Book Review This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust

Pat Young

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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust published by Vintage (2008) 368 pages. $29.95 Hardcover $14.99 Kindle.
This book was one of the most read Civil War studies of the last two decades. Published shortly before the Sesquicentennial, it was widely reviewed, discussed at conferences, and was even the basis for a PBS program. Written by one of the most prominent figures in academia, the president of Harvard University, it was the inescapable book of the Sesquicentennial.

The book has been sitting in my bookcase for ten years unread. I took it down last month to read when I found out that my step-daughter had started reading it. The book reads quickly and covers ground that is often neglected in popular histories. Catton and Foote typically neglect a lot that can be found here.
Note: This review will be posted in several installments.



 
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The book reads quickly and covers ground that is often neglected in popular histories. Catton and Foote typically neglect a lot that can be found here.
This book was a lot to digest I found. I took my time reading it because it really does delve deeply into the most depressing elements of the war, and that can take time to absorb plus have an impact on the psyche. Every word and chapter were valuable in terms of insights, but it became harder to read the closer I got to the end. It may be one some people need to pick up and put down again, reading in short spurts so as not to become too burdened with all that is revealed there. I'm yet to read the final two chapters, but I will.
 

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Copies are available at Abebooks for very reasonable prices. I picked up one earlier this year and intend to read it sometime this year. That book is mentioned often in CivilWarTalk.
 

Pat Young

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Part 2:

The author begins the book by noting the strangeness of the world after the start of the Civil War. Americans had, of course, known death, as all mortal beings do. They had often suffered through the deaths of their young children, buried elderly relatives, and seen men and women in their prime carried away by epidemics. They had developed death rituals and mourning customs, many originating in Europe and then adapted to the tastes of American Protestant democracy. They had even developed an ideal of "the good death."

The hoped for good death centered on a dying person reconciled to god and family, resting comfortably with minimal pain and anguish, passing from the mortal realm after a few reflective last words. We have no idea of how many people actually lived out "the good death," but we know that it was widely longed for.

The Civil War challenged much of this. Drew Gilpin Faust writes that her book:

It seeks to describe how between 1861 and 1865—and into the decades that followed—Americans undertook a kind of work that history has not adequately understood or recognized. Human beings are rarely simply passive victims of death. They are actors even if they are the diers; they prepare for death, imagine it, risk it, endure it, seek to understand it. And if they are survivors, they must assume new identities established by their persistence in face of others’ annihilation.

Death was something that two-thirds of a million soldiers endured during the war, millions of people grieved through, and the whole republic shared in the suffering from.
 

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Edmund Whitman, Superintendent of National Cemeteries, had this to say about the federal government's reinternment program for Union soldiers in national cemetaries between 1865-1871:

"Such a consecration of a nation's power and resources to a sentiment, the world has never witnessed."
 

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Part 3:

War is a process for turning young men into corpses. There is strategy and tactics, heroics and cowardice, but in the end, there are always corpses. The author observes that; The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.
 

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Part 4:

The author brings the mid-19th Century Art of Death to light for modern audiences. She also shows how distant the Civil War battlefields were from the middle class parlors in which the artistic deat took place. Death could come to the Civil War soldier suddenly without any chance to utter the famous "last words" of myth. It could drag out for weeks in a hospital, the dead surrounded by the dying. It could take place on a miserable wet battlefield with the last hours of a man's life being filled with disgust and pain. The bodies of the dead were not washed and dressed, they were robbed by other soldiers and left naked in the sun by scavengers.

The modern scientific answer to the tearing of families assunder was Spiritualism. Drew Faust writes:

Many bereaved Americans, however, were unwilling to wait until their own deaths reunited them with lost kin, and they turned eagerly to the more immediate promises of spiritualism. A series of spirit rappings in upstate New York in the late 1840s had intensified spreading interest in the apparent reality of communication between the living and the dead. To an age increasingly caught up in the notion of science as the measure of truth, spiritualism offered belief that seemed to rely on empirical evidence rather than revelation and faith.
 

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Part 5:

The book moves from the esoteric to the practical. Railroads did a great business in moving cadavers around the country. No one seemed to die where they wanted to be burried. Apart from the bodies in motion, there were the unburied and undiscovered corpses littering the countryside from Pennsylvania to Florida. Looking for these former men, and particularly for those killed by the prisons, became the special grace of Clara Barton.
 

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I read this book a couple of years back. It sort of left me cold. There is little new material in this book even if it is arranged in a new way.

We should all be grateful, though, that the president of Harvard is a Civil War scholar. It gives the work a prestige and wide audience it would never receive otherwise.
 
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I read this book a couple of years back. It sort of left me cold. There is little new material in this book even if it is arranged in a new way.

