The Plague, The Civil War, and the Ars Moriendi

Jules Taylor
25 min readFeb 28, 2021
Taken from the Ars Moriendi

Transcript from the podcast No Easy Answers. Click here to listen now

As you can probably tell, from the arch of this show in the last couple of episodes, and from the guests I have featured, I have been thinking about death, a lot lately. At the time these words are committed to paper, there are now over 330,000 Americans who have perished to the coronavirus. Current projections show these numbers increasing well into the springtime, reaching the grim milestone of half a million around Valentine's Day 2021. With almost 3,000 Americans dying per day, and with no clear ending to this pandemic insight, it is becoming all too clear the COVID-19 crisis will hold its own when weighed against the tragedies of war in America’s history.

Should we hesitate to draw comparisons between this pandemic and war? We already invoke the language of war when we describe the way we battle the virus. We refer to our health care workers as the front line, and part of me wonders if we are compelled to frame the realities of the pandemic as war as part of a uniquely American subconscious working to rationalize the mounting death toll. There is certainly a degree of incommensurability between war and the pandemic, and I don’t want to seem like I’m trivializing parts of history.

What I mean is, take the Vietnam war for example. The United States lost roughly 58,000 soldiers from 1964 to 1975. The incommensurability of these points in history lies in the way the coronavirus has claimed the lives of over 5 times as many people around 1/10th of the time the Vietnam war lasted. The Vietnam war was an awful conflict worthy of its own investigations and maybe we’ll dedicate an episode on that in the future — but with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been in the ‘more lives lost than in Vietnam’ stage since May. If the pandemic continues its current pace, it will match the number of American casualties lost in World War 2 in mid-January.

I think it’s fair to say that any comparison between the current pandemic and war would be incongruent and things would not stack up right. So I hope my audience will forgive me and set aside concerns about apples to oranges as I stack incommensurate points in history side by side during the course of this episode.

We’re going to start with our first incomparable point in history, the mid-1300s. According to medieval historians, in a period of four years, roughly 50% of the European population died of plague. It was the deadliest pandemic in recorded human history, killing somewhere around 75–200 million people in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Infections and deaths peaked in Europe during the years 1347 to 1351. In total, the plague may have reduced the world’s population from an estimated 475 million to 350 million.

In 1348, the disease spread so rapidly that before any physicians or government authorities had time to reflect on its origins, about a third of the European population had already perished. It was not uncommon for as much as half of the population to die in crowded cities. Half of the population of Paris died, the population of Florence was reduced from 120,000 down to around 50,000 in 1351. At least 60% of Hamburg perished, and monks, nuns and priests were especially hard-hit since they cared for victims of the plague.

It’s difficult to imagine what life would be like during such a catastrophic event, so I’m going to quote a chronicler named Agnolo di Tura, from Sienna, Italy. This quote is taken from a book by Barbara Tuchman, called A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, and I’m going to quote extensively from it.

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

“The mortality began in Siena in May (1348). It was a cruel and horrible thing; and I do not know where to begin to tell of the cruelty and the pitiless ways. It seemed to almost everyone that one became stupefied by seeing the pain. And it is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful thing. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. And the victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath their armpits and in their groins and fall over dead while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so, they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. Nor did the death bell sound. And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered over with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug.

And I, Agnolo di Tura… buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed that it was the end of the world.”

The disease was bubonic plague, present in two forms: one that infected the bloodstream… and was spread by contact; and a second, more virulent pneumonic type that infected the lungs and was spread by respiratory infection. The presence of both at once caused the high mortality rate and speed of contagion. So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke, of doctors catching the illness at a bedside and dying before the patient. So rapidly did it spread from one to another that to a French physician, Simon de Covino, it seemed as if one sick person “could infect the whole world.” The malignity of the pestilence appeared more terrible because its victims knew no prevention and no remedy.

The plague created religious, social, and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history. Prior to the emergence of the Black Death, the workings of Europe were run by the Catholic Church and the continent was a feudal society. Here’s another exceedingly long quote from Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror, “The plague accelerated discontent with the Church at the very moment when people felt a greater need of spiritual reassurance. There had to be some meaning in the terrorizing experience God had inflicted. If the purpose had been to shake man from his sinful ways, it had failed. Human conduct was found to be “wickeder than before,” more avaricious and grasping, more litigious, more bellicose, and this was nowhere more apparent than in the Church itself.”

“Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

“The Church emerged from the plague richer if not more unpopular. When sudden death threatened everyone with the prospect of being carried off in a state of sin, the result was a flood of bequests to religious institutions. In Florence, the Church of Orsanmichele received 350,000 florins intended as alms for the poor, although in this case the directors of the company were accused of using the money for their own purposes on the grounds that the very poor and needy were dead.”

“While the Church garnered money, personal attacks on the clergy increased, stimulated partly by the failure of priests during the plague to live up to their responsibilities. That they died like other men was doubtless forgiven, but that they let Christians die without the sacraments or charged more for their services in the crisis, as many did, was violently resented. Even during the Jubilee, the Roman populace, moved by some mysterious tremor of local hostility, jeered and harassed the Cardinal-Legate. On one occasion, as he was riding in a procession, he was shot at by a sniper and returned pale and trembling with an arrow through his red hat. Venturing out thereafter only with a helmet under his hat and a coat of mail under his gown, he departed for Naples as soon as he could, and died on the way — poisoned, it was said, by wine.”

“In England, where anti-clericalism was endemic, citizens of Worcester in 1349 broke down the gates of the Priory of St. Mary attached to the cathedral, attacked the monks, “chased the Prior with bows and arrows and other offensive weapons,” and tried to set fire to the buildings. At Yeovil in the same year, when the Bishop of Bath and Wells held a thanksgiving service to mark the passing of the plague, it was interrupted by “certain sons of perdition” who kept the Bishop and congregation besieged in the church all night until rescue came.”

As is the recognizable pattern throughout history, the search for a scapegoat resulted in the targeting of various groups, such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, and lepers, blaming them for the crisis. Lepers, and others with skin diseases such as acne or psoriasis, were killed throughout Europe. There were many attacks against Jewish communities. In the Strasbourg massacre of February 1349, Jews who had been accused of spreading the plague by polluting the wells of the city, were asked to convert. About 1,000 refused and were burned alive. During that same year, Jewish communities in other European cities were wiped out, forcing them to massively migrate to areas of modern-day Poland and Russia, permanently altering the demography of the continent in the process.

The pandemic completely restructured both religion and political forces; survivors began to turn to other forms of spirituality and the power dynamics of the fiefs and city-states crumbled. The demographic declines due to the pandemic resulted in the prices of food dropping and devaluing of land by 30–40% in most parts of Europe between 1350 and 1400. Landholders faced a great loss, but for ordinary men and women it was a windfall. The survivors of the pandemic found not only that the prices of food were lower but also the lands were more abundant, and many of them inherited property from their dead relatives, which also served to destabilize feudalism. As a result of the decimation in the populace, the value of the working class increased, and commoners came to enjoy more freedom. To answer the increased need for labor, workers travelled in search of the most favorable position economically.

The devastation in Florence caused by the Black Death also resulted in a shift in the world view of people in 14th century Italy and lead to the Renaissance. Italy was particularly badly hit by the pandemic, and it has been speculated that the resulting familiarity with death caused thinkers to dwell more on their lives on Earth, rather than on spirituality and the afterlife. It’s also been argued that the familiarity with death promoted a new wave of piety, manifested in the sponsorship of religious works of art. The Renaissance’s emergence in Italy was also aided by the influx of Greek scholars following the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

It seems safe to presume the people living in 14th and 15th century Europe would be preoccupied with death, the afterlife, and how to best prepare for it. By the start of the 15th century, the Church had adopted the position that it was their responsibility to offer practical guidance for the dying and those attending to them. As part of the Church authorities’ program for educating priests and laypeople, a set of texts emerged called the Ars Moriendi (“The Art of Dying”). These were two manuals that informed the dying about what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a ‘good death’ and salvation. The ars moriendi packaged well established beliefs and practices concerning death, the dying, and the afterlife into a new, concise format.

The Ars Moriendi consists of six chapters. (1) The first chapter explains that dying has a good side and serves to console the dying that death is not something to be afraid of. It praises the deaths of good Christians and repentant sinners who die “gladly and willfully”. Because the best preparation for a good death is a good life, Christians should live in such a way that they may die safely at any given moment. (2) The second chapter is the longest and outlines the five temptations that beset a dying man, and how to avoid them. These are lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride, and avarice. (3) The third chapter lists “interrogations”, which are seven questions to ask the dying. These questions are meant to reaffirm their faith, to repent their sins, and to commit themselves fully to Christ’s passion and death.

Here are the seven questions to ask a dying man:

1. Do you believe fully in your chosen religion, or lack thereof? Are you at peace with your choice?

2. Do you acknowledge all the sins you have committed?

3. Are you sorry for them? Try to understand why they were wrong and find a way to forgive yourself for them.

4. How would you live differently if you were to live longer?

5. Can you forgive all the people who have hurt you, in words or actions? Reflect on what they have done or said and find strength in your heart to let your pain and anger go.

6. Have you done your best to fulfil your responsibilities? If you have, you have nothing further to worry about — you have tried your best. If you haven’t, you can still make arrangements so that they will be taken care of. You must accept that you cannot personally fulfil these tasks and that’s okay. You are doing everything you can by finding the right people to take care of them for you, and that is all that’s required of you.

7. Are you ready to let go of all your worldly and material possessions?

(4) The fourth chapter asks the dying to imitate Christ’s actions on the cross and provides prayers for “a clear end” and the “everlasting bliss that is the reward of the holy dying”. (5) The fifth chapter addresses the friends and family, outlining the general rules of behavior at the deathbed. They are to present the dying with images of the crucifix and saints, and encourage them to repent, receive the sacraments, and draw up a testament disposing of their possessions. In the process, the attendants are to consider and prepare for their own deaths. (6) The sixth chapter includes prayers to be said once the dying are no longer able to speak on their own behalf.

The popularity of the ars moriendi developed into a broader tradition of writing on ‘the good death’ in both Protestant and Catholic veins. This genre of consolatory death literature continued in various forms until the 19th century but reached its peak in 1651 with the publication of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying. Holy Living and Dying is the collective title of two books of Christian devotion originally published as The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living in 1650 and The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying in 1651. Holy Living is designed to instruct the reader in living a virtuous life, increasing personal piety, and avoiding temptations. Holy Dying is meant to instruct the reader in the “means and instruments” of preparing for a blessed death. Each book contains discussions of theology, moral instructions, and model prayers requesting divine assistance in achieving them. The book is written half as Christian instruction and half memorial sermon, with Taylor displaying his gift for poetic prose.

Since I have asked for, and since you have so graciously granted me, a certain license for incommensurability, I’m going to move us to our second point in history and our other incomparable historical example, the American Civil War (the orange to our apple if you will). Ultimately, we will stack these two periods beside each other, and take from them what we can and apply it to our current situation and modern predicaments. For whatever stark incongruities these two periods present, there is a connection to the people of both times by way of the ars moriendi and Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying.

Much in the same way that I cited long passages from Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror, I’m going to quote extensively from Drew Gilpin Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, “By the nineteenth century Taylor’s books had become classics, and the tradition of the ars moriendi was spread both through reprints of earlier texts and through more contemporary considerations of the Good Death. Often these more modern renditions appeared in new contexts and genres: in sermons that focused on one or two aspects of the larger subject; in American Sunday School Union tracts distributed to youth across the nation; in popular health books that combined the expanding insights of medical science with older religious conventions about dying well; and in popular literature, with the exemplary deaths of Dickens’s Little Nell, Thackeray’s Colonel Newcome, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Eva. So diverse and numerous were these representations of the Good Death that they reached a wide spectrum of the American population at midcentury, and they would become a central theme within the songs, stories, and poetry of the Civil War itself. By the 1860s many elements of the Good Death had been to a considerable degree separated from their explicitly theological roots and had become as much a part of respectable middle-class behavior and expectation in North and South as they were the product of emblem of any particular religious affiliation.”

This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

Like the people who lived in Europe during the 1350s, death seemed omnipresent throughout Civil War America. The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865 is approximately equal to American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. Historians have placed the number as high as 750,000 people, the modern-day equivalent of six million deaths (to scale with the current population of America).

Like the peoples of feudal Europe, Americans struggled with the impact and meaning of death, not just in terms of the sheer numbers, but in the way the Civil War violated prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end — about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances. For Americans, death was no longer encountered individually; mortality rates were so high that nearly every American family was touched. Death’s threat, its proximity, its actuality became the most widely shared of war’s experience. Historians have only recently begun to consider the social and cultural meanings of Civil War death, but burgeoning interests in the war by way of social historians has begun to raise questions about the wider impact of battlefield slaughter, and to suggests that such mortality, even in a society far more accustomed to death than our own, must have exerted a profound influence on Americans’ perceptions of the world around them as well as their hopes for a world to come.

For the people of mid-19th century America, death would enter the experience of the American people and the body politic of the American nation as it never had before, on a scale and in a manner, no one had ever imagined possible, under circumstances for which the nation would prove completely unprepared. Civil War American society had to identify — find, invent, create — the means and mechanisms to manage more than half a million dead: their deaths, their bodies, their loss, along with new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale. How they accomplished this task reshaped their individual lives — and deaths — at the same time that it redefined their nation and their culture.

Before the civil war, there were no national cemeteries, no provisions for identifying the dead or notifying next of kin or providing aid to the suffering families of dead veterans, no federal relief programs, no effective ambulance core, no adequate federal hospitals, no federal provisions for burying the dead, no Arlington Cemetery, no Memorial Day. As a nation, America embarked on a new relationship with death in a whole series of ways. Its survival would be assured and defined by the deaths of so many hundreds of thousands of people, becoming inseparable from death in that sense. In a second way, the United States took on a new relationship with death in a national sense, because of the penchant system, the reburial system, the bureaucracy of death would transform the nature of the federal government. It would become a stronger and more centralized nation with more responsibilities, partly by taking on these obligations that grew out of civil war death. Death created the modern American union — not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.

The people of 19th century America, like the people of 14th century Europe, had suddenly found themselves facing an incomprehensible catastrophe over which they had absolutely no control. The people of both eras would resist the plague and war’s “assault on their conceptions of how life should end, an assault that challenged their most fundamental assumptions about life’s value and meaning.” To quote from another work by Drew Gilpin Faust The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying, “As they faced horrors that forced them to question their ability to cope, their commitment to the war, even their faith in a righteous God, soldiers and civilians alike struggled to retain their most cherished beliefs and make them work in the dramatically altered world that war had introduced.”

The presence and fear of death touched Civil War Americans’ most fundamental sense of who they were, for in its threat of termination and transformation, death inevitably inspired self-scrutiny and self-definition. A subject of age-old concern for believers and nonbelievers alike, the existence and nature of an afterlife took on new urgency both for soldiers anxious about their own deaths and for bereaved kin speculating on the fate of the departed. And even if spirits and souls proved indeed immortal, there still remained the vexing question of bodies. The traditional notion that corporeal resurrection and restoration would accompany the Day of Judgment seemed increasingly implausible to many Americans who had seen the maiming and disfigurement inflicted by this war. Witnesses at field hospitals almost invariably commented with horror on the piles of limbs lying near the surgeon’s table, dissociated from the bodies to which they had belonged, transformed into objects of revulsion instead of essential parts of people. These arms and legs seemed as unidentifiable — and unrestorable — as the tens of thousands of missing men who had been separated from their names. The integral relationship between the body and the human self it housed was as shattered as the wounded men.

The Good Death proved to be a concern shared by almost all Americans of every religious background. Soldiers and their families struggled in a variety of ways to mitigate such cruel realities, to construct a Good Death even amid chaos, to substitute for missing elements or compensate for unsatisfied expectations. Their successes and failures influenced not only the last moments of thousands of dying soldiers but also the attitudes and outlook of survivors who contended with the impact of these experiences for the rest of their lives.

Death customs of the Victorian era centered on domestic scenes and spaces; hospitals housed the indigent, not respectable citizens. As late as the first decade of the twentieth century, fewer than 15 percent of Americans died away from home. But the four years of civil war overturned these conventions and expectations, as soldiers died by the thousands in the company of strangers, even enemies.

Family was central to the ars moriendi tradition, for kin performed its essential rituals. Victorian ideals of domesticity further reinforced these assumptions about death’s appropriate familial setting. One should die among family assembled around the deathbed. Relatives would of course be most likely to show concern about the comfort and needs of their dying loved one, but this was ultimately a secondary consideration. Far more important, family members needed to witness a death in order to assess the state of the dying person’s soul, for these critical last moments of life would epitomize his or her spiritual condition. The dying were not losing their essential selves, but rather defining them for eternity. Kin would use their observations of the deathbed to evaluate the family’s chances for a reunion in heaven. A life was a narrative that could only be incomplete without this final chapter, without the life-defining last words.15

Last words also imposed meaning on the life narrative they concluded and communicated invaluable lessons to those gathered around the deathbed. This didactic function provided a critical means through which the deceased could continue to exist in the lives of survivors. The teachings that last words imparted served as a lingering exhortation and a persisting tie between the living and the dead. To be deprived of these lessons, and thus this connection, seemed unbearable to many nineteenth-century Americans left at home while their sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers died with their words unrecorded or even unheard.

Americans thus sought to manage battlefield deaths in a way that mitigated separation from kin and offered a substitute for the traditional stylized deathbed performance. Soldiers, chaplains, military nurses, and doctors conspired to provide the dying man and his family with as many of the elements of the conventional Good Death as possible, struggling even in the chaos of war to make it possible for men — and their loved ones — to believe they had died well. Spiritual wounds demanded attention as powerfully as did those of the flesh. Battle deaths belonged to those at home as well as those in the field. The traditions of ars moriendi defined civilians as participants in war’s losses and connected soldiers to those behind the lines. Both parties worked to ensure that soldiers would not die alone as they worked together to reconstruct the Good Death amid the disruptions of war, to maintain the traditional connections between the dying and their kin that defined the ars moriendi. News of a Good Death constituted the ultimate solace — the consoling promise of life everlasting.

With all of this in mind, I’m going to read to you a transcript of a civil war letter, written by James Robert Montgomery. I’ll leave a link in the show notes so that you can see images of the original letter. The letter is dated May 10th, 1864:

Dear Father,

This is my last letter to you. I went in to battle this evening as Courier for General Heth. I have been struck by a piece of shell and my right shoulder is horribly mangled and I know death is inevitable. I am very weak, but I write to you because I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son.

I know death is near, that I will die far from home and friends of my early youth, but I have friends here too who are kind to me. My friend Fairfax will write you at my request and give you the particulars of my death. My grave will be marked so that you may visit it if you desire to do so, but is optionary with you whether you let my remains rest here or in Mississippi. I would like to rest in the graveyard with my dear mother and brothers but it’s a matter of minor importance. Let us all try to reunite in heaven. I pray my God to forgive my sins & feel that his promises are true that he will forgive and save me. Give my love to all my friends. My strength fails me. My horse & my equipments will be left for you. Again, a long farewell to you. May be meet in heaven.

Your dying son,

J. R. Montgomery

Civil War Letter by JR Montgomery

This Republic of Suffering brings into focus the irreducible lived experience of the American Civil War, and the ways in which American society coped with and was transformed by death on such a massive scale. We can see some of these elements in J.R. Montgomery’s letter.

That he uses the word ‘delighted’, in that he is sure that his father would be ‘delighted’ to read a word from his dying son. That goes to show how news of a good death was the ultimate solace. It’s important to understand that up until about a century before the American Civil War, the conception of heaven was a place that was cold and distant, and theocentric — meaning heaven focused exclusively on the connection between God and man. By around 1858, a more modern notion of heaven had begun to emerge as American religious denominations gradually embraced a softening view of heaven, one that was not so separate or different from a life on earth. You could say that the widespread assumption among Civil War Americans that they would one day be reunited with lost kin helped to push the concept of heaven into an eternal family reunion.

One must imagine that part of the delight J.R. Montgomery’s Father would have felt was that he received any correspondence at all, given that many families went without updates. His father was lucky in the sense that at least he was given some instructions as to where his son was buried, and that his son has some semblance of a good death. There was a post-war movement that attempted to locate and identify around 300,000 Union soldiers across the south and rebury them in national cemeteries. The Southern landscape at one time was littered with hundreds of thousands, unburied, scantily buried, recently re-exhumed, and desecrated graves. The salience of death for the people of mid-19th century Southern America seems to take on the imagery given to us by the chronicle of Agnolo di Tura.

It seems to this point we haven’t made mention of Abraham Lincoln, who was obviously president during all of this. If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, then you’ll recall that in episode 4, I said some negative things about Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers, and the American Revolution. Those things are true, as a matter of historical record. Although not a founding father, Lincoln is another secular saint of American history that has been mystified by historians and nationalism.

One historian with sobering words on Lincoln is historian Lerone Bennett Jr. I’m going to play a brief audio clip of him speaking about his book Forced into Glory, and then we’ll talk about what Lincoln’s death meant to the country on the other side.

