"This Republic of Suffering" - excerpt

william42

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January 27, 2008
First Chapter
‘This Republic of Suffering’

By DREW GILPIN FAUST

The work of death
Mortality defines the human condition. "We all have our dead — we all have our Graves," a Confederate Episcopal bishop observed in an 1862 sermon. Every era, he explained, must confront "like miseries"; every age must search for "like consolation." Yet death has its discontinuities as well. Men and women approach death in ways shaped by history, by culture, by conditions that vary over time and across space. Even though "we all have our dead," and even though we all die, we do so differently from generation to generation and from place to place.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States embarked on a new relationship with death, entering into a civil war that proved bloodier than any other conflict in American history, a war that would presage the slaughter of World War I's Western Front and the global carnage of the twentieth century. The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities 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. The Civil War's rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities. As the new southern nation struggled for survival against a wealthier and more populous enemy, its death toll reflected the disproportionate strains on its human capital. Confederate men died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one in five white southern men of military age did not survive the Civil War.

But these military statistics tell only a part of the story. The war killed civilians as well, as battles raged across farm and field, as encampments of troops spread epidemic disease, as guerrillas ensnared women and even children in violence and reprisals, as draft rioters targeted innocent citizens, as shortages of food in parts of the South brought starvation. No one sought to document these deaths systematically, and no one has devised a method of undertaking a retrospective count. The distinguished Civil War historian James McPherson has estimated that there were fifty thousand civilian deaths during the war, and he has concluded that the overall mortality rate for the South exceeded that of any country in World War I and that of all but the region between the Rhine and the Volga in World War II. The American Civil War produced carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time.

The impact and meaning of the war's death toll went beyond the sheer numbers who died. Death's significance for the Civil War generation arose as well from its violation of prevailing assumptions about life's proper end — about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances. Death was hardly unfamiliar to mid-nineteenth-century Americans. By the beginning of the 1860s the rate of death in the United States had begun to decline, although dramatic improvements in longevity would not appear until late in the century. Americans of the immediate prewar era continued to be more closely acquainted with death than are their twenty-first century counterparts. But the patterns to which they were accustomed were in significant ways different from those the war would introduce. The Civil War represented a dramatic shift in both incidence and experience. Mid-nineteenth-century Americans endured a high rate of infant mortality but expected that most individuals who reached young adulthood would survive at least into middle age. The war took young, healthy men and rapidly, often instantly, destroyed them with disease or injury. This marked a sharp and alarming departure from existing preconceptions about who should die. As Francis W. Palfrey wrote in an 1864 memorial for Union soldier Henry L. Abbott, "the blow seems heaviest when it strikes down those who are in the morning of life." A soldier was five times more likely to die than he would have been if he had not entered the army. As a chaplain explained to his Connecticut regiment in the middle of the war, "neither he nor they had ever lived and faced death in such a time, with its peculiar conditions and necessities." Civil War soldiers and civilians alike distinguished what many referred to as "ordinary death," as it had occurred in prewar years, from the manner and frequency of death in Civil War battlefields, hospitals, and camps, and from the war's interruptions of civilian lives.

In the Civil War the United States, North and South, reaped what many participants described as a "harvest of death." By the midpoint of the conflict, it seemed that in the South, "nearly every household mourns some loved one lost." Loss became commonplace; death was no longer encountered individually; death's threat, its proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared of the war's experiences. As a Confederate soldier observed, death "reigned with universal sway," ruling homes and lives, demanding attention and response. The Civil War matters to us today because it ended slavery and helped to define the meanings of freedom, citizenship, and equality. It established a newly centralized nation-state and launched it on a trajectory of economic expansion and world influence. But for those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death. At war's end this shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite. Even in our own time this fundamentally elegiac understanding of the Civil War retains a powerful hold.

Death transformed the American nation as well as the hundreds of thousands of individuals directly affected by loss. The war created a veritable "republic of suffering," in the words that Frederick Law Olmsted chose to describe the wounded and dying arriving at Union hospital ships on the Virginia Peninsula. Sacrifice and the state became inextricably intertwined. Citizen soldiers snatched from the midst of life generated obligations for a nation defining its purposes and polity through military struggle. A war about union, citizenship, freedom, and human dignity required that the government attend to the needs of those who had died in its service.

Execution of these newly recognized responsibilities would prove an important vehicle for the expansion of federal power that characterized the transformed postwar nation. The establishment of national cemeteries and the emergence of the Civil War pension system to care for both the dead and their survivors yielded programs of a scale and reach unimaginable before the war. Death created the modern American union — not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.