We should all be grateful, though, that the president of Harvard is a Civil War scholar. It gives the work a prestige and wide audience it would never receive otherwise.
I disagree. The material may be there but I have yet to find any work that compiles and places it all together as This Republic of Suffering does. And not to the degree that Faust goes into detail. If you know of any that comes close, let me know. I would be interested in checking them out.
 

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I disagree. The material may be there but I have yet to find any work that compiles and places it all together as This Republic of Suffering does. And not to the degree that Faust goes into detail. If you know of any that comes close, let me know. I would be interested in checking them out.
My personal reaction is merely that, not an indictment of the book or the author. If her book was meant to take away some of the gloss and romance of the war, that's fine, but not really necessary in my case. I learned that it was a dirty bloody mess long ago.

I wonder of anybody has read any of Faust's other books?
 

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Checking her bio I see that she retired as president of Harvard last summer.

It's pretty common for academics at her level to continue to teach, although not full time. Maybe one or two courses a year.
 

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Part 6:

When Edmund Whitman went South for the War Department to look after the dead at the end of the war, he saw a difference in the respect accorded the Union dead by Black Southerners and White Southerners. Drew Gilpin Faust writes that:

“Justice to the race of freedmen,” Whitman reported to headquarters, demands “a tribute of grateful mention.” Rebuffed in his search for information by whites like the Mississippi postmaster, Whitman learned to turn to black southerners for help as he traversed the South in the spring and fall of 1866. “Most all the information gained” at one Georgia location, he reported to his journal, “was from negroes, who, as I was told…pay more attention to such matters than the white people.” There was a good deal more at issue here, Whitman soon recognized, than just attentiveness. Black southerners cared for the Union dead as a gesture of political assertiveness as well as a demonstration of gratitude and respect. During the war African Americans had risked their lives burying Union soldiers and trying to preserve both their names and their graves. About two miles from Savannah, in a corner of “the Negro Cemetery,” lay seventy-seven “graves of colored soldiers” in four neat rows. All but three were identified, all in “very good condition,” and all marked with “good painted headboards.” This was the last resting place of the dead of a unit of U.S. Colored Troops, carefully buried and tended by the freedpeople of the area. Whitman encountered other sites where former slaves had interred Yankees and still watched over their graves. Behind an African Colored Church near Bowling Green, Kentucky, for example, 1,134 well-tended graves sheltered both black and white Union soldiers.

The Black people of the South had given the Union army intelligence about Confederate plans, help to escaped prisoners of war, and care to the Union dead.
 

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Part 7:

Whitman, like Clara Barton, became an advocate for Federal government stewardship of the graves of the Union dead. Barton, in particular, insisted that the "missing men" of the United States army be accounted for. She, and others, published notices to soldiers, doctors, and civilians that if they had any information related to missing soldiers they should forward it.

In approaching Sec. of War Stanton to gain government support fr her project, Barton invoked the claims that wives and mothers had upon the government for information on the men who never came home. Barton wrote:

"these poor men have lost not only their lives, but the very record of their death. Common humanity would plead that an effort be made to restore their identity…As call after call for “three hundred thousand more” fell upon their stricken homes, the wife released her husband and the mother sent forth her son, and they were nobly given to their country for its necessities: it might take and use them as the bonded officer uses the property given into his hands; it might if needs be use up or lose them and they would submit without complaint, but never…has wife or mother agreed that for the destruction of her treasures no account should be rendered..."
 

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Part 8:

By the Summer of 1866, a national movement to identify and bury the Union dead was underway and by the following February legislation was passed establishing the national cemeteries. This was the first Federal mass interment policy in American history. Whitman set out to locate, identify and bury in national cemeteries what would grow to over 114,000 bodies in the Western Theater.

By the time the work of burial was completed nationally in 1871, 303,536 Union soldiers were buried in seventy-four national cemeteries, at a cost of $4,000,306.26. Many of the African American soldiers, sad to say, were buried in segregated "colored" sections of the cemeteries.
 

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Part 8:

By the Summer of 1866, a national movement to identify and bury the Union dead was underway and by the following February legislation was passed establishing the national cemeteries. This was the first Federal mass interment policy in American history. Whitman set out to locate, identify and bury in national cemeteries what would grow to over 114,000 bodies in the Western Theater.

By the time the work of burial was completed nationally in 1871, 303,536 Union soldiers were buried in seventy-four national cemeteries, at a cost of $4,000,306.26. Many of the African American soldiers, sad to say, were buried in segregated "colored" sections of the cemeteries.
At least they were honored. After some European battles, the bodies were left on the battlefield and bones later gathered up to make bonemeal for gardens.
 



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