Steven J. Ramold
Review of Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of
Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York:
Knopf, 2008. Pp. xviii, 346. ISBN 978-0-375-40404-7.
Death has become a popular
subject in recent Civil War scholarship. Of course, war by its very
nature is a matter of death and killing, but the subject of death
broadly construed and especially its lingering impact upon the
society have received particular attention lately. Mark Neely's "Cult
of Violence in the Civil War"
and Mark Schanz's Awaiting the Heavenly Country
concentrate upon the antebellum culture that enabled Americans to
accept the unexpectedly massive casualties of the war. Drew Gilpin
Faust's new book further expands this discussion into the culture,
memory, and even industry of death that emerged after the Civil War.
Faust, Lincoln Professor of
History and President of Harvard University, has a long publication
record in the cultural impact of the Civil War. Her previous
publications, notably Mothers of Invention,
in their concentration on gender issues, slavery, and Southern
nationalism, demonstrate her grasp of broad social contexts and the
conscious and subconscious attitudes that weave themselves into the
fabric of collective memory. This Republic of Suffering
examines the shock that more than 600,000 deaths gave to the
survivors of the battlefield carnage, a reaction observed in plenty
of other publications. Faust, however, is the first to follow that
shock beyond its initial stunning effect to show how, in subsequent
years, the massive amount of death shaped Americans' perception of
the war, its victims, and themselves as survivors.
The book's eight chapters,
"Dying," "Killing," "Burying," "Naming," "Realizing," "Believing and
Doubting," "Accounting," "Numbering," and a conclusion titled
"Surviving" follow an obvious progression from the start of the
killing process through the actions and consequences of killing, to
the postwar significance of mass military slaughter as the country
tried to fathom its national tragedy. With a strong focus on the
psychological impact of killing, Faust describes the effect of Civil
War death as a kind of "eight-step program" to national
accommodation with the loss of a generation. One of the strengths of
the book is its concern with the full effect of Civil War death in
the long term, not just during the war years. Like any multi-step
program, full realization does not come until the final stages, and
Faust takes the reader through all of the difficult steps.
The chapters address three
broad time frames: wartime, immediate postwar, and long-term
postwar. The chapter on dying centers on the soldiers' concern with
the "Good Death." Like a snapshot that froze the memory of an
individual forever, the Good Death characterized survivors' moral
and spiritual recollection of the deceased. Soldiers who died well,
through their religious conviction and stoic bravery, demonstrated
the ideal passing, preserving a comforting image that the surviving
family could cherish. Such an idealized demise, however, clashed with
the realities of killing, the emphasis of the second chapter. Here,
soldiers revealed the true carnage of the battlefield, where heroic
death was rare and the horrors of mangled bodies and distant killing
defied any attempt to arrange a Good Death. The number of unnamed
graves in countless cemeteries was a clear indication of the
impersonal nature of most Civil War deaths. The constant wartime
task of immediate burial of the dead is the subject of chapter
three. The sheer labor necessary to remove and inter the dead
inflicted psychological wounds that persisted long after the war.
Deprived of the solemn ceremony attached to antebellum funerals,
dead soldiers became a problem to solve or a task to complete. The
risk of disease required quick burial and the sensitivity of prewar
ceremony disappeared into the mass graves of unidentified corpses.
Burial was not an even process, as the author demonstrates. Class
played a part, as officers warranted coffins and individual graves,
while enlisted men found themselves segregated, even in death, in
often unmarked mass graves. The belligerents naturally favored their
own dead during the interment process, leaving the bodies of their
enemies to lie where they had fallen, or perhaps to be buried last.
Burials also first introduced civilians to the effect of the war, as
those near major battlefields became unwilling witnesses and hosts
of the bloodshed, responsible for interring the legions of dead.
Chapter four examines the devastating effect of so many anonymous
dead on surviving family members.
Chapters five and six speak to
the immediate postwar consequences of Civil War fatalities.
"Realizing" was the first step in accepting and adjusting to life
after a soldier's death. Patterns of mourning changed, as thousands
of widows created a culture of remembrance more in line with the
Good Death than with actual battlefield realities. Fragments,
tokens, and relics of a departed soldier became symbols of memory,
replacements for a body denied (by prewar standards) proper burial.
Mourning also became a collective activity, especially for prominent
figures. Families mourned their own dead, but fallen heroes of the
respective causes, especially Abraham Lincoln and Thomas "Stonewall"
Jackson, became objects of national mourning.
"Believing and Doubting," on
the other hand, reflects the inability of the country to comprehend
the scope of death or the reasons men died in such numbers. The
often anonymous nature of Civil War deaths caused many families to
hope their sons, brothers, or fathers might still be alive, a hope
maintained far too long in some cases. Spirituality increased as a
consequence of death, as suffering families wanted desperately to
believe that a reunification with their loved ones awaited them in
the next life. For those who accepted that their relative was dead,
the next process was to put his death into perspective and to
justify his loss. To many, there was no justification, and instead
of embracing religion's offer of a future joyous reunion, mourners
questioned the wisdom and charity of a god who permitted such
bloodletting. America endured one of its greatest periods of
The final chapters deal with
the long-term implications of death on such a massive scale, as the
dead created an industry of their own. The drive to assuage the
grief of death and justify the war led to a massive postwar process
of accounting for the dead. Families wanted to know what had
happened to their missing relatives, and desired a physical form to
provide emotional closure. Some did not want their dead to rest in
distant soil and transferred their remains--if they could be
identified--to places closer to home or at least where someone could
tend their graves. The recovery of remains began almost as soon as
the war ended and continued for the next two decades. The government
interred Union remains in new National Cemeteries, hallowed
locations intended to honor the dead as saviors of the country, a
belated version of the Good Death. Confederate dead received less
organized treatment, but the collection and burial of Southern
soldiers became an early exercise in the Lost Cause as survivors
sought to commemorate the heroes of their lost nation.
The final chapter, on
numbering, discusses the problems of establishing a precise number
of Civil War dead and why arriving as such a number was so
important. The absence or destruction of many Civil War records made
casualty figures a guessing game. The large number of anonymous dead
essentially made accurate post-battle rosters impossible, as
officers had no idea if a soldier was dead, captured, in a hospital,
or had deserted. Both armies tacitly accepted that arriving at exact
numbers was virtually impossible. Yet establishing numbers became
essential to defining the immense sacrifices and even the glory of
specific victories. The memory and history of the war came to
associate great victory, personal bravery, and national devotion to
cause not merely with loss of life, but with loss of a great
number of lives. Great things came only through great deaths.
Faust skillfully uses relevant
primary and secondary sources and integrates them with the writings
of such leading cultural figures of the postwar era as Walt Whitman,
Mark Twain, and Ambrose Bierce. The purpose of the book is
ultimately to find meaning in the mass deaths of the Civil War, and
the sources provide that. Quotations, usually in brief snippets,
convey the inability of the human mind to grasp the scale of death,
the loss of loved ones, and the need to find a new reality in a
culture obsessed with mortality.
Like many other scholars, Faust
sets out to answer the question of the war's precise impact on the
country. But while others define the question as political,
economic, military, or racial, she answers it in its most elemental
terms--killing and death and the effects of these on survivors. War
is killing, and as William Sherman said, "You cannot refine it."
By stripping away tangential circumstances and
concentrating upon the facts of killing and its consequences, Faust
has created a groundbreaking study of war in the American context.
Eastern Michigan University