Civil War Americans often wrote about what they called "the work of death," meaning the duties of soldiers to fight, kill, and die, but at the same time invoking battle's consequences: its slaughter, suffering, and devastation. "Work" in this usage incorporated both effort and impact — and the important connection between the two.

Death in war does not simply happen; it requires action and agents. It must, first of all, be inflicted; and several million soldiers of the 1860s dedicated themselves to that purpose. But death also usually requires participation and response; it must be experienced and handled. It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life's last moments. Of all living things, only humans consciously anticipate death; the consequent need to choose how to behave in its face — to worry about how to die — distinguishes us from other animals. The need to manage death is the particular lot of humanity.

It is work to deal with the dead as well, to remove them in the literal sense of disposing of their bodies, and it is also work to remove them in a more figurative sense. The bereaved struggle to separate themselves from the dead through ritual and mourning. Families and communities must repair the rent in the domestic and social fabric, and societies, nations, and cultures must work to understand and explain unfathomable loss.

This is a book about the work of death in the American Civil War. 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. The presence and fear of death touched Civil War Americans' most fundamental sense of who they were, for in its threat of termination and transformation, death inevitably inspired self-scrutiny and self-definition. Beginning with individuals' confrontation with dying and killing, the book explores how those experiences transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering. Some of the changes death brought were social, as wives turned into widows, children into orphans; some were political, as African American soldiers hoped to win citizenship and equality through their willingness both to die and to kill; some were philosophical and spiritual, as the carnage compelled Americans to seek meaning and explanation for war's destruction.

Every death involved "the great change" captured in the language and discourse of nineteenth-century Christianity, the shift from this life to whatever might come next. A subject of age-old concern for believers and nonbelievers alike, the existence and nature of an afterlife took on new urgency both for soldiers anxious about their own deaths and for bereaved kin speculating on the fate of the departed. And even if spirits and souls proved indeed immortal, there still remained the vexing question of bodies. The traditional notion that corporeal resurrection and restoration would accompany the Day of Judgment seemed increasingly implausible to many Americans who had seen the maiming and disfigurement inflicted by this war. Witnesses at field hospitals almost invariably commented with horror on the piles of limbs lying near the surgeon's table, dissociated from the bodies to which they had belonged, transformed into objects of revulsion instead of essential parts of people. These arms and legs seemed as unidentifiable — and unrestorable — as the tens of thousands of missing men who had been separated from their names. The integral relationship between the body and the human self it housed was as shattered as the wounded men.

Bodies were in important ways the measure of the war — of its achievements and its impact; and indeed, bodies became highly visible in Civil War America. Commanders compared their own and enemy casualties as evidence of military success or failure. Soldiers struggled for the words to describe mangled corpses strewn across battlefields; families contemplated the significance of newspaper lists of wounds: "slightly, in the shoulder," "severely, in the groin," "mortally, in the breast." They nursed the dying and buried their remains. Letters and reports from the front rendered the physicality of injuries and death all but unavoidable. For the first time civilians directly confronted the reality of battlefield death rendered by the new art of photography. They found themselves transfixed by the paradoxically lifelike renderings of the slain of Antietam that Mathew Brady exhibited in his studio on Broadway. If Brady "has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it," wrote the New York Times.

This new prominence of bodies overwhelmingly depicted their destruction and deformation, inevitably raising the question of how they related to the persons who had once inhabited them. In the aftermath of battle survivors often shoveled corpses into pits as they would dispose of animals — "in bunches, just like dead chickens," one observer noted — dehumanizing both the living and the dead through their disregard. In Civil War death the distinction between men and animals threatened to disappear, just as it was simultaneously eroding in the doctrines of nineteenth-century science.

The Civil War confronted Americans with an enormous task, one quite different from saving or dividing the nation, ending or maintaining slavery, or winning the military conflict — the demands we customarily understand to have been made of the Civil War generation. Americans North and South would be compelled to confront — and resist — the war's assault on their conceptions of how life should end, an assault that challenged their most fundamental assumptions about life's value and meaning. As they faced horrors that forced them to question their ability to cope, their commitment to the war, even their faith in a righteous God, soldiers and civilians alike struggled to retain their most cherished beliefs, to make them work in the dramatically altered world that war had introduced.

Americans had to identify — find, invent, create — the means and mechanisms to manage more than half a million dead: their deaths, their bodies, their loss. How they accomplished this task reshaped their individual lives — and deaths — at the same time that it redefined their nation and their culture. The work of death was Civil War America's most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/b...s-republic-of-suffering.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
 

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William42

I do not see what Faust is talking about in the little I have read about on the civil war. I do not read a sense of looming doom and pending death in the average soldiers writing until the Overland campaign.

