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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil Warby Drew Gilpin Faust
"[A] remarkable work — poised, moving, irrigated with the flowing voices of mid-19th-century Americans. Their journals, letters, accounts, songs, sermons and scribblings have the gravitas to reach us across 14 decades, to touch upon our own preoccupations with an unexpectedly long war and the nature of national sacrifice." Karen Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer (read the entire Plain Dealer review)
"It was remarkable, and telling, that well-placed commentators could regard the attacks of September 11 as heralding an end of American 'innocence.' Whatever 'innocence' Americans could claim...was surely lost much earlier, in the 1860s, in the hills, woods, villages, and cornfields of their own country. During those years Americans slaughtered each other in great numbers in what we have come to call the Civil War, and as a consequence they encountered dying and death on a scale never attained before or since. That encounter, Drew Gilpin Faust tells us in her moving, disturbing, suggestive, and elegant book, would not only shock, but also transform, Americans and their nation in ways that resonate to this day." Steven Hahn, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
An illuminating study of the American struggle to comprehend the meaning and practicalities of death in the face of the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War.
During the war, approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. An equivalent proportion of today's population would be six million. This Republic of Suffering explores the impact of this enormous death toll from every angle: material, political, intellectual, and spiritual. The eminent historian Drew Gilpin Faust delineates the ways death changed not only individual lives but the life of the nation and its understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. She describes how survivors mourned and how a deeply religious culture struggled to reconcile the slaughter with its belief in a benevolent God, pondered who should die and under what circumstances, and reconceived its understanding of life after death.
Faust details the logistical challenges involved when thousands were left dead, many with their identities unknown, on the fields of places like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. She chronicles the efforts to identify, reclaim, preserve, and bury battlefield dead, the resulting rise of undertaking as a profession, the first widespread use of embalming, the gradual emergence of military graves registration procedures, the development of a federal system of national cemeteries for Union dead, and the creation of private cemeteries in the South that contributed to the cult of the Lost Cause. She shows, too, how the war victimized civilians through violence that extended beyond battlefields — from disease, displacement, hardships, shortages, emotional wounds, and conflicts connected to the disintegration of slavery.
Throughout, the voices of soldiers and their families, of statesmen, generals, preachers, poets, surgeons, and nurses, of northerners and southerners, slaveholders and freedpeople, of the most exalted and the most humble are brought together to give us a vivid understanding of the Civil War's most fundamental and widely shared reality.
Were he alive today, This Republic of Suffering would compel Walt Whitman to abandon his certainty that the "real war will never get in the books."
"Professional military men of the late 19th century were generally unimpressed by America's Civil War. 'A contest in which huge armed rabbles chased each other around a vast wilderness,' Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke contemptuously sniffed, concluding there was nothing for the world's armies to learn from such an unmilitary spectacle that had so little to do with the established art of... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) war. But in 1901 a young member of the British Parliament accurately read the war's central and overwhelming implication — one that would be borne out all too well in the bloody century of industrialized slaughter to come. 'The wars of peoples,' warned the 26-year-old Winston Churchill, 'will be more terrible than those of kings.' The American Civil War was the first 'war of peoples,' and as Drew Gilpin Faust vividly demonstrates, the unprecedented carnage of this first modern war overwhelmed society's traditional ways of dealing with death. The customs, religion, rhetoric, logistics — even statistical methods — of mid-19th century America were unequal to slaughter on such a scale. How American society attempted to come to terms with death that broke all the rules about dying, and how the nation ultimately did — and did not — face up to this new reality of war are Faust's haunting and powerful themes. If nothing else, this finely written book is a powerful corrective to all the romantic claptrap that still envelops a war that took as many American lives, 620,000, as all other wars from the Revolution to Korea combined. The extent to which the Civil War found America unprepared to deal with its carnage at the most basic levels is fascinatingly horrifying. 'As late as Second Bull Run, in August 1862, a Union division took the field without a single ambulance available for removal of casualties,' Faust writes. 'Burying the dead after a Civil War battle seemed always to be an act of improvisation.' Two and a half weeks after Antietam, unfathomable numbers of corpses lay unburied, stacked in rows a thousand long or still scattered about the field. Coffins were practically unheard of; no provision of any kind had been made by military authorities. A Union surgeon who took upon himself responsibility for burying 'those he could not save' after Gettysburg had to send out a foraging party to locate a shovel. Nor had provision been made for notifying families of the deaths of husbands, sons, brothers. The chaotic record-keeping led to many heartrending incidents of survivors of battles erroneously reported dead, or vice versa. 'I read my own obituary,' recalled a Confederate soldier. Union private Henry Struble, misidentified as a soldier killed and buried at Antietam, laid flowers on the grave of the unknown soldier occupying his place every year afterward on Memorial Day. Charitable organizations attempted to fill the information void but were overwhelmed by the task. After the bloody battles in Virginia in the spring of 1864, the Washington 'Directory Office' of the volunteer Sanitary Commission was besieged day after day by distraught families and friends seeking to learn the fate and whereabouts of loved ones. The increasingly helpless efforts of comrades, chaplains, families and compassionate onlookers to maintain the customary forms of solace and dignified treatment of the dead are the poignant backdrop to Faust's exploration of the byways of death in wartime. 'I insisted upon attending every dead soldier to the grave and reading over him a part of the burial service,' wrote a Confederate nurse, Fannie Beers, in the fall of 1862. 