PURCELL: Spectacle of Grief (2022)

Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War Era by Sarah J. Purcell. University of North Carolina Press, 2022. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1-4696-6833-8. $34.95.

Early on the morning of Sunday, January 15, 1893, several thousand people huddled outside of Huntington Hall in Lowell, Massachusetts, undeterred by the biting winds that squalled across New England. Led by grizzled veterans donning Grand Army of the Republic uniforms, the long column of grievers extended down Dutton Street and reached into the mill town on the Merrimack. Finally, the appointed hour arrived. “When the crowd was admitted to the hall,” one observer remembered, “they almost carried the doors off their hinges.” Mourners surged into the stately meeting hall throughout the afternoon, congesting the auditorium where Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler’s flag-draped casket lay in state. The huge crowds “did not diminish,” and hundreds were left standing in the cold when the hall was sealed at five o’clock. Still, men “bowled over the police” to gain entrance, and “shouts and cries” rent the air. With no small effort, “the people were beaten into lines,” and a semblance of order was restored. In death no less than in life, Benjamin Butler would make a ruckus.[1]

Public funerals were high stakes events in the nineteenth century. As Sarah Purcell notes in this deeply researched and well-argued monograph, grief supplied an “important political language” for Civil War Americans (9). Funerals became key terrain in the pitched battles waged over the meaning and legacy of the Civil War (218). Across five chapters, Purcell analyzes nine public funerals for what they reveal about Civil War memory and national identity in the late nineteenth century.

Scholars have debated the degree to which reconciliation seized hold of the national dialogue about the Civil War in the decades after Appomattox. In Race and Reunion [2001], David Blight argued that white supremacist and reconciliationist memories—together with the cloying tributes paid to equally heroic Union and Confederate soldiers—eclipsed the war’s emancipation legacy. To the contrary, in their important monographs, historians John R. Neff, M. Keith Harris, and Barbara A. Gannon pointed to the coherence and persistence of both Union and emancipation narratives. Caroline E. Janney similarly suggested the “limits” of reconciliation in her magnum opus, Remembering the Civil War [2013].

Much of the existing scholarship has approached Civil War memory as an “either or” proposition: either the “romance of reunion” consolidated cultural and political power to triumph over its dissenters, or grizzled veterans, grieving widows, and the formerly enslaved kept “the real war” in view of Americans. Responding directly to historian Nina Silber’s appeal for a more capacious framing that treats Civil War memory as “the imagined reconstitution of the nation,” Purcell demonstrates that “rival, seemingly mutually exclusive, themes of Civil War memory commonly coexisted and conflicted” in ritualized mourning (5). “Sectional feeling,” the author writes, “could weave in and out of strong expressions of both reunion and reconciliation” (170).

Drawing on her previous scholarship (Purcell’s first book studied how public commemoration of Revolutionary War deaths sharpened notions of nationalism in the early republic), the author expertly builds connections between the culture of antebellum America and the character of grief at mid-century. Even as innovations in travel and technology invited adjustments, Purcell finds that public funerals proved “durable forms of political expression” across the nineteenth century (211).

The author begins with a close analysis of Henry Clay’s 1852 public funerals. On their looping journey from the nation’s capital to their final resting place in Lexington, Kentucky, Clay’s remains traveled by rail and riverboat—taking full advantage of the internal improvements that “Harry of the West” had so famously championed in Congress. The lengthy funeral procession afforded many Americans the opportunity to view Clay’s remains; however, those who did not could express their grief in other ways. “The public mourning for Henry Clay,” the author writes, “was created at the crossroads of politics, material culture, visual culture, and commerce” (30).

