Singing "John Brown's Body" as they marched to war, Union soldiers
sought to steel themselves in the face of impending death. As the
bodies of these soldiers accumulated in the wake of battle,
writers, artists, and politicians extolled their deaths as a means
to national unity and rebirth. Many scholars have followed suit,
and the Civil War is often remembered as an inaugural moment in the
development of national identity.
Revisiting the culture of the Civil War, Franny Nudelman analyzes
the idealization of mass death and explores alternative ways of
depicting the violence of war. Considering martyred soldiers in
relation to suffering slaves, she argues that responses to wartime
death cannot be fully understood without attention to the brutality
directed against African Americans during the antebellum era.
Throughout, Nudelman focuses not only on representations of the
dead but also on practical methods for handling, studying, and
commemorating corpses. She narrates heated conflicts over the
political significance of the dead: whether in the anatomy
classroom or the Army Medical Museum, at the military scaffold or
the national cemetery, the corpse was prized as a source of
authority. Integrating the study of death, oppression, and war,
John Brown's Body
makes an important contribution to a
growing body of scholarship that meditates on the relationship
between violence and culture.