Civil War in Florida

Mortality, Mourning, and Memory

By Tracy R. Revels

I. The Civil War

The Civil War was a crisis in mortality. Traditional estimates of the death toll cite 620,000 military fatalities, but modern calculations have raised the number to over 750,000. More than 50,000 civilians perished as a direct result of the conflict, caught in crossfire, in accidents, and from malnutrition, while new evidence argues that some 60,000 former slaves succumbed to a smallpox epidemic during the war. In 1861 no American could have imagined such horrific losses; they hoped the war would be over in one battle and their orators had grandly promised to drink all the blood. In the course of four years, Americans were forced to confront death on an overwhelming scale and to deal with the grim realities of battlefield losses while seeking comfort in an evolving faith. In the decades following the war, survivors and descendants would work to place meaning on the slaughter. As they grappled with defeat, white Southerners constructed a distorted memory that changed the nature of the war for those who had not fought in it.

Americans of the mid-nineteenth century knew how they wanted to die. A “good death” was a protracted one, preferably from a wasting illness, which allowed its victim time to bid farewell to relatives and prepare to meet God. A slow death followed by a stately funeral, with a viewing of the bathed, dressed, and flower-bedecked corpse, provided a comforting narrative for survivors to cherish and repeat.

Funeral of William Naylor Thompson in Fernandina, Florida. Thompson served in the 7th Florida Infantry. He later served in the Florida House of Representatives (1877), as well as the Florida Senate (1879, 1881, 1895). He died in 1896.

Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.

A battlefield death was an inversion and mockery of this desirable method of departure. A soldier died instantly and violently, amid strangers, with no religious context or comfort. Firearms mangled bodies, often eradicating their individual identities in the process. Instead of anticipating a vigil followed by a funeral, a solder facing death knew he might well be abandoned on the battlefield, left to die alone, his corpse subject to whatever indignities the enemy could devise.

Collecting the remains of the dead, 1860s.

Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Civil War soldiers and their families worked to circumvent this fate. Many soldiers composed letters to be sent home in the event of death. Written in the manner of a deathbed farewell, the missives assured family members of the soldier’s readiness for death and calm acceptance of it, as well as his wishes for division of property and settling of affairs. Brothers in arms made elaborate promises to each other, vowing to arrange for proper burials and write to grieving relations. Some men literally carried their families into battle with them; it was not uncommon to find dead men clutching photographs of wives and children.

For families, suspense was the cruelest aspect of the war. There was no official system of notification of fatalities, so most civilians relied on letters from commanding officers or enlisted friends to relay the terrible news. Desperate for details, families begged to know every aspect of a soldier’s passing, from the exact nature of the wound to the gasped or groaned last words. Learning that a soldier had died piously and bravely provided a modicum of comfort. A bloody shirt and a fatal bullet also became cherished heirlooms for the bereaved.

There was no romanticism in the sight of corpses on the battlefield. Photography brought home the horrors to citizens in the North, beginning with Matthew Brady’s exhibition of the aftermath of Antietam . Communities close to battlefields were traumatized by the smell of dead men and horses. In Gettysburg, the July stench of death lasted until October’s frost. Whenever possible, armies worked to collect, indentify, and bury their own dead, but often the victor of the battle was left with the unwholesome task for both armies. Burial details were frequently assigned as punishments for recalcitrant units. Bodies were dumped into pits, ravines, and even wells. While some soldiers were buried in well-marked graves or shipped home in special metallic caskets, most men who fell were either buried in shallow holes or left to rot where they had fallen. In Virginia, soldiers reported trampling over bones from the previous year’s battle.

Dead Confederate soldiers from Starke's Louisiana Brigade, on the Hagerstown Turnpike, north of the Dunker Church.

Courtesy of Library of Congress.

At home, families turned to mourning rituals for comfort. Already elaborate, these practices intensified during the war. For women, the black mourning clothes characteristic of the nineteenth century probably brought relief by visually announcing their wearers’ significant loss and shielding them from social expectations. Sermons increasingly focused on the ideal of heaven as a place of family reunions, where the broken circle of kin would be restored for eternity. Funerals for local heroes were heavily attended, and celebrated generals, such as Stonewall Jackson in the Confederacy, were almost universally mourned. Both sides sought answers in their faith. Ironically, the North became more skeptical in victory, while the South found increased devotion in defeat, arguing that God had given victory to the Yankees in order to chastise the South for its failure to uphold its original standards of piety.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address to consecrate the National Cemetery at Gettysburg Battlefield Abraham Lincoln, hatless, is seated left of center.

