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 book explores the impact of this enormous death toll from every angle: material, political, intellectual, and spiritual. Historian 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, and reconceived its understanding of life after death.--From publisher description.
By Drew Gilpin Faust
This Republic of Suffering is a very different Civil War book. I'm used to Civil War books that tell the story of battles, campaigns and leaders. This is a book about how an entire society, North and South, dealt with the most pervasive aspect of the war: its indiscriminate slaughter. Six hundred thousand people died in the Civil War, 2% of the population, by far the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans.
In a series of chapters most of whose names consist of just a single word—Dying, Killing, Burying, Naming, Believing and Doubting, Numbering—Faust examines death from every point of view: the soldiers who fought and died, the families that mourned them, their fellow comrades who struggled to bury them, the civic and religious leaders, writers, poets and ordinary citizens who sought to make sense of the war and its awful toll.
Throughout the book it is the voices of ordinary citizens that we hear, mostly through their letters or diaries, and already in a chapter or two we are already aware of the trauma that this war inflicted on everyone. It changed the way war was waged; it changed the way the army and the society treated the memory those who had fallen. One of the scandalous aspects of the war was how many dead soldiers could not be identified or counted or buried properly. After the war ended the army and the society at large undertook an enormous effort to rebury and identify them. This led to a permanent change in the way the U.S. military operated; identifying the dead and protecting and preserving their remains became a core value of military service. Honoring the memory of those dead, through holidays like Memorial Day, was a lasting legacy of the Civil War.
This is a work of immense scholarship, precise and eloquent prose, and lasting impact.
The first few chapters thus are of questionable value which Faust redeems with a strong finish. One novelty and consequence of the American Civil War was the creation of national cemeteries. Up to then, common soldiers' graves went unmarked. Disposing of the bodies was solved by mass graves. Relatives were highly unlikely to ever visit the battlefield and even if they did, most would have been unable to read the name of the fallen. The American Civil War changed this. A literate, relative wealthy society started to care for their war dead. Not at the beginning but already during the war - laying the basis for Arlington cemetery. After the war, the North started to collect and rebury properly the hastily buried bodies in national cemeteries. The fallen Confederates were not accorded similar honors and had to wait for private efforts to match the government's lead. The large cemeteries of the First World War can be traced back to those efforts, to a change on how Americans regarded their dead soldiers: Citizens to be respected and cared for and worthy of an eternal hallowed ground.
There are thousands upon thousands of books written about that war. I have nearly 100 on my shelves. Some are general histories of the conflict, many are written about specific battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam. All—every single book—talk about the staggering number of casualties. The numbers are not new to me.
But none of these books actually looks at what those deaths meant in terms of the fabric of American society at that time. That is Faust’s unique achievement. She writes about it with profound scholarship, with insight—and that quiet regard.
Her chapter headings are evocative.
Dying; “To Lay Down My Life” recounts the numbers as well as the concept of the Good Death, prevalent throughout American society.
Killing:”The Harder Courage” looks at what it meant, in a deeply religious society, to actually take the life of another human being by what were, in the end, millions of volunteers, not professional soldiers.
Burying: “New Lessons Caring for the Dead” talks about the sheer logistical effort of burying thousands of dead on both sides after a major battle.
Naming: “The Significant Word UNKNOWN” --the agony of those who were left behind in trying to find out what had happened to their husbands, brothers, sons, friends and the efforts made by private organizations as well as those relatives to find and identify the dead.
Realizing: Civilians and the Work of Mourning describes the stunned aura of denial and the terrible pain of loss.
Believing and Doubting: “What Means This Carnage” was the struggle to understand and maintain belief in a Divine Providence that could allow such mass slaughter.
Accounting; “Our Obligations to the Dead” talks about the massive Federal effort that went into establishing national cemeteries, locating the graves of Union soldiers and re-interring them into those cemeteries. Gettysburg was among the first and is the most famous but is only one of about 20 established to protect the dead from anonymity and the depredations of resentful and vengeful Southerners.
Numbering: “How Many? How Many?” examines the American obsession with statistics and the difficulty of establishing accurate casualty counts. And finally,
Epilogue: Surviving says it all for that chapter.
This is a slow-reading book, packed full of information, but more importantly, an assessment of the attitudes and jarring changes forced on American society in the wake of the mass murder in the War of the Rebellion. An interesting sidelight: in the last chapters, Faust touches on the sullenness and vengefulness of Southerners as they took out these sentiments on the Union dead. They weren’t all Lees.
It has been said by Shelby Foote and others that there were two countries: the US before the Civil War and the US after it. That is meant in a political sense. But as Faust shows in this magnificent work, that was true socially as well, as the surviving population tried to come to terms with just what all those deaths meant.
To make her point, she quotes liberally from newspapers, diaries, official records—and the works of people like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr who was a Union officer, Ambrose Bierce who also served in the Union Army, Emily Dickinson and others who wrote so poignantly about the suffering.
Shelby Foote repeatedly said that to understand the US as it is today, you must understand the Civil War. Faust, from the somber viewpoint of the unimaginable numbers of dead, shows how the war shattered whole sections of the fabric of American society and the efforts made by ordinary citizens, the survivors, to try to make some meaning of that destruction. The results of their efforts were instrumental in shaping the US into the nation that it is today.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
In addition to Ms. Faust's laudable ability to write cogently and engagingly, she has also structured her book in an immensely gratifying manner. The first few chapters read like a conventional history of a neglected aspect of the Civil War, but by the end of the book the repercussions of what she has described become clear. Consequently, the reader comes not only to understand some fresh aspect of our contemporary attitudes about death and warfare, but also that those selfsame attitudes are protean, impermanent, and trace their pedigree to very specific individuals and actions. Things we take for granted or chalk up as simple commonsense ideas (i.e., the rightness of recovering and honoring fallen soldiers) turn out to be shockingly modern. This knowledge casts new light on how our current behavior might affect the attitudes and behaviors of future generations; particularly since so much of the post-mortem activity that followed the Civil War was largely undocumented (even ignored) and yet decidedly precedent-setting.
This is a meditation on death as well as our attitudes about sacrifice and community. As such, it is a great deal more rewarding than a typical historical account.
This Republic of Suffering is divided thematically, with each chapter devoted to a different aspect of death. The first three chapters—Dying, Killing, and Burying—are principally concerned with the soldiers and their interpretations of death. Faust continually stresses of the notion of the Good Death and its importance to both soldiers and civilians. During the time of the Civil War it was believed that moving on to the afterlife required a Good Death. These deaths typically required an acceptance of death and a willingness to move on to the next life. Soldiers writing letters to their fallen comrades’ families would emphasize these points, comforting the grieving survivors that their lost father, brother, son, or husband had understood his fate, accepted it, and asked once more for salvation.
The middle three chapters—Naming, Realizing, and Believing and Doubting—deal with the roles civilians played in interpreting the death of individual soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of men died on the battlefields of the Civil War, many of whom were never identified. It was this unknowing that brought the most despair to survivors. Families often placed newspaper advertisements pleading for any information on lost loved ones. Several charitable organizations, most notably the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission, were created for the purpose of identifying dead or missing soldiers and informing their families of their whereabouts and the manner in which they died. The Civil War had a tremendous impact on American society, forcing nearly every person in the country to come to grips with the death of a family member or friend. This impact required the deaths and the war itself be given meaning, so that those men would not have died in vain.
The final three chapters—Accounting, Numbering, and Surviving—provide the crux of Faust’s argument, in which death and dying in the Civil War came to define how the event was interpreted in the years following. With so many soldiers still unaccounted for at war’s end, the federal government began an aggressive project to find, identify, and reinter every Union soldier lost on southern soil. This process, and the creation of dozens of national cemeteries, gave meaning to the Union cause. These soldiers had died protecting their nation from those who would have rent it asunder, and it was the newly reunited government’s responsibility to ensure that those bled and died for it would be able to rest in peace. The federal government gave no such honor to Confederate soldiers, so the southern people took it upon themselves to return their lost brethren from the North and give them their own honorable death. Confederate soldiers, though they may have lost the war, nevertheless fought bravely for their cause and the cause of all southerners. In this way, “the Dead became what their survivors chose to make them (p. 269).” For a time, this meant that North and South continued their battle. But ultimately, with the United States government’s acknowledgement of Confederate losses as American losses, “the Dead became the focus of an imagined national community for the reunited states, a constituency all could willingly serve.”
Faust’s breathtaking journey through the aftermath of the Civil War provides an illuminating look at the way soldiers and civilians interacted and how they worked together to understand the war and create a new community in its wake. In this way, the dead became much more than just a result of a devastating conflict. Instead, they became the tool used to bring both sides together in the end.
1. The tableau of the "good death" (to wit: a dying loved one, lying in his/her own bed, surrounded by extended family members, with time and ability to offer last words of comfort to loved ones, followed by a "faith testimony" and peaceful expiration) was so ubiquitous in the mid-19th century that the thought of a loved one dying alone and away from home was unbearable. Surviving relatives went to frantic lengths to ascertain the particulars of their loved one's death.
2. Up to one half of Civil War deaths were undocumented -- hundreds of thousands of surviving relatives never learned how their loved ones died or where they were buried. (In many cases, survivors spent the rest of their lives wondering whether the missing loved one was indeed dead.)
3. The bodies of many Civil War victims were located and reburied multiple times -- it was not uncommon for a body to lay in the field unburied for a year, then be buried in situ, then relocated to a group site, only to be transported later to a national cemetery!
4. Embalming and the art of undertaking became well established for the first time during the Civil War. Families were desperate to recover the body of their loved one in a state that would reconfirm the religious notion that it was "just sleeping."
5. The magnitude of death was physically overwhelming in its aftermath -- towns of a few thousand people were surrounded by battlefields strewn with many times that number of dead.
6. Mass deaths and senseless suffering contributed to two opposite reactions by survivors: they became religious skeptics, or they fixated upon the idea of heaven with heightened zeal.
7. The Civil War prompted a newly frank, cynical, and unromantic prose and poetry of war. The writings of Ambrose Bierce exemplify this trend.
These are only a few of the points covered in this fascinating book. The questions asked by bewildered Civil War survivors -- Was the war worth it? Is death ever meaningful? What is a nation's truest duty? Is a soldier's faith in his mission a laudable attribute, even if his cause is ultimately discredited? -- are still being asked in 2008.
Faust puts out the theory that as a result of the Civil War, how our country viewed death changed dramatically. Each chapter of the book identifies a separate element from the killing to the burial to how people chose to die to the anonymity of the new type of war presaged by the Civil War. Taking each chapter individually feels like a tough slog. Her thesis is incredibly well documented with letters and documents, many of which become repetitious the fourth or fifth time you see a similar quote. It is only in reading the book as a whole and letting its threads come together that you start to see the bigger picture - that the Civil War created the underpinnings for our social welfare system (small though it may be compared to Europe) today, that the destruction of the Civil War created a search for meaning - accelerated in Europe by WW I - that did not include a God that would allow such terrible, terrible things to happen, that the Civil War did not finish in 1865 but still reverberates today.
In a Victorian culture used to a person dying at home, surrounding by family members, the Civil War was a jarring event. Faust captures the disconnect it caused quite vividly. The book, as I stated, is not an easy read. The writing style is academic in nature rather than narrative. Yet for those who are willing to invest the time, the energy, they will come out the other side with a better understanding of our society today.
With as many books as there are about the Civil War, you would think someone would have written about the associated deaths before, but most authors only mention death as a postscript to their descriptions of battles or of the war itself. Others might conclude that there is only so much you can write about death and dying, but Drew Gilpin Faust has penned a fascinating treatise on all aspects of death and the Civil War.
The book is broken into eight chapters, each named with a gerund. In the first chapter, Dying, Faust explains the concept of the ars moriendi, or good death, that people before the Civil War hoped to experience and how soldiers struggled to come as close as possible to this ideal even in wartime conditions. In the chapter on Burying she explains how the sheer numbers of battlefield dead overwhelmed most efforts to bury the dead carefully, and most were buried with no casket and often without any form of identification. In Accounting she describes the post-war efforts to find and identify all those who had been hastily buried in the wake of battles and reinter them in national cemeteries.
Faust’s writing style is very accessible which kept my interest throughout. I had never thought about what it might be like for Union soldiers given the task of gathering the Union dead from Southern battlefields in an increasingly hostile land after the war, and the description of the competing efforts of the northerners and southerners in honoring their own dead and ignoring the former enemy’s.
I listened to this book on Audible. The reader took a little getting used to. Her tone seemed a little “strident,” and I found myself wanting her to tone it down a bit, but it’s not the worst I’ve ever heard. All in all I found this a very enjoyable read and I highly recommend it.
Both sides assumed the conflict would last a couple of months. Neither planned for care of the wounded, housing prisoners, identification of the missing and the dead. The military had no formal muster rolls, no organized way of identifying the dead and wounded.
To find what had happened, family members traveled to battle sites to try to find missing soldiers. Can you imagine knowing your son or father had fought in a battle you read about in the paper, and then no word from him? For months? Sometimes the missing one turned up in a hospital or prison camp; sometimes a letter describing his death and burial would come from a commander or fellow soldier; sometimes they never knew. Families wanted to know if their dear one had had a "good death". Was he a believer, was he willing to die? Letters sent from the front have descriptions like "the calm repose of his countenance indicated the departure of one at peace with God."
The numbers were staggering, unimaginable. At the same time, a story lay behind every death. Every individual's loss was a heartbreak. Both sides realized they must name and count the dead and wounded, find every body and identify and bring home as many as possible. Vast cemeteries must be created. By the last year of the war the Army sent special units to search for and retrieve the bodies of Union soldiers, which were being desecrated in the South. African-American Southerners helped protect and identify some of these graves. Confederate women formed their own burial associations to care for their dead.
Before the war most Americans weren't embalmed. Why would they be? They died and were buried close to home. Before the war, Americans pictured Heaven and the afterlife as a place where disembodied souls spent eternity in the presence of God. In the wake of the war came books that pictured lost sons and fathers in a Heaven like their earthly homes, where bodies were made whole again, amputated limbs restored. Some believers looked forward to being reunited with their lost ones after death; others lost their faith. What kind of God could allow such suffering? Spiritualism, table tapping, communing with the dead all became popular, as they do in the wake of every war.
This is a terrific, detailed, moving book.
Another bonus is the photographs included. I find it amazing to think there are photos from this era, how amazing. If terribly, terribly bleak.
Reviewing chapter headings that include:
The Work of Death
Dying and Killing
Burying, Naming, Realizing
Believing and Doubting
Accounting and Numbering and Surviving
should give anyone thinking about reading the book the clear idea that it will deal with this serious topic in its many aspects in a straight forward manner.
I could do an exhaustive review of the book but will leave that to others with the exception to say that I did not know prior to reading this book the part played by the Union internment of Union soldiers in the South to the exclusion of Rebel soldiers and the part that it played in energizing of the Lost Cause following the signing at Appomattox Court House.
Also, one of the reasons for establishing National Cemeteries in different states following the War were the depredations by Southerners of unsupervised Union graves in the years following the end of the war.
It certainly is a book all should read and although well written there does seem to be a lot of redundant padding of material where it is not necessary and a tendency to rhapsodize at length on various topics. But those parts can be easily skipped over with no problem.
In summary, a very worthwhile and draining book to read.