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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Vintage Civil War Library) Paperback – January 6, 2009
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It's difficult for us today to appreciate just how deadly the Civil War was. The numbers are staggering--620,000 dead soldiers, at least 50,000 dead civilians, an estimated 6 million pounds of human and animal carcasses at Gettysburg, etc--can't convey the concrete horror of a nation living day after day with the shock, disorientation, and despair caused by the bloodiest war in the country's history. The war years surely did transform the nation into a "republic of suffering" (a phrase coined by Frederick Law Olmsted).
Faust argues that the nation tried to keep its head above water by, for example, ritualizing the final moments of wounded soldiers to make them more compatible with mid-nineteenth century models of a "good death"; justifying increasing levels of battlefield slaughter by invoking God, patriotic duty, and justice (which frequently was vengeance); trying to identify and bury bodies of the slain in such a way as to preserve some semblance of their humanity, despite the horrible maiming many of them suffered; creating public and private rituals of mourning; holding "the enemy" accountable for the carnage; and keeping the memory of the slain alive after the war (feeding into Lost Cause sensibilities on the one hand and Bloody Shirt ones on the other). To a certain extent, as Faust acknowledges, similar kinds of coping mechanisms are adopted by Americans during any war.Read more ›
One simple fact to begin: the number of Civil War soldiers who died is about equal to the number of American dead from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea combined. The focus of the book is briefly stated at the outset (Page xv): "Beginning with individuals' confrontation with death and dying, the book explores how those experiences transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering."
Each chapter has a poignancy that is almost palpable. Chapter 1 focuses on the dying by soldiers. The effort to die a good death was one that manifest itself for many a soldier--Yankee and Rebel. One interesting issue--soldiers appeared to fear death by disease more than death in the heat of combat. Soldiers often carried letters to battle, containing their last words to families and loved ones in case they perished. This is an eye opening chapter.
Chapter 2 deals with the other side of the coin--killing the enemy. Many were torn by their Biblical desire to avoid killing others versus their duty to try to do so. Killing others sometimes changed troops, numbing human feeling and producing aftereffects.
Chapter 3 addresses burying the dead. After battles, there was often little time and the dead were buried in mass graves, often with no identification (no dog tags then).Read more ›
Halfway through, the author seemed to leave the battlefield and meander off into a history of the mortuary business and short bios and commentary of late 19th century authors like Dickenson and Melville. I found the chapters "Accounting" and "Numbering", which discussed the bureaucracy of death from the military and government perspective, dry and disjointed. That's not to say there weren't points of interest, but the second half of the book just could not keep my attention on an ongoing basis.
The reader will come away disturbed by the detail on the carnage and the paucity of information available to the families fretting over loved ones fighting the battles. They will also gain knowledge of the influence the war had on shaping the modern practices of handling death. "The Republic of Suffering" has its place in augmenting one's understanding of the Civil War. I struggled between three and four stars and would have given a three-and-a-half if I could have.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Despite recommendations from those in tune with my interests, I went out of my way to avoid reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin... Read morePublished 5 days ago by Stan Prager
Great historical read that outlines the changes in medicine, funeral practices, christian beliefs, and science due to the needs of the dead and dying due to the civil war.Published 14 days ago by JoAnn
So far I'm just a few pages in and I am pretty darn bored to the point that I can't pick it up again. It reads like a text book, very dry.Published 22 days ago by Matt
Really good read. It was a required book for my history class but I actually loved it. I found myself reading ahead. Perfect for anyone who enjoys history.Published 1 month ago by amanda
For such a grim topic, this was a truly enjoyable read. Author Drew Gilpin does a marvelous job of demonstrating the way that America's response to the Civil War reflected the... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Deborah Sprenger