Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Counting the Dead and Recordkeeping

The relationship of war and archives is an intriguing one. When we examine the activities and results of wars and conflicts, we often discover the wreckage of archives, libraries, and museums. These cultural institutions are usually targeted as a means to demoralize the enemy or, in the most extreme of cases, to eradicate the evidence of a people’s existence and culture; sometimes they are just collateral damage. Yet, these same wars generate an industry of memorialization, including the creation of new libraries, archives, and museums – surrounded by monuments. Not only do we perceive tensions between destruction and preservation, but also we can see the evidence of intense contradictions. For example, the archives of a defeated nation are often captured and held by the victors as part of the spoils of war.

We are hearing a lot about Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008); indeed, this master historical analysis has already been the focus of high-profile reviews, partly because not only is it a beautifully researched and written historical work but also because it is a poignant study of the meaning of a past conflict. In a time when we are mired in a meaningless war that has deeply divided our nation and mortgaged our future both domestically and internationally, Faust reminds us that the American Civil War resulted in more American deaths than every other war combined. She says, “The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking” (p. xviii), and Faust tackles the meaning of this in a manner in which the nature of war and the memory of war becomes clearer.

This Republic of Suffering provides considerable discussion about the creation of new kinds of public and private recordkeeping. Condolence letters sent to the families of the dead are held onto, as part of the relics of memory of loved ones lost. Hospital workers began to devise new ways to identify the dead, including the creating and using of recordkeeping directions and forms sent to the battlefields to ensure (although the results were far from successful) that the identity of the remains of the deceased would not be lost. Soldiers and civilians made efforts to leave markers behind on the battlefields. The notion of national cemeteries emerged, with some of these cemeteries short distances from where the soldiers had fallen. Civilians (most famously Clara Barton), working with charitable organizations, voluntarily compiled data on the dead, developing printed notebooks to guide such information gathering. Soldiers, as they went into battle, resorted to pinning nametags and even letters home to themselves in hopes they could be identified if killed. Military leaders worked to gather and protect information about the dead, where they were buried or reburied, and, after the war, to develop accurate lists of who were killed and how many died.

Faust argues that the American Civil War brought with it a new kind of national meaning: “The rhetoric of Civil War mortality statistics provided the language for a meditation on the deeper human meaning of the conflict and its unprecedented destructiveness, as well as for the exploration of the place of the individual in a world of mass – and increasingly mechanized – slaughter. It was about what counted in a world transformed” (p. 265). Although it is not Faust’s intent to write a meditation on the archival impulse, archivists and others interested in archives reading this book will come away with a deeper sense of why records are created and why they are preserved.