Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review--This Republic of Suffering

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York. 346 pages, 271 pages text. B/w photos, notes, index.

The Civil War was an event unprecedented in American history. Casualties on a scale never seen before or since affected life in every way. With approximately 620,000 deaths (2% of the population) Faust estimates this would equate to around six million deaths today. 1 in 5 Southern men of military age did not survive the war.

Faust puts forth that each generation approaches death in ways shaped by history, culture, and conditions that change based upon space and time. The focus of this book is not to compare these approaches but rather to try and explain how those living at the time were affected by these deaths and how they dealt with them.

Central to this work is "the good death" or Ars moriendi. As a way to lessen the mental burden soldiers tended to look at the war with a focus on dying rather than killing. Dying on a battlefield prevented soldiers from achieving all aims of a "good death". Being far from family and loved ones prevented both the dying and the family from observing the death and preparing for the meeting in the afterlife. In place of the family it was important for fellow soldiers to witness the death. This allowed the final words to be heard and for those left behind to understand that the dying was ready to meet his fate. These witnesses often promised to visit family or deliver written word proclaiming that the soldier had passes in a proper way. Obviously many were unable to have a "good death". Sudden death on a battlefield flew in the face of the tradition and left family wondering as to the eternal soul of the departed.

Killing was a difficult factor for many in the war. Often times fighting was in close confines or even face to face. To combat this soldiers would mentaly try to dehumanize the enemy and often times atrocities were committed against officers or blacks. With the magnitude of death the next aspect of the book becomes the burying of the dead. Both sides were unprepared for the numbers of dead and many men were buried on the spot often times in graves so shallow they were dug up by animals. Families were left to try and sort out the remains if they wished to bring their loved one home for a proper burial. Officers would often be accorded more respect. Many times officers bodies were gathered from the field of battle and shipped home or to more formal cemeteries which in some cases became national cemeteries. Embalming was rare on the battlefield and only available to those families able to afford it.

With the large number of dead and the violence of the war it was common for soldiers to be wounded beyond recognition. Many soldiers died without identification and were buried in large plots marked unknown. After battle casualty lists were put together but many times these lists contained inaccurate information. Those at home would not know for sure that they had lost a loved one without a body. Unfortunately many were in graves marked unknown. Mourning rituals were important at this time. Symbols of grief were common and expected. To not participate in such rituals was considered disrespectful. For those left behind they often dealt with the issue of the fate of the soul. Death was often redefined as the beginning of eternal life and there was the assumption of meeting again. For those who just couldn't wait spiritualism began to become more prominent promising to help the dead and living communicate.

After the war was over many still felt an obligation to the dead and attempts to bring the physical bodies of relatives home began in earnest. Helping to keep sectional differences going was the federal government spending $4 million to help find and bury Union soldiers while those with Confederate relatives were left to their own devices. This led to grass roots movements such as the Hollywood Memorial Association of the Ladies of Richmond. Groups such as these helped find, bring home, and properly bury Confederate soldier bodies. Closure could often only be had with the burial at home.

Faust has written an excellent book. The reader does not have to have a large knowledge of the time frame to understand her points. A basic knowledge of the Civil War is helpful but not required. The research is thorough and the book contains almost 50 pages of notes. Included is much research in library archives using primary sources. The book is illustrated with many b/w photos that help further the discussion. Overall a highly recommended book for anybody interested in the Civil War or death customs.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, it's quite a book. I learned some new things, such as that the Confeds buried officers and enlisted separately even in mass graves on the battlefield.