Meeting of September 29, 2009

Tom McMahon on “Life, Death and Religion in the Civil War.”

Tom McMahon set the scene for his talk by establishing his position as ordained Catholic priest, former US Army chaplain, and California licensed Mental Health Therapist. Tom choose the title of his talk based on the work in which he has been involved for over 50 years.

Who knows the psychology of the men who were combatants in the violence of the American Civil War? Surely not ourselves as we simply were not there. Yet members of the audience could be carrying the DNA of ancestral people who served both in South and North. Tom used the DNA of the Irish Brigade as best Tom would read of such and trace in his own Irish background family, his great grandfather being a resident of San Francisco during the Civil War. Emphasis was heavy on the Good Death, the age old experience of dying surrounded by family, an archetype or fundamental way of life learned in childhood, which was shattered by the massive number of battlefield deaths with bodies left unattended for days. We heard the story of Confederate Corporal Montgomery as he wrote his blood stained death letter to his father, knowing that his family would cherish his last words.

Massive changes in burial practices came about, such as the funeral home and embalming, along with abuses of grieving parents, and the government hastened to find suitable burial ground. We heard Abraham Lincoln as ministerial person delivering his Gettysburg address over the ground hallowed (made holy) by the blood of those who died in battle.

Tom’s final encouragement was for serious students of the Civil War to be aware that human beings were the basic participants, persons with feelings and hope for a good life and that we might have this in mind in today’s warfare lest partly paraphrasing Lincoln those of old and these modern warriors will have died in vain.

Newsletter September 2009