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The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Book Review

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Kieran O’Neill

Stoner

AP US History

16 October 2018

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Drew Gilpin Faust, or Catharine Drew Gilpin Faust is a published author a few of her other major publications being Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, Confederate Women and Yankee Men, Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War, and James Henry Hammond and the Old South. She served as the Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania for 25 years. Faust was the President of Harvard from 2007 to 2018, and before that she was the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of the Arts and Sciences. She was elected into the Society of American Historians in 1993. Her piece, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War was published on January 8, 2008. Through a scholarly writing style, Faust uses the topic of death to address the idea that humans struggle with  the same issues today as Americans faced back in the past.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War got its name from a quote from a Union soldier, Frederick Law Olmsted, describing the wounded and dying arriving at Union hospital ships on the Virginian Peninsula as a “republic of suffering” (Faust xiii). Some people may say that Faust takes on a small bias because she grew up in Virginia - in the South, evident in the fact that she only briefly discussed slavery even though it was a main part of the war. I disagree with this statement because Faust was trying to follow this theme of death, and while she did not address slavery to the point that people might want, this was not due to any southern bias that she might have, but simply because she didn’t want to stray from death.

The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history with an estimated 620,000 Americans dead at the conclusion of the war. The war is seen today as the significant time in history that ended slavery – the giant battle between the North and the South, the Union and the Confederacy, but to the people that lived during this time, The Civil War was simply death. Technology improved during the war, and railroads made resupplying guns easier and faster. Despite, these advancements in technology, it was disease, spread mostly through water contamination that killed the most people. Because of the high mortality rate in the war, soldiers had to be willing and able to die when they went off to war. Faust wrote that “Civilian soldiers were, in fact, better prepared to die than to kill, for they lived in a culture that offered many lessons in how life should end” (Faust 6) to demonstrate the preparedness of death. Even though the “good death” began as the core of Christianity, it was demonstrated by almost all Americans no matter their religion. The hour of death had to be witnessed and interpreted to determine the quality of life after death. The famous last words also had to be witnessed because they were believed to be the truth because of two reasons: because the dying have no earthly motivation to lie, and because they wouldn’t want to meet their maker with a lie. Soldiers made pacts with each other to write letters to next of kin of dying comrades so that their families would know of a “good death.”

Next, Faust covered the act of killing, saying that it took more courage for some men to kill than to die. When there was a racial divide, it was easier for soldiers to kill, but most times it was still a huge challenge because “required work – intellectual and psychological effort to address religious and emotional constraints, as well as adaptation to the ways this particular war’s technologies, tactics, and logistics shaped the experience of combat” (Faust 33). In other words, soldiers had to fight every part of their religion and humanity to kill.

Burying the dead was also a topic that Faust addressed in the her book. The responsibility of burying the dead usually fell to the victor because they were the ones who held the field. The victors saw this as a kind of deserting of the losers of their fallen comrades. The victors often took more care in burying their own dead than the enemy’s dead – burying their own in singular graves, while the enemy was more likely to be buried in large pits with multiple bodies.

Another issue of the Civil War was providing identification for fallen soldiers. More than 40% of Union soldiers and an even greater number of Confederate soldiers were merely listed as “UNKNOWN.” There were casualty lists in newspapers, but those were known to be highly inaccurate and incomplete. More consoling than the casualty lists, were the letters from comrades acknowledging deaths. Families didn’t feel closure without these letters. As an attempt to show their identities, soldiers would scribble their names on pieces of paper and pin it on themselves.

It was often hard for families to “realize” that their loved ones are gone – that they would have to live without them. And even when they could accomplish there was still a question of where the souls of the men went after they left their bodies. Religion was challenged during the war because of science, but people saw science and religion as an alliance rather than being in conflict.

Another problem was trying to count the number of casualties. But don’t think that counting was out of sympathy – it was just a measurement of military resources so that officers knew the number of soldiers they were sending into battle. But just as there was no system for identifying soldiers, there was also no system of counting casualties.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War uses a variety of sources, noting 640 sources used in the back of the book. This amount might’ve been overkill, as it made reading nonfiction a little repetitive as practically every line involved some sort of quotation. This overuse of quotations made this book a little ineffective to me. This was contrasted with the stellar introductions and conclusions at the beginning and end of the chapters and the preface and epilogue of the book.

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