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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the…

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Vintage… (2008)

by Drew Gilpin Faust

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Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
An extremely grim, if absorbing, book. Faust takes a look at how both sides in the American Civil War treated the issue of their dead; he focuses mostly, though not exclusively, on the dead soldiers. The book marches through a logical progression, to wit: Dying, Killing, Burying, Naming, Realizing, Believing and Doubting, Accounting, and Numbering. One of the strongest things I got out of the book is how the war changed the way the United States dealt with its war dead; granted, the other wars previous to this (and subsequent to it) did not have the ferocious levels of dead that the Civil War did, it still strikes one that it was not just societal changes that made the treatment of the dead different. Technology, both in the killing and the recovery of the dead, had changed much. (After all, the railroads could send the boys to war, and bring their remains back.) The selection of illustrations is well-chosen. For the most part, Faust avoids trendy buzzwords in historiography (though gender stuff crops up a few times). Another thing, while I think of it, that crops up is how well Walt Whitman comes off in the book. The level of care he gave to wounded and dying soldiers says much about the man's basic decency; and of course, it enriched his own understanding and writing. A number of other reviews comment on how grim the book is. Undeniable, given the subject matter. If you can stick it, though, it's a good read. Recommended. ( )
  EricCostello | Dec 21, 2018 |
This book is almost impossible to rate. I will begin by saying it is the least favorite book I have ever read. That is not to say it was bad. It is very well written, exhaustive in its coverage of the topic of death in the Civil War, and deserving of the accolades it received when it was first published. However, for me, the subject matter was incredibly depressing. And its negative tone was relentless. I am sure in academic circles this book is essential reading. Also, as a history teacher, I know will use the idea of the individual death this book focues on in my classes. To summarize, I could never recommend this book to read to anyone not in a graduate program dealing with the Civil War. ( )
  msaucier818 | Apr 9, 2018 |
One might say "another book about the Civil War, why?" but this is a remarkable effort. Gilpin looks at death in mid19th Century America with the focus on the Civil War and how the country handled the 600,000 plus deaths that came about because of the war. She organized the volume in chapters that focused on the idea of dying, the rules of burial, how to mark graves when you do not know the name of the soldier you are burying, the impact of all these deaths on the civilian population, what did the country owe to all these dead men in terms of recognition of where their final resting place was and the cost to the country and its people by the loss of all these men.

