There is a whole plethora of literature on the American Civil War, but Drew Gilpin Faust manages to bring something new to its study: and that is the subject of death, and the dying, and everything associated with it. This Republic of Suffering book review shows that the author focuses on this most avoided subject, and she tackles death from all angles in the light of the Civil War. We have to mention that our selection of the best civil war books is also worth checking out.
The death toll from the war was 620,000, from both sides of Union and Confederacy. The numbers don’t seem too extraordinary until one looks at the population of mid-nineteenth century America at the time, and this figure actually is two percent of the population. But Faust studies more than the statistics, and looks into the political, spiritual, intellectual and material effects of those deaths and of the consequences of the suffering from the war as a whole.
She studies how this suffering brought forth to the people a new thinking, and doubts, of how their benevolent God could allow such evil, why some survive and why others die, and the opening of more thinking about life after death. If you like the topic of this book, you might be interested in the best non-fiction civil war books.
She examines the motives of the soldiers, who were primed to die ‘a good death’. This relationship between religion and war she delves into and charts a thinking that began to doubt their good death at the hand of a good God with all the horrors of war that that entailed. She quotes evidence of soldiers from black troops whose passion to die this good death was zealous, perhaps more so than everyone else.
Faust discusses the practicalities of death, the difficulties of identifying the dead, the burials, the embalming, how undertaking began to grow as a profession, and how military graves began to develop. Outside the war zones, she shows the effects of war other than dead soldiers: the difficulties of displacement and disease, the emotional toll on the people and the economic difficulties.
And she describes those fatalities outside the ‘glory’ of the battlefield that were as a result of the war, such as falling trees and disease and suicide and straying rockets and so forth. She also charts the emerging thought and practice associated with the end of slavery.
She does not write a historical account as such of the American Civil War—rather, she draws the reader into feeling for the dead and dying in the Civil War. She dwells in places most dread to go, such as the removal of the bodies, which amounted to thousands of bodies scattered across the battlefields of America, which had to be found and labelled and buried, which was nothing but a momentous and gruesome task. She talks about the dead bodies, the collection of their personal artifacts, the identification of the dead, the burials, the creation of national cemeteries and registering the dead.
Faust uses the writings of the personal experiences of soldiers and their families, and block quotes many other sources; however, she weaves in and out her own train of thought and text with much ease and flow. Interestingly the quotes prove how high the standards of English were back then, as common soldiers wrote beautiful prose today most are incapable of—as one soldier writes about a wounded sergeant:
‘A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain.’
This Republic of Suffering book review concludes that this a highly acclaimed and award-winning book. It is no surprise that Faust, a renown academic and historian and one-time president of Harvard University, brings something quite unique and serious to literature on the American Civil War, and that is a realization of the consequence of war and its results: the bleeding bodies, the smells emanating from them, the vile ugliness of it all, the futility of it all; and a correct attitude of empathy and sympathy and feeling, for the bleeding bodies piled up for death for nothing, and the broken hearts of every loved one associated with every broken corpse.