Three months into the American Civil War, on July 21, 1861, more than 60,000 men charged into each other on a field outside the Virginia town of Manassas. It was the War's first major land battle, and in just 12 hours, 900 men were killed and 2,700 wounded. At the Battle of Bull Run, the terrible reality of the War had come crashing down. Though universally predicted to be a brief and bloodless military adventure, the Civil War dragged on for four dark years, killing an estimated 750,000 men -- nearly 2.5 percent of the American population. The impact permanently altered the character of the republic, the culture of the government, and the psyche of the American people for all time.

Woefully unprepared for the monumental work of burying and accounting for the dead, northerners and southerners alike had to find a way to deal with the hundreds of thousands of bodies, many of which were unidentified, and the grieving families who sought information on loved ones who, in the end, would never be found. Following the common Christian notions of the "proper" way to die and be buried was all but impossible for most soldiers on the front. Before the Civil War, America had no national cemeteries; no provisions for identifying or burying the dead, notifying the next of kin, or providing aid to the suffering families of dead veterans; no federal relief organizations; no effective ambulance corps; no adequate federal hospitals.

By the time Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union in April 1865, much of the work of death had only just begun. Tens of thousands of soldiers lay unburied, their bones littering battlefields; still more had been hastily interred where they fell, and hundreds of thousands remained unidentified.

"After the Civil War, the United States thought constantly about the dead, this constituency that was no longer there, and yet was so powerful in the influence it has on our nation, because the nation had to live up to the sacrifice that these individuals represented," says Drew Gilpin Faust, author of This Republic of Suffering, on which the film is based.

While Congress passed legislation to establish and protect national cemeteries in February 1867, the $4 million program would re-inter the bodies of only the Union Soldiers in 74 national cemeteries; all 30,000 African American soldiers were buried in areas designated "colored." White southerners channeled their deep feelings of grief, loss, rage and doubt into reclaiming the bodies of hundreds of thousands of their dead loved ones, abandoned by the federal government. The refusal of the victorious North to attend to the vanquished southern dead would have powerful consequences for generations to come.

Decoration Day rituals -- placing seasonal flowers on graves sites -- sprang up around the country. In the spring of 1868, General John Logan, officially designated May 30 "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country." Memorial Day is still celebrated nationally on the day General Logan specified three years after the end of the Civil War. Many southern states recognize Confederate Memorial Day on a different date from the nationwide holiday, reflecting persistent sectional differences among both the living and the dead.

The generation of Americans that survived the Civil War lived the rest of their lives with grief and loss. Some continued to search for information about their missing loved ones until they themselves died. Others were never able to get over the cruel deaths of sons, husbands, or dear friends and lived in perpetual mourning. Their struggle to give meaning to the seemingly senseless deaths of so many still haunts us today.

My American Experience

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • DIG: Nordblom Family Foundation, Gretchen Stone Cook Charitable Foundation (owens, death)
  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH