The Imagination of the Civil War

by Chanina Wong


Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier, Beauvoir, Harrison Country Mississippi. Courtesy of Wikipedia. Civil War reenactments can produce imaginings to glorify the Confederacy and its racist causes instead of memorializing it. The practice of burying tombs of unknown soldiers, however, was conducted on the side of the Confederacy, too. Death touched both ends of the Civil War, but is it right to memorialize the Confederacy even if such memorial produces imaginings that are “beneficial” to remember death?

Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering discusses the Civil War’s common practice of disregarding the proper identification and return of bodies and remains of the dead. The notion that the state is required to properly name and return every deceased soldier from war is a fairly recent assumption that stemmed in World War I when soldiers began wearing dog tags for identification. The end of the Civil War only resulted in the state obligated to officially honor the military dead through national cemeteries. It was impossible to honor each deceased Civil War soldier due to the lack of proper policy of identification, especially when most bodies were disregarded and denied their proper burial rituals. The honoring of the dead became imagined for the deceased were unknown, lacking identification of a name:

“It was the Civil War, as Walt Whitman observed, that made the designation ‘UNKNOWN’ become ‘significant’” (Faust 103).

In 1868, a soldier who died in the Civil War unidentified was published in northern magazines. Unique to this unknown soldier was his possession of $360 and an ambrotype of a child, the circumstance allowing the body to not be forgotten like other unidentified corpses. There were those seeking the fortune of the unknown soldier, of course, but numerous letters by women replied to the publication in hopes that the corpse was their beloved husband, child, or father. “The absence of identifiable bodies left these women with abiding uncertainty and fantastical hopes, illusions that for them made the world endurable” (Faust 130). It was unlikely for the body to be a woman’s loved one, but the short time of imagining and hoping provided some sort of relief for those who’s deceased loved one has yet to return home.

Similar practice was utilized after the Vietnam War on Memorial Day 1984 with the burial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, with President Ronald Reagan hailing it “symbolic of all our missing sons” (Allen 90). A year before the Unknown Soldier’s burial, Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities, which argued the boundaries of what is contained in a nation like the United States is a social construction, with rules constructing who belongs to create the “imagined community”. Nationalism and a strong devotion to one’s country is then produced by mere imaginings only. But those “imaginings” are strong enough to allow one’s self to do horrific things for their nation: to kill, go to war, even die in the name of their nation. Benedict Anderson believed that the Unknown Soldier greatly contributed to the imaginings of nation-states:

“No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than the cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers…Saturated with ghostly national imaginings” (Allen 92). 

Like religion, Anderson states nationalism provides eternity after life, memorializing those who died for their nation through the survival of the state. The remembrance of Unknown Soldiers produces a memory of war, focusing purely on its physical consequences. War provides death and losses in a family or a circle of friends, and tombs of unknown soldiers allows remembrance of such through imaginings. To walk past such tombs is to imagine what kind of life the unknown soldier had, the loved ones he cared for, and the life he could have had if not cut short due to war. To be unknown is to not define who one is imagining, because of the lack of identification of who the tomb represents.


The persistence of the glorification of the Confederacy has resulted in a culture of “Southern Pride” tying one’s beliefs to the sentiment of an older time. The actual cause of the Civil War has been bastardized to merely a disagreement of the state’s rights, which dangerously avoids the very racist (and very real) policies of subjection of a group of people. Instead, the cause is morphed into a celebration of the Confederacy “upholding” individual rights and liberty. Southern pride stems from ancestral history, but also allows white Americans to uphold their own type of imagined community that is purely white and asserts their comfort. Americans who have such pride in 2017 would usually vehemently deny such claim. It is not difficult, though, to find primary documents that describe the defense of the institution of slavery, what the Confederacy was purely fighting for, as fundamentally upholding white supremacy and culture. A popular part of that culture is Civil War reenactments.

The first Civil War reenactments are recorded from 1861 as “sham battles” as entertainment, advertising for recruiting new soldiers, and providing Americans what their loved ones experienced during the war. Mark Guarino of The Washington Post writes after 2017’s protests of Charlottesville and the revolt against the memorialization of Confederate statues:

“Since those days, reenactments have grown in scale, and instead of providing relief to the people whose lives would be irreparably changed by the war, the staged battles emerged as a novel form of ‘living history.’ In every part of the country almost every weekend of the year, participants push aside historic dates and names and instead concentrate on more tangential learning: how a soldier felt charging across grass into battle, down to what he ate at the campfire before forcing sleep to come while lying on a hard earthen floor” (Guarino).           

The tendency to romanticize death, especially death by honor through war when one sacrifices their life for their country, almost sacrilegiously glorifies war and its consequences, giving void to the sensitivity of death. There is no arguing that death has the right to stake importance and devastation when it occurs, especially when it can be avoided or happens in mass numbers. Thus, it must be questioned if it is right to reduce the significance of death and the consequences of war through reenacting it as a form of entertainment, reducing dying to “masculine play”. “Living history” can be argued as beneficial for purposes of education, but actual history, like dates and the actual causation of the war (slavery) is downplayed. It serves more as a purpose of immersion, requiring a degree of imaginative play. They do not provide relief anymore as originally intended through imaginings, rather they provide a little show to go and enjoy. There is a culture of authenticity in the reenactment community with focus on methodical details like uniforms and food of the mid-nineteenth century battlefield. But there is also disregard for the negative consequences and embraces common misnomers of the Civil War. Rather, types of artillery and uniforms are what is focused on instead. The Civil War was one of the U.S.’ deadliest wars, not for just the deaths of soldiers, but the deaths of Americans not even fighting on the battlefields. It also contributes to an environment that is willing to go to war constantly.

Imagination occurs constantly as a result of war, like providing relief when one’s loved one’s remains have yet to return home or as a symbol of all those who gave their lives for their country. But because reenactments are imaginary play, the severity of the actual war is not acknowledged. Different imaginings produce different memorializations of the war. There must be responsibility to choose which imagining to produce that is according and sensitive to historical fact.


Works Cited

Allen, Michael J. “‘Sacrilege of a Strange, Contemporary Kind’: The Unknown Soldier and the Imagined Community After the Vietnam War.” History and Memory: Studies in Representation of the past, no. 2, 2011, p. 90. EBSCOhost,

Guarino, Mark. “Will Civil War reenactments die out?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Aug. 2017,

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

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