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321 of 332 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "the dead, the dead, the dead--our dead--all, all, all, finally dear to me...", January 7, 2008
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This review is from: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 8, 2008 8:47:45 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 10, 2008 8:06:55 PM PST
Thoroughly agree with this review-it's right on target. Another book, that handles this topic, albeit for other U.S. wars is Michael Sledge's SOLDIER DEAD.

Lynn Fairbanks

Posted on Jan 27, 2008 3:36:28 PM PST
This book treats a thought that I have always been interested in but troubled by, namely the question of if people knew how awful, strange, terminating of human spirit, brutal and crude war is in its worst moments, how would they justify it as being worthy of human endeavor? The civil war brought war to another psychological level that it seems to me is finally now percolating into human intellectual consciousness. This book is a part of that trend and discussion. I will certainly read this book.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 28, 2008 6:09:45 AM PST
Robert Busko says:
Mr. Collins, I've had the same thought you have many times. How could people allow war to occur if they knew beforehand how dehumanizing and tragic it was as a process? Unfortunately, the decision to go to war or not isn't left to us to make. If someone is bent on taking something you have, your only response is to resist. It takes two to make peace. It only takes one to make war.

Sooner or later, mankind as a whole will come to realize how futile making war is. Until then, we're left with war as a companion.

Posted on Feb 2, 2008 4:27:57 PM PST
Drew Gilpin Faust is one of those historians who needs only to puit her name on a book for us to know its worth.
We can only hope that her assumption of the Harvard presidency will not interfere with her much needed work in Civil War and antebellum history. Another great book by a student whom Faust mentored is What This Cruel War Was Over by Chandra Manning.
Thank you for bringing this fine work to our attention.

Posted on Jan 29, 2010 2:58:17 PM PST
I have already read The Republic of Suffering and could not agree more with the review comments above. Faust brings to the surface the mind-numbing magnitude of death in that great conflict. The nation was bathed in death. Hardly anyone did not have a loved one who had died or did not know someone who lost a loved one. What I found particularly memorable was Faust's capacity to convey all of her research with a tenderness and compassion for the survivors without becoming maudlin. I thank her for this fine work.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 28, 2012 8:32:53 AM PDT
Sam L says:
Plus I don't think they knew how long the war would last. 90 days at the outset? It was one horrendous surprise after another... continuing on and on...
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