This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
by Drew Gilpin Faust
Reviewed by Karen Long
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Drew Gilpin Faust grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, visiting the cairns and killing fields of the Civil War. She is 60 now, the president of Harvard University, and still makes time to go to the graves of individual soldiers who died for the Union and Confederate causes.
A respected historian of the South, Faust put 10 years into the making of her sixth book, This Republic of Suffering, an examination of how the annihilation of more than half a million Americans in the Civil War transformed survivors, civic institutions and the nation.
It's 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.
Then, as now, "the blow seems heaviest when it strikes down those who are in the morning of life," as one memorialist wrote of his dead friend. But it was the savage scale of slaughter that remade the land into a "republic of suffering." From 1861 to 1865, about 2.1 million Northerners and 880,000 Southerners took up arms against one another. Throughout the American Revolution, the army never marshaled more than 30,000 men.
"As they departed for war, they turned to the resources of their culture, codes of masculinity, patriotism and religion to prepare themselves for what lay ahead," Faust writes. "This was the initial work of death."
Soldiers played at "Indian" with war whoops and soot smears on their faces. They scattered sand around artillery "not for health or cleanliness, but to drink up human blood." One man at a fort outside Savannah passed time awaiting a Union assault by witnessing wills for his comrades.
This book is no hushed docent's tour of sacred battlefields. Instead, Faust moves her reader through eight chapters called "Dying," "Killing," "Burying," "Naming," "Realizing: Civilians and the Work of Mourning," "Believing and Doubting," "Accounting" and "Numbering." She is nimble -- up and down the ladder of abstraction -- so we see it cost $1.59 to bury a Union soldier at Gettysburg and we note a new chill in Emily Dickinson:
"Heaven is so cold!; I don't like Paradise - Because it's Sunday -- all the time."
We register the demise of Lorenzo Brown of the 112th Illinois, who was "kicked to death by a mule," and ponder the unfathomable in hundreds of thousands of unknown corpses (plundered by scavengers, eaten by hogs, exposed to weather) that precipitated an existential crisis. Confederate poet Sidney Lanier wrote, "How does God have the heart to allow it?"
In the days before dog tags, more than 40 percent of the Yankees and a higher proportion of Confederates perished anonymously. Some kin spent a lifetime trying to track down the remains, the news of final minutes.
For those that succeeded, we read that "John Palmer carried the bullet that killed his son with him to the grave; [and] Henry Bowditch habitually wore a watch fob fashioned from his fallen son's uniform button; Mary Todd Lincoln dressed in mourning till she died."
Throughout, Faust balances her reporting across the Mason-Dixon line. She does not shirk from the racism embedded in some of the grisliest facts: In New Orleans in 1862, "despite a truce called to permit the removal of the dead and wounded, rebel sharpshooters prevented Union troops from retrieving the bodies of black soldiers."
On both sides, the work of mourning fell largely to women, and their voices ring in despair and indignation across these pages. Far from being unduly morbid, This Republic of Suffering snaps a central perception into focus. The sophistication of long thought and nuanced research elevates Faust's book into the first rank.
The United States emerged with its first national cemeteries, its first pension for widows and its first systematic obligation to find, name and enumerate its dead.
"New powers and duties emerged from war's demands," Faust concludes. "And both the unity and responsibilities of this transformed nation were closely tied to its Civil War Dead."
Long is book editor of The Plain Dealer.