2 December 2014
Review of This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2008, xiv + 271 pp.)
Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War tackles a subject that is not widely written about: the ways of death of the American Civil War generation. She demonstrates how the unprecedented carnage, both military and civilian, caused by the Civil War forever changed American assumptions of death and dying, and how the nation and its people struggled to come to terms with death on an unimaginable scale. The war created a veritable “republic of suffering” and Faust vividly portrays the United States’ ordeal, transformation, and new ways of dealing with the onslaught of death with her chapter titles of “Dying,” “Killing,” “Burying,” “Naming,” “Realizing,” “Believing and Doubting,” “Accounting,” “Numbering,” and “Surviving.”
During the Civil War the death is almost incomprehensible today. Between the years 1861 and 1865, the number of soldier fatalities is approximately equal the total American fatalities in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. Faust first reports death in the role of the soldiers experiencing the “business end” of war. “The soldier needed to be both ready and willing to die; turning to culture, codes of masculinity, patriotism, and religion to fortify himself for that possibility of death” (5). War challenged means and practices that were not to be quickly undertaken, and since many soldiers were killed suddenly in the intense action of battle, their comrades made efforts to write condolence letters to the deceased’s loved ones. Many of these letters were sought to make absent loved ones “virtual witnesses to the dying moments they had been denied.” Faust also gives us valuable insight into the human psyche in the process of killing.