In the general public if our opinion of death was changing then would not we see it in the writing and books of the late 19th century.

I believe Faust is writing of the 21st century mind set of death and projecting it back to the 19th century. Today no one supposed to die until old age. Our view of death is wrapped and death is the worst evil. I believe 19th century Americans view on death would be more in tune with the third world person today then us. Death was part of living in the 19th century and everyone had felt death's hand touch their family and friends before they were twenty. Unlike today where death is a scary unknown for many until they are middle age.

I do believe the sheer volume may have over whelmed the public's minds but changing their mind set on death no. Our opinion of death changed as child mortally rates dropped in the next hundred years following the civil war and life spans increased accordanly.
 

cash

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I do not see what Faust is talking about in the little I have read about on the civil war. I do not read a sense of looming doom and pending death in the average soldiers writing until the Overland campaign.
Have you ever heard of Sullivan Ballou?


I believe Faust is writing of the 21st century mind set of death and projecting it back to the 19th century.
Perhaps it would be best to actually read the book before trying to conclude what she's doing.

Regards,
Cash
 
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Thanks for the excerpt, Cash. I look forward to reading the whole book. I won't indulge in forming an opinion until then.

Zou
 

william42

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By 5fish
Death was part of living in the 19th century and everyone had felt death's hand touch their family and friends before they were twenty.
Yes, perhaps in some cases, but the author is attempting to describe how Americans, during the Civil War, were forced to confront death, on an entirely different, massive, overwhelming level, which was very new to them. For the first time they were faced with large-scale killing, as well.

"Death in war does not simply happen; it requires action and agents. It must, first of all, be inflicted; and several million soldiers of the 1860s dedicated themselves to that purpose. But death also usually requires participation and response; it must be experienced and handled. It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life's last moments. Of all living things, only humans consciously anticipate death; the consequent need to choose how to behave in its face — to worry about how to die — distinguishes us from other animals. The need to manage death is the particular lot of humanity."




By 5fish
I believe Faust is writing of the 21st century mind set of death and projecting it back to the 19th century.
We 21st centurions have learned through teaching, reading, films or actual fighting about such calamities as WW1, WWII, Korea, Vietnam etc, with it's high tech or low tech killing machines, death tolls, military funerals. All this death, killing, disease, bombarding them in such big numbers was new to 19th century folks in America. They had to deal with a death toll that was almost as high as those conflicts above combined. That's a lot to take in for a relatively peaceful population, with hardly any armed forces to speak of, in the beginning.

"It is work to deal with the dead as well, to remove them in the literal sense of disposing of their bodies, and it is also work to remove them in a more figurative sense. The bereaved struggle to separate themselves from the dead through ritual and mourning. Families and communities must repair the rent in the domestic and social fabric, and societies, nations, and cultures must work to understand and explain unfathomable loss."




Terry
 

cash

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http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/books/review/Ward-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

January 27, 2008
Death’s Army
By GEOFFREY C. WARD

THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING
Death and the American Civil War.
By Drew Gilpin Faust.
Illustrated. 346 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.

During the Civil War, my great-great-grandfather, a Presbyterian clergyman, served as chaplain to the 104th New York Infantry Regiment. He was a man of stern moral conviction and in weekly letters to his parishioners back home allowed little to escape his censorious eye. President Lincoln’s erratic church attendance irritated him. So did mud and heat and the “intemperance” and “profanity” that he believed were the “great sins of our army,” and he was infuriated by the proximity of his quarters to the “tents of several of the most blasphemous, immoral persons I ever heard.” But in the aftermath of Gettysburg, words failed him. “Sad scenes!” was all he could write after two days spent officiating at the trench burials of Union and Confederate boys. “I have no time, strength nor heart to recall and narrate what I have seen!”

Little wonder. Some 7,000 corpses lay scattered across the Pennsylvania countryside, alongside more than 3,000 dead horses and mules — an estimated six million pounds of human and animal flesh, swollen and blackening in the July heat. For weeks afterward, townspeople carried bottles of peppermint oil to neutralize the smell.

Americans had never endured anything like the losses they suffered between 1861 and 1865 and have experienced nothing like them since. Two percent of the United States population died in uniform — 620,000 men, North and South, roughly the same number as those lost in all of America’s other wars from the Revolution through Korea combined. The equivalent toll today would be six million.