Southerners and northerners alike elaborated narratives of patriotic sacrifice that imbued war deaths with transcendent meaning. Soldiers suffered and died so that a nation — be it the Union or the Confederacy — might live; Christian and nationalist imperatives merged in a redemptive vision of political immortality.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is perhaps the best-known example of such an explanation and justification of war’s carnage. Determined that “these dead shall not have died in vain,” Lincoln hallowed and sacralized a nation and its purposes with biblical cadences — even as he scarcely mentioned God. In the address the dead themselves become the agents of political meaning and devotion; they act even in their silence and anonymity. Lincoln immortalized them as the enduring inspiration for an immortal nation. Unlike the “honored dead,” the Union would not “perish from the earth.” Soldiers’ deaths, like Christ’s sacrifice, become the vehicle of salvation, the means for a terrestrial, political redemption.39

Lincoln’s providential view of the war and its carnage appeared with perhaps even greater force a year and a half later, as both the conflict and his life neared conclusion. In the Second Inaugural of March 1865 Lincoln again offered an explanation for wartime slaughter, but this time it was God, not man, who gave it meaning. An Old Testament God of justice is avenging the sins of slavery. The Civil War and its deaths are not so much sacrifice as atonement. “Yet if God wills that it continue until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”40

Providential views of the war had abounded from the earliest days of the conflict, when North and South competed to claim God for their side. The Confederacy, as one southern clergyman declared, would be the “nation to do His work upon earth.” Deo Vindice, with God as vindicator, the official Confederate seal proclaimed. But only as the enormous cost in lives became clear did it seem imperative explicitly to link providentialist notions to war’s losses, to impart to these deaths both transcendence and meaning. As Georgia bishop Stephen Elliott explained this necessity in an 1864 sermon, “To shed such blood, as we have spilled in this contest for the mere name of independence, for the vanity or the pride of having a separate national existence, would be unjustifiable before God and man. We must have higher aims than these.”

But as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, delivered on the eve of victory, insisted, God “has his own purposes” and makes his own judgments. He, and neither Yankees nor Confederates, would define the reach of his providence. Both sides in the terrible conflict “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered.” Northern success and southern defeat necessarily altered providential explanations of war and its carnage. Northerners were reinforced in their conviction that lives had not been lost in vain and were encouraged in their sense of national mission; Confederates confronted what for many became a profound test of faith.”

Less than a week after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, ending the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln died on Good Friday, just as the war’s killing promised to end.

“His death was the ultimate death — and became in many ways emblematic of all the losses of the war. A national outpouring of grief represented an aggregation of the war’s woe. It was, in the words of one popular song sheet, the ‘National Funeral.’ Lincoln’s death was at once each soldier’s death and all soldiers’ deaths, but it also served purposes beyond catharsis. The parallels between Lincoln and Christ were powerful and unavoidable, reinforcing belief in the war’s divine purpose, realized through the sacrifice of the one for the many. When Congregational clergymen Leonard Swain proclaimed in an Easter Sunday sermon in Providence that, “one man has died for the people, on order that the whole nation might not perish,” he invoked the Christian narrative of redemption as well as the very words of Lincoln himself, uttered two years earlier at Gettysburg. Lincoln’s death had both broadly transcendent and specifically national significance, tying American purposes to those of God…”

With both of these historical periods in mind, as we seek answers to our current predicaments, there are a few questions that emerge.

1. Like the plague that spread through Europe in the 14th century, does the pandemic we are living through in real-time have the power to loosen the moorings of the dominant ideology of today, namely neoliberalism, state capitalism, and hyper-individualism?

2. Like the civil war redefining the individual’s relationship to the state, does the current pandemic have the power to redefine our expectations of the state, or fundamentally alter what citizens feel they are owed by the state?

3. To the degree that the end of the plague in the 14th century “may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man”, those psychological impacts on society that brought about the renaissance took 50 to 60 years to manifest. What are the psychological manifestations that might emerge out of the injuries to society brought about by COVID-19?

4. What are the psycho-social effects of the civil war on 21st century America? In other words, in what way did the American Civil War affect modern-day politics, religion, nationalism, and patriotism?

5. The number of deaths in the American Civil War and the number of lives lost to the plague in the 14th century are disproportionate to the number of lives lost to the coronavirus. Is there a tipping point in the number of deaths a society can experience that necessitates a social, political, or spiritual transformation?

Links cited for this episode:


Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th century

Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret, Covid-19: The Great Reset

Ars Moriendi Translation (the shorter version)

Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering

Drew Gilpin Faust, The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying

Transcription of a letter by James Robert Montgomery


Death & the Civil War | Library of Congress

Brad Harris — Context: Reflections from A Distant Mirror

Lerone Bennett Jr. C-Span Interview