Warring With Dedication and Disenchantment: Civil War Newspapers’ Portrayal of the Good Death

By Emily Jumba ’24

Washington D.C.’s Daily National Republican’s “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle” and Richmond, Virginia’s The Daily Dispatch’s “Our Army Correspondence” both describe the deaths of soldiers who received mortal wounds at the battle of Gettysburg and attempt to highlight the positive outcomes of the fight while struggling against disillusionment, though to varying degrees. These articles reached readers residing near the epicenter of the war, as they lived in the capital cities of each warring nation.

The Daily National Republican reprinted its article from the New York Times, as was common due to the interconnections between newspapers. The Daily National Republican was the newer of the two papers, as it was created in 1860 under the name the National Republican.[1] From its establishment, the paper aimed to specifically reach Republicans in the United States’ capital and to specifically support the Lincoln administration. Its narrow focus was perhaps due to it competing with four other daily newspapers in the city. On the other hand, The Daily Dispatch, while also being a daily paper, was founded in 1850 with the goal of remaining nonpartisan and appealing to Richmond’s industrial and commercial elites.[2] However, once the Civil War began, the paper’s editors quickly left behind their original nonpartisan ideals and shifted the newspaper’s focus to be staunchly Democrat and pro-Confederate. The opposing political leanings of the newspapers are evident in both “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle” and “Our Army Correspondence,” despite the two articles focusing in on very similar themes.

On July 9, 1863, “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle,” was published in the Daily National Republican, four days after the article’s original printing in the New York Times. This article provides its readers with a brief overview of the battle and then dives into a detailed description of the Pickett-Pettigrew Assault on July 3rd, which began with a “storm of iron” during the artillery bombardment.[3] The author, L.L. Crounse, shifted his focus relatively early in the piece to describe the cost of the battle in human lives, telling stories ranging from that of individuals to those of whole divisions. Crounse’s graphic descriptions challenge the Victorian era notion of the Good Death. Following the principles of the Good Death, a soldier would, in theory, be injured in battle, but not die instantly, as he would have time to travel home and die, surrounded by his loved ones. In part, these family and friends would be present to provide comfort, but it was also crucially important for them to hear and document his last words so that they would know he died courageously and at peace with God, determining his eternal fate.[4] The soldier’s family and friends would ultimately be able to bury the soldier’s (intact) body in their hometown, rather than in an anonymous plot in some unknown field in a state far from home. During the Civil War, some soldiers attempted to adapt the Good Death to a battle situation, wherein they made agreements with their comrades to write home to each other’s families in the circumstance of their death to provide family members with the details on how they died, their final words, and descriptions of how they performed in battle; such letters were often accompanied by a soldier’s personal effects, intending to help provide the family with as much closure as they possibly could.

However, Crounse’s descriptions often challenged the Good Death, focusing on grisly battlefield deaths where the mangled soldiers who were dying in agony, far from home had no one to record their final words or recite a comforting biblical passage to them. For example, he informs his readers of the death of Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson, who lingered alone for ten excruciating hours after being mortally wounded on July 1st, stranded on the battlefield, with no one to record his dying words and certainly far from his home and loved ones. Wilkeson did not personally achieve the Good Death, and the closest his family came to remedying that fact was when his father managed to claim his body and effects after the battle so that his family at least had an idea of what happened to him.

Crounse also unabashedly shared the mass-scale carnage of July 3rd with his readers, noting, “Our immortal men, nerved to a degree of desperation never before equaled, poured forth, such a devastating fire, and the artillery joining with its terrible canister, that the two long lines of the foe literally sank into the earth.”[5] Like Wilkeson, those two ranks of Confederate soldiers did not experience the Good Death—they were mowed down while still in their line, removing the cherished Civil War-era notion that individual men possessed actual agency to affect the course of battle. Many of them were helplessly blown apart on the field, with only the “comfort” of fellow dead or dying comrades from their regiment sprawled around them. As his reporting style reveals, while Crounse publicly challenged the notion of the Good Death to Republicans living in Washington D.C., he in turn appears to have struggled with a sense of war-disillusionment. Rather than center his article on how honorably and courageously the men fought, he focuses instead on the wanton death and mass destruction caused by the battle. However, it is clear that, despite the sobering realities of war, he was not completely disillusioned, as he attempts to portray the battle more positively toward the end of the article: “…the noble Army of the Potomac can yet fight, after all the imputations of demoralization and inefficiency which have been heaped upon it.”[6] Thus, it seems, like many writers during the war, Crounse managed to dig within himself to find a higher meaning in the human sacrifice and suffering—a sentimentalism that encouraged him to be stoic and composed in the face of such suffering. It is likely that the editors of the Daily National Republican included his article in the paper because of that somewhat more positive twist at the end, which would prevent the article from crushing its readers’ morale. Their audience was comprised of Republicans from the nation’s capital, their readership likely also included several Republican politicians. These individuals surely would not want to read an account of utter disillusionment with the war they were waging, especially after such a large Union victory which had sent the Army of Northern Virginia retreating South.

