Joyce Lagow's Reviews > This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
by Drew Gilpin Faust
by Drew Gilpin Faust
Quiet is the word that comes to mind to describe the writing of Harvard s first female president on the uncommon subject of death. A quiet regard for the over 600,000 men who perished directly due to the unbelievable carnage of the American Civil War.[return][return]There are thousands upon thousands of books written about that war. I have nearly 100 on my shelves. Some are general histories of the conflict, many are written about specific battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam. All every single book talk about the staggering number of casualties. The numbers are not new to me.[return][return]But none of these books actually looks at what those deaths meant in terms of the fabric of American society at that time. That is Faust s unique achievement. She writes about it with profound scholarship, with insight and that quiet regard.[return][return]Her chapter headings are evocative. [return] Dying; To Lay Down My Life recounts the numbers as well as the concept of the Good Death, prevalent throughout American society. [return] Killing: The Harder Courage looks at what it meant, in a deeply religious society, to actually take the life of another human being by what were, in the end, millions of volunteers, not professional soldiers. [return] Burying: New Lessons Caring for the Dead talks about the sheer logistical effort of burying thousands of dead on both sides after a major battle. [return] Naming: The Significant Word UNKNOWN --the agony of those who were left behind in trying to find out what had happened to their husbands, brothers, sons, friends and the efforts made by private organizations as well as those relatives to find and identify the dead. [return] Realizing: Civilians and the Work of Mourning describes the stunned aura of denial and the terrible pain of loss. [return] Believing and Doubting: What Means This Carnage was the struggle to understand and maintain belief in a Divine Providence that could allow such mass slaughter. [return] Accounting; Our Obligations to the Dead talks about the massive Federal effort that went into establishing national cemeteries, locating the graves of Union soldiers and re-interring them into those cemeteries. Gettysburg was among the first and is the most famous but is only one of about 20 established to protect the dead from anonymity and the depredations of resentful and vengeful Southerners. [return] Numbering: How Many? How Many? examines the American obsession with statistics and the difficulty of establishing accurate casualty counts. And finally, [return] Epilogue: Surviving says it all for that chapter.[return][return]This is a slow-reading book, packed full of information, but more importantly, an assessment of the attitudes and jarring changes forced on American society in the wake of the mass murder in the War of the Rebellion. An interesting sidelight: in the last chapters, Faust touches on the sullenness and vengefulness of Southerners as they took out these sentiments on the Union dead. They weren t all Lees.[return][return]It has been said by Shelby Foote and others that there were two countries: the US before the Civil War and the US after it. That is meant in a political sense. But as Faust shows in this magnificent work, that was true socially as well, as the surviving population tried to come to terms with just what all those deaths meant.[return][return]To make her point, she quotes liberally from newspapers, diaries, official records and the works of people like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr who was a Union officer, Ambrose Bierce who also served in the Union Army, Emily Dickinson and others who wrote so poignantly about the suffering.[return][return]Shelby Foote repeatedly said that to understand the US as it is today, you must understand the Civil War. Faust, from the somber viewpoint of the unimaginable numbers of dead, shows how the war shattered whole sections of the fabric of American society and the efforts made by ordinary citizens, the survivors, to try to make some meaning of that destruction. The results of their efforts were instrumental in shaping the US into the nation that it is today.[return][return]I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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