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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.Read more ›
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).Read more ›
"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.
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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