—from those in front of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, to Fort Wagner,...

  6. CHAPTER ONE “Emblems of Mortality”
    (pp. 6-37)

    The generation of Americans who fought the Civil War understood that they could not escape the embrace of death. Nor did they particularly wish to. They knew that death was the inevitable portion of all who live. In 1846, readers from New Haven, Connecticut, to Charleston, South Carolina, could examine the pages of the latest reminder of their own certain mortality. Based on the “dance of death” tradition that stretched back to early modern Europe, the pamphlet Emblems of Mortality articulated a worldview that we moderns find nearly impossible to conjure. In a series of engravings and facing pieces of...

  7. CHAPTER TWO “The Heavenly Country”
    (pp. 38-69)

    Antebellum Americans could face death with resignation and even joy because they carried in their hearts and heads a comforting and compelling vision of eternal life. For them heaven was not an ethereal, dreamy state of the soul or a billowy universe of unspecified dimension. It was, instead, a material place, a land, a country in which individual bodies and souls would be perfected and the relations of family and friendship restored. Speaking before the Charleston Baptist Association at Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1809, John M. Roberts voiced the tonic note in what many would come to see as a...

  8. CHAPTER THREE “Melancholy Pleasure”
    (pp. 70-96)

    On September 24, 1831, Judge Joseph Story pronounced the dedicatory address for Boston’s freshly created Mount Auburn Cemetery. He was the man for the job. An associate U.S. Supreme Court justice and a professor of law at Harvard, Story possessed a brilliant legal mind as well as rhetorical flair. His potent intellect, however, had been chastened by profound sorrow. As he labored over his speech, Story’s son suspected that his father was wrestling with the death of a daughter, “the fifth child lost in fifteen years.” Working on the address provided Story with some solace even as it sharpened his...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR “A Voice from the Ruins”
    (pp. 97-125)

    In February 1847, the poet known as Susan published a premonition of destruction and war entitled “A Voice from the Ruins.” Although we know little about Susan as an author, we do know that she had at least a small following in antebellum America. “A Voice from the Ruins” was one of perhaps a half-dozen poems that she contributed to the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia—one of the nation’s premiere literary journals. In it she placed before her readers the ghostly vision of a ruined city glittering in the moonlight. Charting the ephemeral nature of human happiness, Susan...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE “Better to Die Free, Than to Live Slaves”
    (pp. 126-162)

    George E. Stephens was one of the men who followed Col. Robert Gould Shaw in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry’s 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. A resident of Philadelphia’s free black community, Stephens’s family had moved to Pennsylvania from Virginia in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion. In 1831, his parents—both free and of mixed blood—had headed north fearing the tightening pressure of white retaliation in the months following Turner’s revolutionary activities. Nat Turner’s spontaneous and ferocious uprising had resulted in the deaths of more than sixty white Virginians and had terrified the state legislature to...

  11. CHAPTER SIX “The Court of Death”
    (pp. 163-206)

    Sometime during the middle of the 1840s, the firm of James Baillie, headquartered in New York City, published a memorial lithograph (fig. 14). In a variety of ways, this small scene offers a “thick description” of the culture of death in antebellum America.¹ The image depicts a trio of figures—a man, a woman, and a young girl—standing to the right side of a large monument topped by a decorative urn. This family of mourners is attired in formal mourning wear, a gesture toward the elaborate rituals prescribed for middle-class, city dwellers as they grieved for the dead. On...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 207-210)

    It is tempting for us to see ourselves as being very much like the generation of people who fought the American Civil War. Part of this impulse may be attributed to the pervasive egotism of contemporary society; of course, we imagine, those who fought in the past must share much with those of us living in the present. We are all Americans. We all believe in the fundamental values of liberty and freedom. We all struggle to earn a living. We all love our families. We all wrestle with questions of morality and ultimate meaning. How different could the Civil...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 211-236)
  14. Index
    (pp. 237-246)