I approached this volume anticipating reading a scholarly tome but while she conducted great amounts of research and the notes and bibliography are immense, this turned out to be a page turner for me. Gilpin fills the pages with anecdotes from diaries, newspapers and memoires to illustrate her points. ( )
  lamour | May 25, 2017 |
the book exams how both the north and the south deal with the huge number of dead in the civil war. in a word not very well! the number was overwhelming for each side. what interested me that before the war there was the concept of the good death. most people died at home surrounded by family and friends. the good death was when all would feel a sense of peace, that the person that died had lived a good life. that he or she was a important member of the family and the community. death was going to god's community. the civil war changed that. the solider died many miles from their home. they were not surrounded by family or community. often no knew they had been killed. perhaps if lucky members of their unit offer some comfort but it was not uncommon no one knew. the war changed how our nation viewed death. it became dark, lonely, and frightening. ( )
  michaelbartley | Apr 24, 2016 |
Despite recommendations from those in tune with my interests, I went out of my way to avoid reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust. Not only did the topic strike me as too gloomy and depressing, but I questioned the value of a book-length treatment of it. Then fate intervened and a copy came to me from an anonymous yet perspicacious “Secret Santa” via the annual holiday “Santathing” event sponsored by LibraryThing, the splendid online community especially fashioned for book nerds like me. Now I felt obligated.
As it turned out, This Republic of Suffering proved to be the perfect punctuation mark to my self-assigned intensive study of the Civil War during the sesquicentennial years. Over that time, I read some two dozen books on the conflict and its related themes, listened to countless hours of audio lectures in the car, watched film documentaries, visited battlefields – even digitized a rediscovered trove of Civil War correspondence and memoirs for a local museum, and spent a weekend seminar with legendary National Parks historian Ed Bearss that included tours of Antietam and Gettysburg. What could be missing?
As eminent historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust brilliantly reminds us in this consequential study, what we have carelessly overlooked are the main characters: the sea of dead on both sides that totaled somewhere around 620,000 – about two percent of the nation’s population at the time, and a number equal to all dead in all other American wars through the Korean War! And these deaths did not simply epitomize a national tragedy, but they each represented a series of widespread individual tragedies for grieving mothers, fathers, wives, children and other members of extended families who were themselves victims of the Civil War even if they spent the war years hundreds or thousands of miles from the scenes of carnage that manifested these dead relations. This was a tangible and painful reality for millions of Americans touched by the war from a distance, but one that somehow had become lost to history until Faust neatly resurrected it here. It has been estimated that there have been in excess of fifty thousand books written on the Civil War since 1861, so it is somewhat astonishing when one is published that brings an entirely new perspective to what has been such an exhaustive study, but such is Faust’s triumph with This Republic of Suffering.
When we look back on mid-nineteenth century America from our twenty-first century standpoint, we cannot help but observe the prevalence of death for our relatively recent ancestors, in the explosive rates of infant mortality, in the numbers of women who perished in childbirth, in the much shorter average lifespans for those who lived in a time before modern medicine. But the inhabitants of that time could not see into the future. These grim realities were typical for their world. What was not typical, however, was the sudden loss of hundreds of thousands of men, most in their prime of life, over a brief four-year period. Two-thirds of these casualties may have succumbed to disease rather than bullets, but dead was dead, and these dead represented a significant segment of an entire generation that would be conspicuous in their absence for many decades after Appomattox. Faust deftly explores how this impacted both individual families and the nation at large, and how the survivors coped with such massive losses in practical, emotional and spiritual terms. Until This Republic of Suffering, this critical chunk of American history has been largely forgotten.
In the antebellum era, most Americans died at home rather than in today’s more commonly antiseptic hospital setting. Faust notes that there was a strong notion of an ars moriendi, a “Good Death,” that saw the end of life as a righteous path to heaven. The dead were tended to by their families; there were religious services and there was burial. The war changed all that. As Faust reveals, in the days before dog tags and databases, huge numbers of victims of munitions or measles went unidentified, leaving questions marks and a profound lack of closure for thousands upon thousands of families whose soldier boys never returned home. The task of seeking such closure was a significant priority after the war’s end, but so was the recovery of the remains, known and unknown, for proper reburial. For the victorious north, whose Union dead typically fell so far from home, this became both a private and a coordinated federal campaign. Embalming, then in its infancy, and sealed coffins capable of long distance shipment, all came into their own. So did the concept of great cemeteries to house the dead and memorialize them. And while charlatans who claimed to communicate with the other side preyed on many pitiful, grieving families, the more benign comforts of traditional religion and spirituality were also challenged and had to be refashioned for a different age that presided over losses of such magnitude in this cataclysmic war.
The Civil War still resonates to this day, which perhaps accounts for its ongoing fascination for us. Every great book about that war speaks to us for our own time, and this is true of This Republic of Suffering, as well, which contains a telling side note that seems to reinforce the notion that while the north won the war, it was indeed the south that won the peace. While I was reading this book, controversy was raging over the removal of Confederate monuments in southern cities. Those who sought to retain these often awkward shrines claimed that to remove them would be to dishonor Confederate dead. Yet ironically, as Faust reveals in her narrative, at least some of the north’s sense of urgency for recovering and relocating the bodies of the fallen was based upon the widespread reports of the deliberate defilement of Union remains in the states of the former Confederacy. Edmund B. Whitman, charged by the United States with heading up the effort to locate federals for reburial, noted that “he had witnessed the ‘total neglect’ or ‘wanton desecration’ of Union graves by a southern population whose ‘hatred of the dead’ seemed to exceed their earlier ‘abhorrence of the living.’” [p228]
This unpleasantness was to be set aside, along with much else, in the great reconciliation that marked the end of the nineteenth century, reestablishing legitimacy for the unfortunately “redeemed” south while trampling upon the rights of the formerly enslaved African-American population. In 1898, President McKinley made a speech heralding a new national policy to share in the care for Confederate graves. Frederick Douglass was gone by then, but had he overheard he likely would have chafed at the sentiment, an extension of honoring the dead of both sides which had gained currency some years before. “Death has no power to change moral qualities,” Douglass once lamented. “Whatever else I may forget,” he said, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” [p269]
I am very grateful that I read this work; my initial reluctance was well trumped by its quality content. While there are parts of this book that go on for too long, and certain details that perhaps clutter up the narrative which might better have been left to footnotes, the writing is generally crisp and compelling. Moreover, This Republic of Suffering stands as a remarkable achievement for Civil War scholarship, and Drew Gilpin Faust deserves high accolades for her efforts. I would pronounce this as nothing less than a must-read for students of the Civil War era and its aftermath.