In Richmond, “Our Army Correspondence” surprisingly revealed a somewhat less disenchanted tone than its northern counterpart, and focused more on highlighting episodes in which the Good Death was, in fact, achieved—likely to bolster morale in the Confederate capital following General Lee’s enormous loss at Gettysburg.  This article was originally published on July 21, 1863, and was written in Martinsburg, West Virginia ten days after “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle,” was published in the New York Times. Rather than focus on the battle itself, this account centers more on the Confederate retreat, relaying news of some of the casualties back to the homefront, and interestingly enough, the political climate of Martinsburg regarding secession, which is portrayed as still highly sympathetic to the Confederate cause, despite the state’s recent addition to the Union. (Perhaps this emphasis on Martinsburg’s southern sympathies was meant to help buoy Confederate morale by implying that that loyalty to and support for the Southern cause was still more widespread than the recent statehood movement would lend one to believe). The article’s author does maintain some of the tenets of the Good Death in the stories that he chooses to tell. For example, he relates the death of General Paul Semmes to his readers. Semmes’s femoral artery was severed during the battle, and while he did put a tourniquet above the wound and survived beyond the battlefield, he eventually passed away in Martinsburg a week later. Even though they both lingered after receiving mortal wounds during the battle, Semmes’s and Wilkeson’s deaths are described very differently. Semmes had doting nurses tending to his needs in Martinsburg and, embodying the noble and composed manner expected in the Good Death, he “perceived [a change in his condition for the worse], and told his attendants that he would not survive.”[7] He told the nurses to write to his family, got to share a few poignant words with them, and asked that his sword and Bible be given to his wife upon his death. According to the author, “He also expressed his resignation to his fate, and died as he had often expressed a wish to die—in service to his country.”[8]

Semmes fulfilled almost all of the requirements of the Good Death, only deviating from it in two ways—he was not at home with his family as he died, although he experienced the next best thing of being surrounded by doting nurses who conveyed his final words to his family; and he was not buried back at home, although that had been his original plan. His body was supposed to be shipped back to his relatives in Georgia, but it began decomposing too quickly and he had to be buried in Martinsburg. His death was extremely different than Wilkeson’s lonely and painful one in the middle of a battlefield. The author may have included Semmes’s story because it was a rare occasion of the Good Death actually being fulfilled in the wake of battle, and while the death itself was not necessarily a morale booster, the manner in which it occurred would help to smooth away some of the horrors of war that were also printed in the papers, and (in a way), almost justify his death in the name of sentimental sacrifice to a beloved cause.

While not nearly as strong as in “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle,” there is still a slight undercurrent of disillusionment in “Our Army Correspondence.” The author still chose to focus on the cost of the battle in human life, even if he did include an example of the Good Death being fulfilled. Unlike many other post-battle newspaper articles, he did not describe the details of the fighting, portraying his side’s army as gallantly and courageously fighting, but instead focused on the outcome of the battle for the combatants themselves. He does not completely abandon the cherished ideals of the brave and noble soldier—upon describing Semmes’s death, he certainly explores those characteristics—but he also makes it clear that the Confederate army was in retreat and had lost a staggering number of honorable men. To an audience in Richmond, the Confederate capital, this would be a sobering thought, compared to some of the other Southern accounts of the battle of Gettysburg which painted it as a gallant Confederate victory.

While these two articles were published in newspapers based in the warring capitals, they both wrestle with portraying the soldier’s Good Death and balancing threads of disillusionment and war-weariness with necessary morale-boosting patriotism. They both achieved their goals by relying on sentimental tropes and rhetoric with which to frame their narratives. The conflicting feelings of each author reveal that by mid-July of 1863, people on both sides of the war were not only feeling direct challenges to their pre-war cultural ideals (i.e., the Good Death), but also wrestling with how to maintain continuous enthusiasm for the war. Certainly full disillusionment with the war had not set in; the Good Death was not entirely extinct, and there was an important higher meaning to the suffering and sacrifices both sides had endured.  However, there were clear and significant challenges with which they were forced to reckon as the war continued on through the summer of 1863. The staggeringly high number of casualties from Gettysburg only added to these already extant feelings. As authors and editors in both capitals wrestled with their personal feelings about the war, they likewise wrestled with questions as to how to accurately bring the sobering realities of war home to their readers while simultaneously upholding their perceived duties to maintain public morale.


Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Library of Congress. “Daily National Republican.” W.J. Murtagh & Co. Accessed April 11, 2023. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053570/.

Library of Congress. “Daily National Republican. (Washington, D.C.) 1862-1866, July 09, 1863, Image 1,” July 9, 1863. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053570/1863-07-09/ed-1/seq-1/.

Library of Congress. “The Daily Dispatch.” J.A. Cowardin. Accessed April 11, 2023. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/.

Library of Congress. “The Daily Dispatch. (Richmond, Va.) 1850-1884, July 21, 1863, Image 1,” July 21, 1863. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/1863-07-21/ed-1/seq-1/.

[1] Library of Congress, “Daily National Republican” (W.J. Murtagh & Co.).

[2] Library of Congress, “The Daily Dispatch” (J.A. Cowardin).

[3] Library of Congress, “Daily National Republican. (Washington, D.C.) 1862-1866, July 09, 1863, Image 1,” July 9, 1863.

[4] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, 1st ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 10.

[5] Library of Congress, “Daily National Republican. (Washington, D.C.) 1862-1866, July 09, 1863, Image 1,” July 9, 1863.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Library of Congress, “The Daily Dispatch. (Richmond, Va.) 1850-1884, July 21, 1863, Image 1,” July 21, 1863.

[8] Ibid.

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