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"the dead, the dead, the dead--our dead--all, all, all, finally dear to me..."
on January 7, 2008
So wrote a stunned and anguished Walt Whitman as he and the rest of the nation struggled to deal with the incredible carnage of the Civil War. In this eagerly awaited (certainly by me!) book, brilliant Civil War scholar Drew Gilpin Faust documents the social, religious, and psychological coping mechanisms adopted by Civil War America.
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. But context determines precisely how these mechanisms will be enacted, and she does an excellent job of making sense of how they manifested in Civil War America.
At the end of the day, Americans who lived through the Civil War needed to find a way to normalize their existences both during the actual conflict and afterwards, and to find some overarching meaning to the death and suffering that would justify the sacrifices. Given the war's unprecedented carnage, the task was as pressing as it was, ultimately, impossible. But in the aftermath of the war, the dead became, in the eyes of popular mythology, the sacrificial humus in which a newer, unified, and stronger nation would rise. Glorification of a nation's war dead may be inevitable. But it can also be a dangerous justification of future wars.
Faust's thought-provoking, sensitive, and ground-breakinig book will become a standard work. It's much more than a book about the Civil War. It's also a meditation on the meaning of war and the human need to somehow infuse meaning into an enterprise that often seems so bleakly wasteful and tragically brutal. Faust's book richly deserves at least the Lincoln Prize. Personally, I'd like to see it honored with a National Book Award.