Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
Publisher: In print: Alfred A. Knopf, division of Random House, Inc./ Audio: Blackstone Audio
Narrator: Lorna Raver
346 pages / 10 hours, 55 minutes
Checked out from the library

With its cloud of skirmishers in advance,
With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip, and now an irregular volley,
The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on,
Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun- the dust-cover'd men,
In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground,
With artillery interspers'd the wheels rumble, the horses sweat,
As the army corps advances.

An Army Corps on the March
Walt Whitman
We are currently in the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (1861-1865), so reading This Republic of Suffering right now is a timely read. I had read her Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War in grad school, which was well written and very informative. So when I noticed the CROAH group on Shelfari had read this, I put it on my tbr. I am also fascinated by the culture of death- mourning traditions, mourning jewelry, cemetery art, etc. So yes, the word death caught my attention.

It is estimated that at least 620,000 soldiers died from battle or disease during the Civil War, which "is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, The Spanish American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined" (p.xi). These numbers are staggering, and for a time when people were more used to death than we are today, they weren't ready for this.

Gilpin Faust discusses the notion of dying well, and how soldiers had to justify trying to kill others, even though it was against their beliefs. But then she goes into some subjects that were a bit surprising to me. Today, soldiers killed in combat or on the job, their remains are returned home to their families, and there are numerous National Cemeteries for them to be buried in. But many of these practices grew out of the Civil War. There was no formal method of identifying soldiers, no formal system for burying the fallen, or transporting them back to their families.

Gilpin Faust does a good job presenting the similarities and contrasts to the ordeals of those from the North and those from the South. There are lots of primary source materials, and a great deal of information in the end notes as well. There are a great deal of images in this rather short history book, but some people will likely find some of the photographs disturbing. This was the rise of photography, and people like Mathew Brady served as early photo-journalists, photographing camps, battlefields shortly after battles ended, or even sometime afterwards. So there are photographs of the dead- some lying where they fell, some along the process of burial, and one being embalmed before being sent to his family. These photographs, while squeamish, are necessary to demonstrate the various points she makes throughout the book.

A well written and documented book, I found it fascinating. If you would like to read up on a not often discussed social issues coming out of the Civil War, I highly recommend this book. This fall, the PBS program American Experience aired an episode entitled "Death and the Civil War", which is based on this book, which I would also recommend.

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