Clay died as sectional tensions over slavery threatened to push the nation over the precipice of disunion. As such, many tributes to Ancient Henry “evinced a great desire to harken back to an era of compromise and the possibility of national unity” (34). Still, not all Americans were ready to laurel Clay’s grave. Abolitionists—noting that Clay’s compromises both preserved slavery and, in 1850, saddled the nation with a draconian Fugitive Slave Act—refused to participate in the ritualized grief. In fact, Purcell argues, opposition to Clay’s martyrdom supplied an immediate and oft-overlooked context for Frederick Douglass’s famous oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (42). Yet in an augur of Civil War memory, a “triumphalist national memory” of the Great Compromiser prevailed.

Funerals staged during the war foreshadowed postwar memory battles, too; even as they supplied a common language of grief, they sharpened the belligerents’ national identities. The second chapter considers the wartime funerals of two military martyrs: Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the young Lincoln confidant and Zouave commander who became one of the first northern heroes of the war, and “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee’s trusted lieutenant who succumbed to pneumonia a week after friendly fire visited him at Chancellorsville. “Public mourning for Elmer Ellsworth and for Stonewall Jackson,” Purcell contends, “show clearly how rituals of unity around dead, heroic military men contributed to polarization and opposed versions of American and Confederate national identity during the Civil War” (93). Ellsworth’s obsequies—not to mention the homage paid to him by print and visual culture—whetted the northern appetite for revenge. Jackson’s funeral, which Purcell uniquely situates in the larger canon of American public funerals, likewise proved “a spur to action” (74, 86).

The last three chapters consider public funerals held after the war. In a chapter that pairs the British-born philanthropist George Peabody’s “transoceanic funeral transport” with the grief expressed for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Purcell reveals how “postwar public culture contained deep contradictions, even as it often imagined unity” (108, 139). While Peabody’s funeral was an opportunity to mend U.S.-British relations and honor a figure with cross-sectional appeal, in practice, it reanimated old tensions. Similarly, many white southerners hoped that Lee would be recalled as a national hero, even as they desired reconciliation on their own terms (131). Just five years after Appomattox, “reunion and reconciliation were already at play,” and could “combine in complex ways as the American nation remade itself” (98).

Purcell next considers the funerals for Massachusetts Republican senator Charles Sumner and Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Although both men “promoted messages of reconciliation” in the twilight of their lives (albeit for very different purposes), in death, they were transformed “into symbols of memory” by “sectional partisans” (141, 176). Ironically, neither of these men, both of whom had devoted so much energy to memory work, could prevent the appropriation of their personal legacies.

The final chapter considers how “rituals of national grief opened up to include new kinds of people in the pantheon of national heroes,” albeit uneasily (181). Frederick Douglass’s funerals in Washington, D.C., and Rochester, New York, bore all the trappings of ritualized national grief in the nineteenth century; nonetheless, they invited both spirited debate (about his legacy and racial identity) as well as sharp backlash from white supremacists (178). At the turn of the twentieth century, Jefferson Davis’s daughter, Winnie (the “Daughter of the Confederacy”), was mourned as both a “symbol of the Lost Cause” and a “symbol of reconciliation” (219). Purcell’s book underscores the perils of pigeonholing historical actors into a single memory tradition. Different strands of Civil War memory could combine and coexist. “Reconciliation,” the author writes, “simultaneously meant different things to different people, even as they engaged in the reunification process together” (218, 219). The Lost Cause doubtless gained much staying power by borrowing from and appropriating other war memories. Purcell paves the way for future scholars to illuminate how individuals synthesized seemingly contradictory memories. Some Civil War Americans could forgive but never forget, while others could forget but never forgive.

In a brief but poignant coda that recalls the 2020 obsequies for civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis, Purcell notes that public funerals continue to “communicate loud messages about contemporary politics and national identities” in our own fraught moment (224). “We have not finished the work of using funerals to imagine contested meanings of the American nation itself,” she writes (224). Spectacle of Grief is thus essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand the paradoxes of American nationalism, either in the Civil War era or today.

Brian Matthew Jordan is Associate Professor of Civil War History and Chair of the Department of History at Sam Houston State University.

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