Death is never good. Yet it is the curse of each of us to die. It is a constant in the experiment of life. The only variables are the how, the why, and the when.
Each generation has to come to grips with death for itself. Every society struggles to define what it means to die well.
For the Americans who lived through the Civil War period, death became a force to be reckoned with–a reality that grew to unimaginable size. As they wrestled with the overwhelming nature of loss and the complexity of its causes, they came up with their own version of the good death.
When Samuel A. Thorn (my great-great grandmother’s cousin) died in January 1862, there was nothing good about his death. He was a young man, 17 years old, who had just recently signed up to fight in the Civil War. Before he saw battle, he lost his life to pneumonia at a disease-ridden camp in Kentucky.
As the Civil War began, young men from the farms of the heartland came together into camps to learn how to be soldiers. Many had never been far from home and had never lived in close quarters with anyone except their brothers and sisters. When they were put together cheek by jowl in hastily built barracks with dubious sanitation systems, disease ran rampant.
Many of the young men who had gone off to defend the Union–to fight honorably and at the very least die gloriously in battle–perished ingloriously on a sickbed in a cold, wet hospital far from home. Samuel Thorn’s death was sadly anything but atypical.
Communicating back to families and communities about how a soldier died was always a difficult matter. But for an officer who watched a young private expire from disease before he even had a chance to show his prowess as a soldier, the task of telling that private’s loved ones of his early demise must have been particularly challenging.
Lieutenant T.H. Kirby sent the report to Samuel’s parents and friends:
DIED–at Camp Wickliffe, Larue County, Kentucky, of Pneumonia, on the 5th inst., SAMUEL A. THORN, member of company B, 36th Regiment Indiana Volunteers, only son of Benjamin Thorn of Washington, Ind.
He fell a victim to death while in the vigor of youth, far from home and parents, in the service of his country, whither patriotism had prompted him to follow the stars and stripes of his native country in this her hour of peril. His last moments of pain were borne without a murmur. Through the kind endeavors of officers, his remains were forwarded to his friends, accompanied by Thos. Y. Richey. We unite in extending our sympathies to the friends of the deceased.
LIEUT. T. H. KIRBY
In behalf of the Company
Drew Gilpin Faust does an excellent job of identifying and explicating the Civil War generation’s version of the good death in her bestselling book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.
In the first chapter (particularly pages 11-18), she identifies some of the elements of a good death for the Civil War generation, including that “the deceased had been conscious of his fate [and] had demonstrated a willingness to accept it.”
Lieutenant Kirby’s phrase “borne without a murmur” captures a stoic acceptance of death that was expected of the young men of that generation. His letter is filled with words that link Samuel’s death to his home and his family (where he should have died, if he had truly experienced a good death).
Samuel is portrayed as a patriotic hero who was on a quest to save his country “in this her hour of peril.” The nobility of his cause outweighs the ignobility of his death.
According to Faust, “News of a Good Death constituted the ultimate solace.” Even though Samuel’s parents and friends couldn’t be a part of the deathbed scene as they typically would have, receiving a report that he had played his role well was meant to give some comfort.
Perhaps what was most important was that Samuel was not alone. He was cared for by the “kind endeavors of officers” and even escorted home by a friend.
Every generation defines its own version of the good death. Yet so many of the principles remain the same. We Americans still generally expect our loved ones to take a stoic approach to dying. We want those who have passed on to be seen as heroes. And, most of all, we want to know the ones we love didn’t die alone.
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