Awaiting the Heavenly Country

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"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

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

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Overview

"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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Schantz writes about that harvest of death . . . with insight and sensitivity—even eloquence."—James M. McPherson, New York Review of Books (17 April 2008)

"Schantz makes a compelling case that Americans' experiences with, and ideas about, death before the Civil War made it possible for them to understand—and even celebrate—death caused by the war. . . . He is especially perceptive at describing mourning rituals, the literature on heaven as a place of family reunion with full bodily restoration, the rural cemetery movement, and the illustration of death in lithographs, photography, and painting. . . . A sobering assessment for anyone who imagines war as a purifying process."—Library Journal (15 February 2008)

"The revival of a Classical martial code; a maniacally detailed vision of Heaven; a rural cemetery movement that guaranteed a safe resting place—all these things together, Schantz argues, prepared American soldiers for death on the battlefield. In his view, it wasn't the bloody war that made the rituals; it was the rituals that enabled the bloody war."—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker (21 January 2008)

"Awaiting the Heavenly Country is a first-rate book with careful research on an intriguing subject. It makes an important contribution to the understandin of the Civil War era."—Lance J. Herdegen, America's Civil War (May 2008)

"Schantz persuasively documents a coherent nineteenth-century 'culture of death' that shielded Civil War Americans from despair in the face of devestating loss. All religious traditions aim to make sense of a death-dealing cosmos, but the evangelical Protestant culture of the antebellum United States created more elaborate mourning rituals, more overt expressions of anguish, and more reassurances of reunion than previous generations of Americans had known. The culture of death, Schantz argues, provided the resources that encouraged soldiers to risk death and civilians to accept their disapppearance."—T. J. Jackson Lears, Bookforum (December/January 2009)

"In Awaiting the Heavenly Country Mark S. Schantz penetrates the cultural phenomenon of extolling the virtues of a 'good death.' Schantz makes a compelling case that attitudes facilitating the Civil War's tremendous carnage were firmly in place before hostilities ever began."—Gordon Berg, Civil War Times, December 2008

"The premise of this interesting and satisfying book is that an antebellum American culture of death contributed mightily, even decisively, to the destructive nature of the Civil War. Mark S. Schantz's excellent research melds with his deep knowledge of the war in making persuasive links among antebellum culture and Civil War behaviors—North and South, male and female, black and white, home front and battlefield."—David Waldstreicher, Temple University, author of Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution

"Awaiting the Heavenly Country is an eloquent and insightful analysis of the culture of death and dying in antebellum America. Mark S. Schantz argues that the carnage of the Civil War may best be explained by a culture that embraced several anesthetizing notions about death: the idea that death was ennobling, that it ushered the deceased into a materially and emotionally rich heavenly existence, that the body itself could be purified and restored in the act of death. Schantz is a generous and sympathetic guide who manages to explain the inexplicable."—Susan Juster, University of Michigan, author of Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophesy in the Age of Revolution

"Awaiting the Heavenly Country is an important book. Mark S. Schantz's prose is as clear and sharp as his insights. In our Civil War, beliefs were like body armor. Officers and enlisted men, North and South, believed in life after death. Field artillery and minié balls, suicidal infantry charges and criminally incompetent generals may have sent them to their graves, but everyone thought they'd pass through the Pearly Gates and meet again in the Peaceable Kingdom. Our ancestors weren't suicide bombers, but the thought of Heaven consoled them."—Michael Lesy, Hampshire College, author of Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties

School Library Journal

Schantz (history, Hendrix Coll., AR) makes a compelling case that Americans' experiences with, and ideas about, death before the Civil War made it possible for them to understand-and even celebrate-death caused by the war. By closely reading landscapes, images, and all manner of writings on the "culture of death," Schantz discovers that Northerners and Southerners alike came to believe that how one approached death and how a people honored the dead revealed, even decided, matters of faith, community, and national identity. Schantz is especially perceptive at describing mourning rituals, the literature on heaven as a place of family reunion with full bodily restoration, the rural cemetery movement, and the illustration of death in lithographs, photography, and painting. He finds a strong strain of Greek revival and ancient mythology in Americans' representation of what death demanded of men and women. When read in tandem with Drew Gilpin Faust's recent This Republic of Suffering, we learn that for 19th-century Americans the "unifying power of death" defined how one must live, and when the war came, it also made it easier to kill and to die. A sobering assessment for anyone who imagines war as a purifying process.
—Randall M. Miller

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801437618
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2008
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark S. Schantz is Professor of History and Director of the Odyssey Program at Hendrix College.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter One. "Emblems of Mortality"
Chapter Two. "The Heavenly Country"
Chapter Three. "Melancholy Pleasure"
Chapter Four. "A Voice from the Ruins"
Chapter Five. "Better to Die Free, Than to Live Slaves"
Chapter Six. "The Court of Death"
Epilogue

Notes
Index

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