Book Review: Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War Era


by Sarah J. Purcell

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Pp. xx, 332. Illus., maps, notes, biblo., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1469668335

Funerals and Memorial Services and the Shaping of American Identity

Prof. Purcell (Grinnell) examines how the political and cultural role of the public funeral helped define American national identities from the eve of the Civil War through the end of the nineteenth century. Various people and organizations used these solemn cultural practices of collective mourning to bolster particular political and social ideas, shaping regional identities and outlooks in America.

Purcell shows how large-scale funerals for figures such as Henry Clay, Elmer Ellsworth and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, all before the war’s end, set patterns for bereavement and remembrance. After the war, the mass public funerals for figures such as George Peabody, Robert E. Lee, Charles Sumner, Joseph E. Johnston. Frederick Douglass, and Winnie Davis (daughter of Jefferson Davis), built upon these patterns, while sparking public debate about the meaning of the war, Reconstruction, reform, and the roles of the honored dead, race, and gender.

Purcell argues that often different regions and political interests competed for different versions of America, of how the war and those who died in it should be remembered, and the nature of Reconstruction, resistance, and reconciliation.

Purcell not only examines memory and memorialization, but also looks at the rituals of mourning. She argues that public funerals concentrated on traditions, while introducing new ways of mourning and funeral practices, such as embalming, draping homes in black cloth, marching in mass processions, erecting elaborate monuments, and publishing personal comments in newspapers.

Spectacle of Grief adds to the meaning of death in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Purcell also links these developments with practice in the generation of the American Revolution, the subject of her earlier book, and offers a critique of contemporary scholarship on the culture of death in Civil War America and how it contributed to public policy and national uniqueness.

Spectacle of Grief offers a unique and absolutely fascinating look at the rituals or mourning and memory in era of the Civil War and their role in shaping American society. This reviewer highly recommends it.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include, Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg, Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War, The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg and Tullahoma, Crosshairs on the Capital: Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington, Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee's Army after Appomattox, Voices of the Army of the Potomac, The Record of Murders and Outrages, Gettysburg 1963, No Common Ground, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, and Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War




Note: Spectacle of Grief is also available in hard cover and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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