Courtesy of Library of Congress.

An immediate post-war concern was the identification and repatriation of bodies. Clara Barton led the Union effort, which began at Andersonville and ended with the creation of national cemeteries. In Charleston in 1865, newly freed slaves celebrated the very first “Decoration Day,” honoring Union troops who had died while imprisoned in their city. Southern efforts in recovering and reburying bodies were privately funded, often through the auspices of ladies memorial associations, which also began the practice of celebrating Confederate Decoration Days. Both sides erected public memorials in the years after the war, but as the North moved forward, entranced by urban growth, a rising tide of immigration, and industrial advances, the South looked more determinedly backward, seeking a way to accept and mentally justify its military defeat.

By the early 1870s the “Lost Cause” orthodoxy was taking shape in the South . Promoted originally by Confederate leaders and authors of sentimental memoirs, the Lost Cause held that secession was justifiable and the war was rooted in constitutional issues. Slavery was not a catalyst to the conflict; in Lost Cause literature all slaves were good and faithful servants who never craved freedom. The Lost Cause promoted Confederate soldiers to the status of noble cavaliers, casting them as men who fought strictly to protect their homes and families. Union victory was achieved through superior numbers and supplies, not better leadership or more righteous ideals. This interpretation permitted defensiveness and feelings of moral superiority. White Southerners eagerly embraced the Lost Cause, reinforcing its teachings through the public rituals of veterans’ reunions and the erection of memorial statues dedicated to common soldiers. Southern enthusiasm for the Spanish-American War closed the remaining national wounds in 1898, and in the early years of the twentieth century academic historians fell into line with the Southern version of the “War Between the States.” Schoolbooks approved by United Daughters of the Confederacy enshrined the Lost Cause as the official memory of the war for Southern children for generations.

II. Memory and Myth Video


No one, especially in the South was prepared for the number of solider and civilian casualties. Losing almost a generation of men, they felt they lost a way of life. This was a difficult for Southerners to come to terms with, and in trying to get a grip on it the South develops what’s called The Lost Cause. Memories, Myth and Memorial — The Lost Cause is a short documentary produced by Bill Dudley with special guests Tracy J. Revels, Professor of History, Wofford College and Robert A. Taylor, Professor of Humanities and Communication, Florida History of Technology.

In the twentieth century, as the last of the Union and Confederate veterans passed away, the Civil War waxed romantic. Movies like Gone With The Wind made the Southern mythos a crowd-pleaser, and Southerners marketed their belles and battles to tourists. The Civil War centennial popularized historical reenactments but did little to challenge the idea that the war was about mutual valor and sacrifice. In the final decades of the century, academic historians finally began to confront the Civil War on more critical and analytical ground, heralding a pluralistic view of the conflict that emphasized the contributions of African-Americans, women, and home front activities. In 1990, the Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War drew a record number of viewers and sparked a new popular conversation about the meaning of the war. While Lost Cause symbols such as the Confederate battle flag remain controversial, many historians now argue that they represent an imagined past, one more related to regional defiance and resistance to change than to the men who carried those colors into battle.


Twentieth Century Civil War movies.

Florida has not been immune to the Lost Cause rhetoric, as dozens of markers and statues near county courthouses testify. However, the state has never been widely associated with the Confederacy in the modern era. Significantly, there have been few tourism efforts to capitalize on Florida’s rebel past. Early entrepreneurs saw little reason to remind visitors of the recent bloodshed, since there was far more money to be made in orange groves, railroads, and hotels. The elite guests of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant had put the war behind them, and the “tin can tourists” of the 1920s and 1930s were more interested in automotive adventures than history. Florida’s tourism industry boomed after World War II, but promoters emphasized historical aspects that were novel and non-controversial, such as the Spanish conquest or the culture of the indigenous Seminoles. By the end of the century, Florida was known for the antics of mermaids, magic mice, and moon men. Modern heritage tourism seeks to renew visitor’s interests in sites like the Olustee Battlefield, but the state’s image as a great national playground has largely overshadowed its interesting and important Civil War legacy.

III. Civil War Slideshow

IV. Lesson Plans


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