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 Death at the Edges of Empire

Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory,

and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921


Shannon Bontrager


Studies in War, Society, and the Military

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020

Hardcover. 384 pages. ISBN 978-1496201843. $60


Reviewed by Robert T. Jones

US Army Cyber School (Fort Gordon, Georgia)



Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches in American history, establishes a foundation for reference throughout Shannon Bontrager’s Death at the Edges of Empire : Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921. This work examines the evolving cultural practices of burial and remembrance of American military dead during the six-decade period spanning the American Civil War through the end of World War I. The author’s over-arching purpose was to trace the ways in which the American nation chose to commemorate its war dead during a period of substantial change in warfare: the advent of the industrial revolution. The onset of mass casualties during this period challenged the nation’s leaders and its populace to rethink how to best mourn and commemorate its fallen in a more modern age. Throughout this work the author points out the conflicts created between the young nation’s imperialistic leanings and the citizenry’s need for remembrance of the fallen. Bontrager examines the many tensions that existed within this social contract [21]. The book’s nine chapters are organized more or less equally into three sections: storage, retrieval, and communication. These sections correspond to three techniques of remembering espoused by memory historian Jan Assmann, a German historian best known for his work in the field of Egyptology as well as his theory of cultural and communicative memory.

The first book section (“storage”) consists of three chapters dealing with the post-Civil War memory boom, westward expansion (including Alaska), and the Spanish-American War. Bontrager opens the book with a lengthy discussion of the post-war memory boom centered on the establishment of national cemeteries and the commemoration of soldiers as national icons [37]. Private citizens led the new efforts of memorializing fallen soldiers through the establishment of grief rituals and mourning traditions. Chapter 1 examines the establishment of national military cemeteries at Arlington (Virginia) and Marietta (Georgia). The author explores the way grief and mourning were practiced and politicized during the early reconstruction period [41]. He is careful to note that these early efforts excluded former Confederates as well as former slaves. Chapter 2 deals with westward expansion, conflicts with native Americans, and the beginnings of reconciliation between northerners and southerners. Former Confederates desired northern investment for industry in the south while northerners wished to harness southern resources for an expanding American empire [81]. In this section Bontrager offers an insightful discussion of how a softening of relations between former combatants led to a revision of the national cultural memory of the war. Improved sectional relations thus enabled a unified American attempt at an overseas empire that came about as a result of the Spanish American War. In Chapter 3 the author explores the intricacies of the reunion movement that enabled the recognition of Confederate war dead. This period stressed reunion and reconciliation at the expense of emancipation memories. Symbols of the old Confederacy gained storage space while symbols of freedmen and emancipation lost ground in the cultural memory of post-Reconstruction Americans [105].

Part 2 of the book consists of two chapters and deals with the “retrieval” aspect of cultural memory. Chapter 4 is a detailed look at how the American government retrieved the fallen bodies of American sailors killed in the explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor. In addition to discussing the logistics of retrieving the sunken battleship, the chapter is most focused on how the operation threatened to transform cultural memory [125] and the tensions between “official” and “cultural” memory [137]. Chapter 5 looks at imperialist and anti-imperialist perceptions of the annexation of the Philippines as a new Pacific territory. The focus of the chapter is on how US contractors traveled to the Philippines to recover the bodies of fallen US servicemen, a task of extraordinary difficulty. For the first time the United States faced the challenge of how to recover large numbers of military dead from an overseas war. Prior to this effort, the military’s system for retrieving, burying, and accounting for the dead was haphazard at best. No formal system had ever been instituted. Yet the demands of ordinary citizens required the national government to properly honor and memorialize those fallen in the cause of American imperialistic ambitions. In the words of one Philippine expedition leader: “common respect and decency, for both the dead and their relatives and friends, demands better treatment” [166]. While American involvement in the Philippines was not universally supported at home, the treatment of the fallen made good on Lincoln’s promise made at Gettysburg [179].

The final part of the book concerns the “communication” of cultural memory. This section contains Chapters 6 through 9, dealing with World War I (exiles), the Information Age, the creation of a modern graves registration system, and the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknowns respectively. In Chapter 6 Bontrager draws heavily on the North Carolina state archives to tell the story of a fallen World War I aviator, Arthur Blumenthal. This transitions into Chapter 7, which deals with cultural memory in the information age. The author asserts that control of cultural memory is much harder in an age of information [216]. The growth of state archives in some ways “institutionalized” the making of cultural memory – in effect they became “gatekeepers” of information by determining which memories were to be authenticated and which were to be concealed [219]. The book concludes with President Warren G. Harding’s eulogy dedicating the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. This event marked a significant moment in the communication of cultural memories. For the first time, literally thousands could hear the President’s words through the power of an amplified public address system, and thousands more over telephone lines across the country. While this was a great advance technologically, it was at the same time problematic as it enabled tensions between official and citizen remembrances. According to Bontrager, these tensions were often contentious and real. [278].

Shannon Bontrager’s Death at the Edges of Empire is an important addition to the scholarship of cultural memory. By limiting the scope to the period between the Civil War and the end of World War I, he allows us to trace the evolution of remembrance across four very different conflicts during a period that transformed America as a nation. Given the depth and complexity of the topics discussed, this book would work well in a graduate-level seminar on American history, especially one concerned with cultural memory.



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