We’ve all been taught the consequences of the U.S. Civil War since childhood. How it led to the emancipation of slaves, solidified state and federal rights, and further made the case for women’s suffrage. But the unprecedented carnage of the war also transformed the attitude of how the nation honors its military dead; a tradition now indelible to the American spirit.

That was the premise behind a talk given by Harvard University President Dr. Drew Faust at VA central office in Washington today. Through her research, Dr. Faust found that the Civil War fundamentally changed the way our country handled death on the battlefield. Both the Union and Confederacy were ill equipped to bury fallen troops in a dignified manner, and death notifications sent to families were informal and happenstance, if they happened at all. Unmarked and hasty graves littered fields and farms near battlefields where hundreds of thousands of men struggled and died.

Humanitarian ideas and the dignity of the human spirit were transformed in the crucible of war, and an emerging sense of responsibility for our war dead led to drastic shift in government obligations.

Edmund Whitman, an Army officer and a quartermaster during the war, led the effort. Whitman inspected cemeteries and battlefields across the south from 1865-1869, examined informal records, and conducted interviews to find out locations of fallen troops. He oversaw the reinterment of over 100,000 Union soldiers. About 300,000 were reburied in 74 national cemeteries, which now fall under the purview of the National Park Service.

As Dr. Faust noted, it was Whitman’s mission to put human faces and human cost to the war, and to recognize the sacrifices of so many of our own. His work helped to establish the notion that those who fell in battle are to be honored, and it’s our duty as citizens to remember and cherish that.

It’s difficult to fathom the damage of the war. An estimated 600,000 soldiers from both sides were killed; if the war were fought today with the same casualty rate, six million would lay dead. But it’s also hard to imagine a time when the care of our slain troops was an afterthought—an annoyance to both troops in the field and folks in the halls of government. It’s now one of VA’s most sacred obligations, but it took a war of staggering magnitude for our nation to realize it had a duty to honor the dead as much as they honored us.

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Published on Apr. 18, 2012

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One Comment

  1. John Rogers April 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Alex: THANK YOU for your well-written and moving tribute to our war dead. Your passage about the honor that our war dead bestow on our nation was very powerful. Never forget…never forget their sacrifices and those of their families, friends and fellow GIs.

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