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VINE VOICEon 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.
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This is a powerful book that deals with one aspect of the Civil War in a very different context than normal--death. Many books speak of the sanguinary nature of the Civil War, death due to battlefield trauma as well as death due to disease, accident, and so on. But this book, written by Drew Gilpin Faust, addresses death on a much broader basis. As a result, this is a powerful work.

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). Soldiers felt an intense desire to decently bury the dead--but this was often more easily said than done. Chapter 4 deals with a related issue, naming those who died. Without identification, large numbers of dead soldiers were buried in anonymous graves. Even if reburied with more dignity, the names were still absent. The chapter addresses many issues, including the effort by loved ones to find the remains of their dead soldier(s).

Other chapters deal with how people tried to make sense of the death of their loved ones; the nature of mourning; the relationship of death and religion; obligations to the dead; wondering how many actually died.

A harsh truth (Page 267): "Nearly half the dead remained unknown, the fact of their deaths supposed but undocumented. . . ." And, the final sentence in the work (Page 271): "We still work to live with the riddle that they--the Civil War dead and their survivors alike--had to solve so long ago." A powerful book, one that will disturb many as they read it. But it also illuminates a little told side of the Civil War. Strongly recommended. . . .
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on June 7, 2008
"The Republic of Suffering" began with a focus on death and dying in the Civil War for the soldiers, their families, and civilians. It put forth some interesting commentary on the Victorian concept of the "good death" and how it influenced the soldiers' preparation for and acceptance of their fate. The text offered insight into the minds and attitudes of the time as well as some traditions and practices not explicitly discussed in detail in other CW books.

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.
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VINE VOICEon January 28, 2008
Drew Faust's "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" offers a look into the Civil War that is truly unique -- the impact of death as a phenomenon upon individuals (whose reactions ranged from horror and refusal of participating in killing to gleeful celebrations of killing), and upon America as a society and culture. I don't believe there is a significant aspect of the subject left unexplored; Ms. Faust even discusses its effects upon the poetry of Emily Dickinson as well as the creation of National Cemeteries and of the rise of embalming as a practical business. The unprecedented level of carnage sent shock waves through the American populace for decades afterwards, and even helped define inter-racial and inter-gender relations. "This Republic of Suffering" is obviously not your standard Civil War history, but it is a book that nonetheless should be of great interest to any serious, thoughtful student of that conflict.
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on January 2, 2010
Drew Gilpin Faust's The Republic of Suffering isn't light reading but it is important reading for anyone seriously interested in better understanding the tragedy that was the American Civil War. For those accustomed to heroic battle scenes this book may not be for you unless you truly wish to see the painful aftermath of such fighting as well as the loss that was felt far from the battlefield. In the book's preface the one statistic that caught my attention and laid out the book's premise was the number of soldiers lost between 1861 and 1865. That number, 620,000, was equal to the soldiers lost from the American Revolution to the Korean War- four years of fighting between the north and south that produced more combat fatalities thgat the others combined.
I am not an academic but as someone interested in the era and subject. And as a combat veteran I also had the opportunity to learn something more for only the small cover price of the book. Education comes in surprising instances. Some of what I learned a long while back about the cost of war came from a field hospital ward and what I took in from a hospital bed. However, much of what I found in Faust's book helped me to better understand that the scars were more than my own.
A good and even powerful book.
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on December 28, 2008
I read this book because Dr. Faust is the new president of Harvard and I wanted to see her scholarly contribution to Civil War history. This is a terrific book because it focuses on one narrow aspect of the Civil Ward: the huge death rate, and examines this topic from all possible angles. She doesn't stray from the effect of massive death and get hung up on one area. I especially liked the religious and philosophical treatment that she presents and how the loss of so much life shaped the attitudes of all who lived in the U.S. during the Civil War. Even though some reviewers disagree, I found her treatment of the suffering of all Americans, Northerners, Southerners, Slaves, freed slaves, very even handed. This showed me the massive toll the Civil War took on everyone and the politics that still is evident today. An extrememly interesting look by an incredible scholar and historian. READ THIS even if you shy away from history or scholarly texts. You won't be disappointed.
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on March 31, 2008
I have read three or four books that deal with death and the injuries that were suffered during the Civil War. I found them quite interesting and ordered this book with my free certificate from Amazon. I was very disappointed with the book. After the first few chapters it grew quite tedious and I was tempted to lay it down and move on. I have two books that were far superior to this book and I would recommend them to anyone who is interested in what happened to the dead after battle. They are "Debris of Battle", and "A Strange and Blighted Land, Gettysburg and the Aftermath of the Battle".
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on January 17, 2008
Faust's book addresses her topic with precision, rigor, and, what's more, innovation. It's a fascinating read, filled with well-articulated, sophisticated arguments. These are clearly the result of studious research, and exhibit a great deal of respect for the author's historical subjects--qualities too rarely seen in scholarly work today.
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on June 9, 2008
I love to read. I love history. The civil war has always fascinated me. Lincoln history is especially interesting to me. All that said, this is one of the hardest books to read on the civil war that I have tried reading. Its not TECHNICALLY difficult. The vocabulary is not difficult. It just seems to spend a lot of time saying the same things, with a great redundancy on examples. I can usually read a book this size in a week or two, but I have been gnawing at this one for a couple months now. I still give it three stars because what it does say is a new and interesting side of the civil war. It just could have been said better?
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on March 22, 2012
I found fewer insights that I expected in exchange for reading 270 pages of graphic reports about death, burial, heartbreak and other agonies (the term for this book that came most to my mind during my reading was "unrelenting"). The intellectual core of this book is the "Believing and Doubting" chapter, which lays out the literary evidence for changes in the public approach to war and nationalism that prefigured the greater disillusionments of World War I. The rest might be of interest to historians, but to a member of the general public like me, it is mainly a litany of despair.
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