THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING: DEATH AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, by Drew Gilpin Faust, Knopf, 348 pages, $27.95
Historians have long asserted that the American Civil War was the bloodiest in our history, with at least 620,000 reported dead and numerous others wounded in both the Union and the Confederate fighting forces, as well as many victims of disease and infection.
It's also true that many of those who died could have been saved had the war occurred in the next century when medical science became more highly developed.
There were also large numbers of civilian deaths, many of them unaccounted for, people caught in the crossfire. The 263 illustrations included in this volume assist the reader in understanding the long-term importance of this book.
Drew Gilpin Faust, noted historian and recently named the president of Harvard University, is the first to treat the whole question of death in a book to analyze not only the ways people lost their lives but how these losses were mourned and commemorated. For instance, she writes much about the religious and cultural concept of "The Good Death" that stricken soldiers died with dignity and "at peace with God."
Faust quotes Frederick Law Olmsted in saying the war created "a republic of suffering" because of the physical and emotional losses left by the war. The questions that confront every generation, whether there is an afterlife; whether the body that is crushed or disfigured will be raised; and whether there is a restoration all of these were of major concern to both North and South.
Faust traces how differently bodies were buried, sometimes with coffins, sometimes not and how often bodies were left strewn on the battlefields. Faust carefully and tenderly considers the fears and distress felt by those whose sons or husbands died "in enemy territory."
The author concludes that the honor and respect we now accord to military deaths emanated from the steps people took in the late 19th century to honor their dead. She also includes condolence letters, funeral sermons, poems and stories from Civil War writers to indicate the sadness of these losses, and the ways the culture approached them.
Faust considers in-depth the decision that a soldier made to kill another soldier. One factor was the smaller size of the battlefields from the Civil War to World War II, meaning that "there was more individual responsibility for the decision to kill, into more intimate, face-to-face battle settings than perhaps any other war in history."
According to Faust, "dehumanizing the enemy" was a familiar means of "breaking down restraints against killing." Soldiers, in other words, became good at demeaning those they were expected to kill. Yet many of those who participated in the war became horrified at the numbers of deaths, "the carnage" of a man-made disaster.
After the Battle of Gettysburg, when some 22,000 wounded soldiers "remained alive but in desperate condition," residents complained of a "stench" and of the familiar failure of the victors to bury the dead. Many people also suffered "deep anxiety about premature burial," so they devised coffins with bells to allow soldiers still breathing to signal.
It caused many to consider "the sacredness of life." In fact, Faust's thorough but tender approach presents the Civil War not so much as a depressing event, but one in which the importance of life is affirmed. Reading Faust's account is often moving and uplifting as it emphasizes the importance of humanity in times of tragedy.It is to be hoped that Harvard's brilliant president will not become so grounded in the work of administration that she has no time to research and write any more history.