'But it had now become impossible. The dead were past help; the living always needed succor.' Soldiers and families alike tried hard to cling to the Victorian notion of the 'Good Death,' so much so, observes Faust, that 'letters describing soldiers' last moments on Earth are so similar it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind.' In the mid-19th century, a dying person was expected to pass away surrounded by family, conscious of and at peace with his impending fate, reconciled to his Maker, leaving inspiring last words to be remembered by. War, especially modern war, shattered all those assumptions. Death was often unpredictable, excruciatingly painful, absurd and squalid, the dying departing full of fury and agony. It came far from home; and when delivered by explosive artillery shell, it sometimes did not even leave any identifiable remains. A man could be literally 'blown to atoms,' wrote a Union chaplain at Gettysburg — a fate, Faust observes, that civilians found incomprehensible. Faust shows how American institutions adapted to the staggering burden of this new kind of war and wholesale death with a blend of can-do humanitarianism, pragmatic improvisation, mawkish sentimentality, political cant, commercial hucksterism and downright fraud. Freelance embalmers flocked to battlefields in the aftermath of the fighting. 'Bodies taken from Antietam Battle Field and delivered to Cars or Express Office at short notice and low rates,' read the business card of one entrepreneur. 'Bodies Embalmed by us NEVER TURN BLACK! But retain their natural color and appearance,' boasted another. In 1863, a Washington undertaker was imprisoned on charges of making a practice of recovering and embalming dead soldiers without permission and then extorting payment from families to return the bodies. Faust convincingly demonstrates that the trauma of the Civil War revolutionized the American military's approach to caring for the dead and notifying families. After the war, a massive and superbly organized effort by the War Department to recover, identify and rebury Union dead in newly established national cemeteries was an act of atonement for the nation's failings during the war itself. Faust is less convincing in making a case that the war's confrontation with death produced a permanent transformation in American belief, politics, character, habits of mind and modes of expression — something that Paul Fussell did so insightfully for World War I in 'The Great War and Modern Memory.' She notes, for example, Ambrose Bierce's bitingly ironic humor, which grew very directly out of his war experience, but it would be interesting and important to learn how this brand of cynicism went over with most people. She suggests that the war's unprecedented suffering posed a challenge to religious faith, but beyond offering a series of interesting anecdotes she never really presents a clear argument that the war, in the end, had a lasting effect one way or another on American religiousness. But the real lesson may be the remarkable human capacity to forget and gloss over even the ugliest realities. Walt Whitman, who visited tens of thousands of wounded soldiers during the war and came to know its death and terrible suffering firsthand, wrote (in a speech he never delivered) the famous words, 'The real war will never get in the books.' But he then added, 'I say will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be.' Those who read Faust's powerful account of 'the real war' will almost surely beg to differ. Stephen Budiansky is the author of 'The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox.'" Reviewed by Stephen Budiansky, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A moving work of social history, detailing how the Civil War changed perceptions and behaviors about death....An illuminating study." Kirkus Reviews
"Penetrating...Faust exhumes a wealth of material...to flesh out her lucid account. The result is an insightful, often moving portrait of a people torn by grief." Publishers Weekly
"No other generation of Americans has encountered death on the scale of the Civil War generation. This Republic of Suffering is the first study of how people in both North and South coped with this uniquely devastating experience. How did they mourn the dead, honor their sacrifice, commemorate their memory, and help their families? Drew Gilpin Faust's powerful and moving answers to these questions provide an important new dimension to our understanding of the Civil War." James M. McPherson, author of This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War
"During the Civil War, death reached into the world of the living in ways unknown to Americans before or since. Drew Gilpin Faust follows the carnage in all its aspects, on and off the battlefield. Timely, poignant, and profound, This Republic of Suffering does the real work of history, taking us beyond the statistics until we see the faces of the fallen and understand what it was to live amid such loss and pain." Tony Horowitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
"Drew Gilpin Faust has used her analytical and descriptive gifts to explore how men and women of the Civil War generation came to terms with the conflict's staggering human toll. Everyone who reads this book will come away with a far better understanding of why the war profoundly affected those who lived through it." Gary W. Gallagher, author of The Confederate War
"Drew Faust's brilliant new book, This Republic of Suffering, builds profoundly from the opening discussion of the Christian ideal of the good death to the last harrowing chapters on the exhumation, partial identification, reburial and counting of the Union dead. In the end one can only conclude, as the author does, that the meaning of the Civil War lies in death itself: in its scale, relentlessness, and enduring cultural effects. This is a powerful and moving book about our nation's defining historical encounter with the universal human experience of death." Stephanie McCurry, author of Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country
"Whitman was wrong; the real war did get into the books. This is a wise, informed, troubling book. This Republic of Suffering demolishes sentimentalism for the Civil War in a masterpiece of research, realism, and originality." David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
Eminent historian Faust presents an illuminating study of the American struggle to comprehend the meaning and practicalities of death in the face of the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War.
About the Author
Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University, where she also holds the Lincoln Professorship in History. Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 2001 to 2007, she came to Harvard after twenty-five years on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of five previous books, including Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Avery Craven Prize. She and her husband live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Preface: The Work of Death
1. Dying: "To Lay Down My Life"
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