The lasting but little-understood impact of all that sacrifice is the subject of Drew Gilpin Faust’s extraordinary new book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” “Death created the modern American union,” she writes, “not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.” And she continues: “The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.” Her account of how that work was done, much of it gleaned from the letters of those who found themselves forced to do it, is too richly detailed and covers too much ground to be summarized easily. She overlooks nothing — from the unsettling enthusiasm some men showed for killing to the near-universal struggle for an answer to the question posed by the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier: “How does God have the heart to allow it?”

She begins with what she calls the “work” of dying. The faithful looked forward to what was called a Good Death, with time to see the end approaching, accept it and declare to friends and family members their belief in God and his promise of salvation. The battlefield brutally truncated that serene process, and soldiers and their families alike worried about what that might mean for their chances in the afterlife. Survivors tried to provide reassurance. When one Union soldier was killed during the siege of Richmond, a comrade told his mother that while her boy had died instantly and without the opportunity to declare his faith, he had told his fellow soldiers the previous summer that he “felt his sins were forgiven & that he was ready and resigned to the Lord’s will & while talking he was so much overjoyed that he could hardly suppress his feelings of delight.” But sometimes candor trumped comfort: one Georgia soldier worried in a letter home that while his dying brother had “said that he hoped he was prepared to meet his God in a better world than this,” he was also aware “he had been a bad, bad, very bad boy.”

When the war began, the Union Army had no burial details, no graves registration units, no means to notify next of kin, no provision for decent burial, no systematic way to identify or count the dead, no national cemeteries in which to bury them. The corpses of officers often received special treatment, boxed up and sent home in what one entrepreneur advertised as “METALLIC COFFINS ... Warranted Air-Tight” that could “be placed in the Parlor without fear of any odor escaping therefrom.” Dead enlisted men were generally just wrapped in blankets and buried where they died. Officers “get a monument,” a Texas soldier wrote, “you get a hole in the ground and no coffin.” Men going into combat were issued no identification tags. One soldier made sure he always carried a used envelope “somewhere about me so that if killed in battle my friends might know what became of me.”

Undertakers and embalmers followed the armies. “If you could only make him breathe, Professor,” an officer exclaimed as he watched an embalmer work over a Union corpse.

“Ah,” the man answered, “then there would be money made.”

Fathers and brothers wandered battlefields in search of missing relatives. So did wives and mothers dressed in black. Private “agents” promised to search for missing men in exchange for a percentage of their widows’ pensions. Spiritualists made a good living conveying vague but consoling messages from the Other Side.

In 1862, Congress empowered the president to purchase grounds for “a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of their country” but provided him with no funds with which to buy it. By war’s end, there were just five such cemeteries, three established by Union generals in the western theater, and two — Antietam and Gettysburg — paid for by states from which many of those killed there had come. Only after the war was over — and amid news reports that vengeful Southerners were desecrating Union graves — did Congress finally provide a national solution to what had become a national need. The Union dead were to be gathered from scores of Southern battlefields, identified when possible, then re-interred in burial grounds to be protected and maintained by the federal government. The ghastly work went on for six years, much of it performed by African-American soldiers. When the last body was reburied in 1871, 303,536 Union soldiers had been laid to rest in 74 national cemeteries at a cost of $4 million. Almost half remained nameless. “Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment, the world has never seen,” wrote one of the officers charged with recovering the bodies.

Confederate corpses were barred. A Northern reporter walking a Southern battlefield stumbled upon the unburied skeletons of two soldiers. His local guide examined their uniform buttons. “They was No’th Carolinians,” the man explained. “That’s why they didn’t bury ’em.” Southern women saw to it that the Southern dead were reburied, but many of those who’d been hastily covered with earth during Confederate forays into the North were never found. As late as 1996, spring rains were still uncovering their bones near Gettysburg.

“The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny,” Faust, now the president of Harvard University, writes, “one designed to ensure that lives had been sacrificed for appropriately lofty ends.” Frederick Douglass thought freeing the slaves should have provided the “sacred significance” of all that loss. But, Faust continues, “the Dead became what their survivors chose to make them,” and as the decades passed and memories blurred, “assumptions of racial hierarchy would unite whites North and South in a century-long abandonment of the emancipationist legacy.” In the end most Americans of my great-great-grandfather’s generation — and their successors — allowed their shared memories of suffering to “establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite.” We might wish, with Frederick Douglass, that they had decided otherwise, but Drew Gilpin Faust’s profoundly moving book helps us understand why they did not.

Geoffrey C. Ward, the author of “The War: An Intimate History 1941-1945,” is at work on “A Disposition to Be Rich,” about a nefarious ancestor, the swindler Ferdinand Ward.
 



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