Friday, October 12, 2012

Death And The Civil War

I just had a chance to watch the PBS documentary Death and the Civil War and I wanted to recommend it to all of you. 

Anyone who has read this blog or has a familiarity with 19th century baseball knows the important role that the Civil War played in the history of the game.  We can disagree about what that role was and how the war impacted the evolution of the game but what is undeniable is the profound effect the war had on the nation.  Inspired by Drew Faust's This Republic of Suffering, Death and the Civil War takes an unique look at this by focusing on the 750,000 men who died in the war and the toll their deaths took on their families and the nation.  It tells an amazing story about how 19th century America thought of and dealt with death and how an infrastructure had to be developed to physically deal with the number of Civil War dead. 

It is extraordinary to realize but the nation was still dealing with the problem of getting the fallen a proper burial well into the 1870s.  Think about the photos you've seen of the dead at Antietam or Gettysburg.  Think about the number of people who died at Vicksburg and Shiloh.  Death and the Civil War tells the story of how the nation dealt with this.  It tells how the families dealt with it emotionally and how the nation dealt with it physically.  It tells us the story of how the soldiers themselves dealt with it.  It's just a fantastic documentary and I encourage you to watch it.

Of course, being who I am, I was thinking about baseball the whole time I was watching it.  I was thinking about Edward Bredell and his father and the story of how Bredell ended up being buried in St. Louis.  I was thinking about all these pioneer baseball players who went off to war and saw the horrors of battle.  I was thinking about how Peter Morris, in But Didn't We Have Fun?, wrote that, when these guys came back home, they simply no longer had time for baseball and moved on with their lives.  I was thinking about the post-war outbreak of baseball fever and how it may have been a reaction to all of the death that the nation had been subjected to.

I've written before about how we need to place 19th century baseball in its proper context and how understanding the history of the Civil War helps us to do that.  I firmly believe that you can not understand the history of baseball in the United States without understanding the history of the Civil War.  In St. Louis, specifically, the origins and early development of the game in the city are intertwined with people and events surrounding the war.  Some of our earliest clubs break-up because of the outbreak of the war.  People like Jeremiah Fruin move to St. Louis because of the war.  People like Merritt Griswold leave St. Louis because of the war.  The development of the Empire Club as the best baseball team in St. Louis is directly tied to the war.

I can not emphasize enough how important it is to put these people and events into their proper context.  The Civil War was the biggest event in these peoples lives and it had a profound impact on them.  Death and the Civil War does a fantastic job of showing how the war changed people.  It shows us how they had to change in order to deal with the terrible events of the war.  And, as a historian, this helps me to understand Edward Bredell, Sr., Jeremiah Fruin, Merritt Griswold and the rest just a a little bit better.

As I said, I encourage you to watch it and I'm certain that you'll enjoy it.                     

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