In the Mourning Store

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

War In the spring of 1863, Lord & Taylor in New York, down on Ladies’ Mile, opened a “mourning store,” where the new widows of the Civil War could dress their grief in suitable fashion. Some idea of what they shopped for is apparent from the inventory advertised by Besson & Son, in Philadelphia, a mourning store of the same period: “Black Crape Grenadines / Black Balzerines / Black Baryadere Bareges / Black Bareges.” The Civil War dead are still among us—long after their beautifully dressed widows have passed away—and the problem is how to get them buried. The acceptable thing to say now, as it was then, is that the soldiers, and their sacrifice, are what remain to inspire us. But it’s the corpses that haunt us, not the soldiers, as they haunted us then, and no amount of black crêpe can cover them over. The scale of the dying disillusioned a country, and also, as Lincoln saw, gave us a country—turned a provisional arrangement of states into a modern nation. A few new books attempt to place the dying in the right context: What did people of the time make of all that dying? More provocatively, did those who died in some sense want to die, and, most provocative, did so many die, after all?

Drew Gilpin Faust, the Civil War historian who is also the new president of Harvard, has published what will probably be the central book in this accounting: “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” (Knopf; $27.95). Her argument is that the scale of the killing between 1861 and 1865 demanded a new cult of memory—a new set of social rituals, some rooted in the Bible, but many intensely secular, the rituals of Republican mourning. These rituals—the response to the mass killing, from military cemeteries, neatly rowed, to a taste for tight-lipped prose—made us what we are. The embalming fluid developed at the time by Yankee ingenuity to preserve dead bodies on their way home from the battlefield still runs through our veins.

More here.