Book Review: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

Mind-numbing. That’s the only way to describe the casualties from America’s Civil War. For example:

  • An estimated 620,000 soldiers died between 1861 and 1865, roughly the same number as in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined.
  • While three out of four white men of military age in the South became soldiers, one in five did not survive the war, three times the death rate of their Yankee counterparts.
  • Following the three-day battle at Gettysburg in July 1863, n estimated six million pounds of human and animal carcasses lay on the battlefield.
  • About half of all the soldiers who died ended up “unknown” due to lack of record-keeping, an inability to identify them or even being vaporized.
  • So many families lost loved ones that stores and catalogs specialized in mourning apparel.

But numbers never can and do not tell the story. As Drew Gilpin Faust explores in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, the massive number of deaths embarked America on “a new relationship with death,” one that transformed society, culture and politics. By relying heavily on letters and other personal documents of combatants, their families and others, she puts more of an individual prism on the societal and personal effects.

Faust, president of Harvard University and the author of five previous books dealing with the South or the Civil War, starts with the 19th Century concept of death. Nearly 150 years later, it’s easy to miss the fact that when the Civil War broke out, most people did not die in hospitals; they died at home with family members in attendance. In part because of that, the concept of a “Good Death” prevailed. This was a death in which an individual not only had time to accept their fate but to ensure their family and friends knew they were looking forward to salvation and to express their last words. By being present, family members could assure themselves that they would all be reunited some day. Yet with thousands of soldiers dying far from home and family and often alone, the Civil War was “an exemplary text on how not to die.” This would bring at least one change to our views of “good” deaths that exists today. Dying bravely in service to the country became an avenue of dying well.

Still, the concept of the Good Death led many soldiers to write the families of their deceased comrades, assuring them their husband, son or brother had died a good death. And while the governments attempted to begin keeping records of fatalities during the war, none of the paperwork was used to notify the deceased’s family. As a result, absent a letter or information obtained through private relief organizations, families had no idea if their loved one was alive. Even though the war would show the need for gathering accurate information, some families were left wondering for years after the war had ended, helping spur the growth of the spiritualist movement

The thousands of fatalities meant something else — thousands of bodies. Yet neither the North nor the South had any system in place to deal with the bodies. There were no regular burial details or any graves registration units. Complicating the situation was that battles could last for days and by the time they were over, thousands of bodies lay strewn across the fields. Heat and decomposition merely made the task that much worse. One letter writer said the “mephitic effluvia” of rotting bodies could be smelled for miles. Quoting from that same letter, Faust writes, “Men had become putrefied meat, “not so much killed as slaughtered, with ‘nothing to distinguish them from so many animals.'” Although dealing with a charnel house, This Republic of Suffering explores how the development of embalming and undertaking advanced because of such mass slaughter.

Likewise, the massive number of deaths would lead to the creation of our national cemetery system. It was only after the war, though, that a concerted effort was made to locate graves on and near battlefields. Yet even that caused division. The efforts focused exclusively on Union soldiers. Not only were residents of the former Confederate States left to deal with locating and reburying their dead without government help, Faust points out that not only did the Southern funerals and cemetery dedications serve to honor the dead, they become a mechanism and symbol for honoring the principles of the Confederacy. It would prove fertile ground for the coming Jim Crow years.

Faust’s well-written analysis of the scope of the impact extends even to literature. Walt Whitman’s experience as a hospital volunteer during the war impacted his writing from that point. In addition, Faust keenly observes that while the American public was grasping to comprehend all this death, many of the same questions were crucial to the writing of Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. These writers, according to Faust, “transformed the need to grapple with the meaning of national conflagration into broad and lasting questions about the foundations of religion and human understanding.”

Insight and observations like that placed This Republic of Suffering on many “best of” lists for 2008 and made it a finalist for both the National Book Award and the still to be awarded National Book Critics Circle Book Awards. Near the conclusion of the book, Faust observes a particular dilemma at the core of trying to understand the deaths caused by the war: “how to grasp the significance of a single death and the meaning of hundreds of thousands.” That dilemma exists with every armed conflict. But Faust’s unique perspective takes us beyond the obvious achievements of the Civil War to see how broadly it impacted our society and culture.

Battle changed the living to the dead, humans into animals, and strong men into “boys … crying like children[.]”

Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering

2 comments to Book Review: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

  • David Newquist

    As a Lincoln-phobe and Civil War re-enactor, I have heard it said over and over that if one does not understand the full implications of the Civil War, one does not understand America. I am in the middle of this book, and find it extremely important as background in shaping America up to this day. Death visited every family not only in war but in the dail struggles (my mother was one of sixteen childre, only eight of whom survived beyond the age of 5). In reading this book, I keep going back to the journalism of Walt Whitman about the war and Pres. Lincoln and the poetry that resulted. The suffering was always before him, too.

  • Tim, I meant to respond to this review when you first posted it at Notable Books…I just wanted to say this was a FANTASTIC review…very, very interesting. Thanks for such a thorough and interesting post!