[Note: A great web link sponsored by the Civil War Trust that explores Civil War casualties in some detail can be found here: http://www.civilwar.org/education/civil-war-casualties.html ]

My review of: "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War," by Drew Gilpin Faust, on my book blog http://wp.me/p5Hb6f-62 ( )
  Garp83 | Jan 31, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Faust, Drew Gilpinprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Booher, JasonCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
O'Sullivan, Timothy H.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raver, LornaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Captain, U.S. Army
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6th Armored Division

Wounded August 6, 1944
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 037540404X, Hardcover)

An illuminating study of the American struggle to comprehend the meaning and practicalities of death in the face of the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War.

During the war, approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. An equivalent proportion of today’s population would be six million. This Republic of Suffering explores the impact of this enormous death toll from every angle: material, political, intellectual, and spiritual. The eminent historian Drew Gilpin Faust delineates the ways death changed not only individual lives but the life of the nation and its understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. She describes how survivors mourned and how a deeply religious culture struggled to reconcile the slaughter with its belief in a benevolent God, pondered who should die and under what circumstances, and reconceived its understanding of life after death.

Faust details the logistical challenges involved when thousands were left dead, many with their identities unknown, on the fields of places like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. She chronicles the efforts to identify, reclaim, preserve, and bury battlefield dead, the resulting rise of undertaking as a profession, the first widespread use of embalming, the gradual emergence of military graves registration procedures, the development of a federal system of national cemeteries for Union dead, and the creation of private cemeteries in the South that contributed to the cult of the Lost Cause. She shows, too, how the war victimized civilians through violence that extended beyond battlefields—from disease, displacement, hardships, shortages, emotional wounds, and conflicts connected to the disintegration of slavery.

Throughout, the voices of soldiers and their families, of statesmen, generals, preachers, poets, surgeons, and nurses, of northerners and southerners, slaveholders and freedpeople, of the most exalted and the most humble are brought together to give us a vivid understanding of the Civil War’s most fundamental and widely shared reality.

Were he alive today, This Republic of Suffering would compel Walt Whitman to abandon his certainty that the “real war will never get in the books.”

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:39 -0400)

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An illuminating study of the American struggle to comprehend the meaning and practicalities of death in the face of the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War. During the war, approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. An equivalent proportion of today's population would be six million. This book explores the impact of this enormous death toll from every angle: material, political, intellectual, and spiritual. Historian Faust delineates the ways death changed not only individual lives but the life of the nation and its understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. She describes how survivors mourned and how a deeply religious culture struggled to reconcile the slaughter with its belief in a benevolent God, and reconceived its understanding of life after death.--From publisher description.

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