Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
368 pages
Published January 2009 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: bought this one after hearing about it on NPR

I grew up with an unusual awareness of the American Civil War, particularly for someone who lives so far removed from the where the bulk of  the action occurred. But then I lived in an unusual household. My father, an American History teacher, had a particular fondness for the American Civil War. That fondness meant that many of our summer vacation trips included stops at Civil War battlefields. I even took my dad's Civil War course when I was in high school; the number of people that died in this war was not news to me. Yet, when I heard about this book on NPR, it made me stop and think about that number more closely. Just how did both the North and the South deal with numbers of dead that large? And how did this war change the war American felt about death and the way the country dealt with their military dead?

Gilpin Faust breaks This Republic of Suffering into nine chapters, each exploring a different aspect of what was learned about dying from 1861-1865: Dying, Killing, Burying, Naming, Realizing, Believing and Doubting, Accounting, Numbering, and Surviving. In "Dying" she wrote:
"Sudden death represented a profound threat to fundamental assumption about the correct way to die, and its frequency on the battlefield comprised one of the most important ways that Civil War death departed from the "ordinary death" of the prewar period."
Prior to the war, the mostly Christian people of the United States believed in the "good death," a death surrounded by family which giving the dying person time to show their faith in God. Letters to the family of the deceased often mentioned how the dying had accepted God in their final moments or died well. The war also brought up a conflict between duty to God and duty to country that had to be resolved.

Killing on that scale had never been seen before, particularly when the combatants were very much alike. As one soldier said the killing demanded "the harder courage."
"..Civil War killing...required work --intellectual and psychological effort to address religious and emotional constraints, as well as adaptation to the ways this particular war's technologies, tactics, and logistics shaped the experience of combat."
The killing was not the only thing that required work on a scale never before seen. Dealing with the dead on the battlefield, traditionally the duty of the victor, often had to be postponed and matter of who was responsible was never entirely clear. Thousands of bodies were buried without identification or in remote places, thousands more were buried in mass burial pits. Industries sprung up: business to help find loved ones (both the missing and the dead), services to bring bodies home, coffin makers and embalmers. Not only did these people show up in droves after a battle but family members of those involved also flocked to the sites, hoping to find their loved ones (barring that, to bring home their bodies).

Eventually the nation had to come to terms with the reality of so many dead and wounded and it weighed heavily and the faith of many. Finally the government began to step up and acknowledge that the dead now belonged to the nation. The long and difficult job of identifying the dead and reburying them in national cemeteries went on for decades after the war ended. And during all of this time, the counting continued. There will never be a definite count on the number of men, women and children killed in the war, in combat, through accidents and illness, and through the deprivations that were a part of the war.

Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, as penned a work that even the most widely-read of Civil War buffs can learn from. It literally took me months to read this one, there was only so much new information I could digest at a time. This Republic of Suffering is one of the best researched book I've ever read, although I sometimes felt that there may have been too much information, too many examples and details. Never the less, I highly recommend it for those with a strong interest in the American Civil War and those who have an interest in how wars impact entire nations.


  1. I really want to read this but I've been avoiding it too because it seems like a not very happy book! I probably will hit 1861 first, as soon as it comes out in paper.

  2. OH, this sounds fascinating. I recently read The Killer Angels and just might be developing a Civil War interest.

  3. Your review will post on the war blog on Dec. 9. We've linked to it on the reviews page. Thanks for participating. We hope to see you in 2012 for WWI.

  4. I never really thought about the sheer number of dead...your review was very well-written and I found myself gasping at the thought of burying the dead even decades after the war ended and trying to identify them all. I am sure I would like your father...Civil War was my favorite time period in U.S. History class too!

  5. I haven't read a lot about the Civil War, and I had never even thought about the things that are studied in this book. It seems like it would be a dense read, but also one that really makes the reader think in a new way about the Civil War, and war in general. Fantastic review today! I must see if I can check this book out!

  6. This sounds amazingly interesting. I'm adding the title to my huge mountain of TBRs.

  7. My dad LOVES reading about the Civil War (as a Canadian he didn't grow up with the facts and so now devours it all), so I'm going to get this one for him for his January birthday. But, would you consider it to be a little dry at times? I'm always worried that non-fiction of this type will be heavy or dry.

    But Civil War certainly is a fascinating time period--amazing how much it shaped our history.

    Opened reader for the first time in a few days thinking you'd have a Sunday Salon post for me to comment on. I hope all is well Lisa. :)