This Republic of Suffering - Book Review

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War By Drew Gilpin Faust

This article was originally published on and is republished here with their permission.

With the emergence of the new social history in the 1960s, historians had a compelling ability to situate particular subjects within broader frameworks of historical experiences. One of the unique sub-fields to come out of the new social history was the role of death in specific experiences of various cultures and societies. Philippe Ariés was one of the first historians to study death and its impact on the western world. David E. Stannard introduced American interactions with death in his 1977 book, The Puritan Way of Death. Ariés's book, along with several others, formulate fascinating narratives about the way death actively interacts with cultures, but there had never been a book-length publication about the role of death in the lives of Americans living during the deadliest war in American history, the Civil War.

Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, answered that call and catapulted the role of death onto Civil War scholarship in a way that altered the understanding of the war and its actors. Faust argues in This Republic of Suffering that the unimaginable death toll in the Civil War forced American society to contend with death in ways they had never dreamed of. Faust notes, “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…”(xi).

Drawing from an impressive list of primary and secondary sources, Faust demonstrates that the vast scale of death played a significant role in understanding the nature of the Civil War both during and after its conclusion. Soldier letters, newspapers, government legislation, memoirs, and sermons help to make her argument. Often telling the story of a particular experience in the war, Faust connects the more significant role of death with individual accounts, therefore making the historical narrative stronger and more approachable to scholars and non-academics alike.

Her narrative complicates traditional Civil War narratives that concern gender, race, and politics and instead focuses on the framework of social history around a story of death. Using secondary works by the field’s most esteemed scholars like Gary W. Gallagher, Eric Foner, and James M. McPherson, Faust raises questions and thought-provoking cultural analyses that benefit the field of Civil War history and open the door for further historical analysis.

Faust neatly organizes her argument by categorizing the different interactions with death whether it was through dying, killing, accounting, burying, naming, or numbering. In her opening chapter, Faust articulates the Victorian notion of a “Good Death” and how that ideal was violently interrupted in the Civil War. Using Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying (1651), Faust examines the way Americans understood death and how to properly die. In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans conceived of deaths as spiritual events where friends and family surrounded the dying who died peacefully at their residence.

The Civil War brutally stripped Americans of notions of a “Good Death” by taking away young men who were far from home. These war casualties usually did not die peacefully at home or without serious injury. Not only did death force Americans to resituate it within the contemporary wartime narrative psychologically, but it also forced them to contend with its massive death toll.

The physical landscape of the Civil War showed visible signs of death to an enormous degree in the form of unburied bodies, piles of amputated limbs, and the destruction of property evident after a battle. Faust notes that by the July 4 at the Battle of Gettysburg, there were an estimated 6 million pounds of human and animal carcasses strewn across the battlefield in the summer heat (69). The sheer magnitude of dead bodies forced soldiers and burial teams to abandon earlier conceptions of proper burials.

Often using trenches to dump bodies into, soldiers ignored earlier conceptions of proper burials and funerals, primarily because they had no choice. Armies invented burial techniques to make the unimaginable and horrifying task more bearable. Faust extends her study of soldier deaths to include not just the battlefield deaths, but also those who died from disease or starvation and civilian deaths. By adding these narratives, Faust further proves that death was an objective force that impacted people in various ways.

The death toll in the Civil War touched almost every single family, regardless of whether their loyalties lay north or south of the Mason-Dixon line. It is through this shared suffering that Faust sees the unifying element of such a horrific event. After the war Americans were eventually able to understand each other’s loss, which allowed for the shadow of death to cover some of the growing political, racial, and economic tensions of the Reconstruction Era. Death not only affected individuals’ notions of proper death, but it also impacted businesses, government, religion, and American culture.

In some ways, businesses benefitted from the extraordinary death tolls in the Civil War. Embalmers emerged on the battlefields to prepare bodies for proper burials and played an essential role in the funerary enterprise. Transportation companies offered their services to families willing to pay to have their family member’s body brought back home to be buried in a local cemetery. Other individuals charged families to find their missing loved ones and report back with descriptions of their last moments on earth and their place of burial. Coffins were shipped and sold to families in need of some physical barrier between their loved one and the hallowed ground upon which he or she was buried.

One of the most significant changes that surfaced during and after the Civil War was the expansion of the federal government. With the mounting death tolls, the government was forced to define its purposes for the war in a way that made the sacrifice of so many appear to be worthy of such a cause.

The governments of both the United States and the Confederate States took an active role in the care of their soldier dead. The government established national cemeteries as appropriate locations for the burial of the Union dead. In one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches, he honored the fallen soldiers and committed them forever in the hallowed ground of Gettysburg. In his “Gettysburg Address” Lincoln acknowledged a new public responsibility to the men who fought for the United States. They were no longer the dead of a particular family, but now they were the dead of a grateful nation of mourners (101).

After the war, the government authorized memorialization efforts for those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the preservation of the union by establishing veterans’ organizations, Decoration Days, and national holidays like Memorial Day. The government also partook in reburial campaigns to locate, properly inter, and effectively mark graves of dead soldiers. Faust argues that this kind of state reorganization reflected the immense pressure death put on governments and Americans trying to cope with so much loss after the war.

While Faust demonstrates the ways death forced Americans to reshape their society at various levels, she glosses over some of the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction. By taking a strictly social approach to death in the Civil War, Faust tends to ignore the political tensions that changed the government’s interaction with its soldier dead. To Faust, the Civil War’s ultimate contribution to society was through its reaction to death, not the political reformations that came out of it. While she mentions some of the politics of the war, like the emancipation of millions of slaves, Faust articulates these political undertakings as ultimately enacted because of the mounting death tolls. The inclusion of political arguments of nineteenth-century Americans would deepen some of her sub-arguments and therefore give a complete depiction of the role death played in reshaping American society.

Overall Faust’s book is groundbreaking in the way she uses primary sources to contend with the impact of death on an individual level and thought-provoking because of her ability to connect those individual interactions with larger national developments in regards to the soldier dead. By using personal stories from soldiers on both sides of the war and of all social classes, Faust paints a clear and concise picture of death’s capacity to change society at all levels. Her book would compliment any study of nineteenth-century American culture or articulations about the American Civil War and its lasting impact on national policy.

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