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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Americans of the present day, who are generally appalled when battlefield deaths reach even double-digit proportions, have almost no real comprehension of the tremendous loss of life suffered during the American Civil War. Because it all happened almost 150 years ago, it is easy for most to simply gloss over even a number as large as the 620,000 total deaths usually attributed to that war. That kind of number just does not have an impact on most of us because we find it difficult to put it into its proper perspective. Readers of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will never make that mistake again.

Those who lived through the bloody days of 1861-1865 were almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of their losses. In addition to the estimated 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives during that four-year span, approximately 50,000 civilians died as well. All told, the United States lost about 2 percent of its population in less than half a decade of civil war, the equivalent of a 6,000,000 person loss if today’s population were to suffer a similar rate of attrition. There was hardly a family in the country not impacted by the horrors of this war so it is little wonder that the country struggled to understand what was happening to it.

Faust details what it was like for small towns near the fighting when the townspeople could suddenly find the dead bodies scattered on adjacent fields to outnumber the townspeople themselves. She explains what it was like for the several hundred thousand families whose fathers and sons became part of the vast number of “unknowns” buried in unmarked or mass graves, lost to them forever. Equally importantly, Faust places human faces on those who struggled not only to cope personally with so much death but to create the very procedures modern Americans expect their government to use today in order to fully account for every soldier who has paid the ultimate price in service to this country. One cannot read this book without coming away with a new respect for the Civil War generation.

The best coping mechanism available to nineteenth century Americans was the concept of the Good Death. Parents and spouses were greatly comforted if able to determine that their loved ones had died a Good Death, one in which they were able to express an awareness and acceptance of their fate, a belief in God, and some message for those who were unable to be at their side when they died. Soldiers and hospital workers did their best to inform families back home that this was the case for those lost in the war but almost 50 percent of those who died were never identified, leaving families wondering for years.

Faust points out an interesting side effect of the widespread acceptance of the Good Death concept. In her estimation, although the religious concept of a Good Death offered comfort to mourners and helped prepare soldiers for the likelihood of their own deaths, the concept was also one of the things that “enabled the slaughter” in the first place. Soldiers, confident in their individual mortality, were more willing to face death both as a fulfillment of their duty and as a potential relief from the tortures they were enduring on a daily basis.

In the years following the war, the United States government, in response to the feelings of its citizens, formalized many of the procedures to handle soldiers lost at war that are still in place today. A system of national cemeteries was established and the government spent slightly over $4 million by 1871 to locate and rebury every Union soldier who had been lost in the South. Formal procedures were established in the military to account for every soldier lost on the field of battle and to notify next-of-kin in a timely manner. Military pensions and disability payments became the accepted way for the government to reward soldiers for their service. That none of this was in place before the Civil War illustrates just how unprepared the country was for a war of the magnitude of the one it faced in April 1861.

Of course, the new procedures were solely for the benefit of Union soldiers. Confederate bones were often left in the field to rot even after the bodies of Union soldiers had been recovered, ensuring that southerners would have to bury and honor their own dead through the use of private funds (most often raised by southern women), ensuring the animosity of the South for decades after the war. The contempt shown by the Federal government for the soldiers of the South reinforced the hostility still present there and contributed to the sectionalism problems that persisted into the twentieth century.

This Republic of Suffering is more than a book for historians and Civil War buffs. This is a book with lessons for a country that even today finds itself in another long and challenging war.

Rated at: 5.0

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