Despite recommendations from those in tune with my interests, I went out of my way to avoid reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin
As it turned out, This Republic of Suffering proved to be the perfect punctuation mark to my self-assigned intensive study of the Civil War during the sesquicentennial years. Over that time, I read some two dozen books on the conflict and its related themes, listened to countless hours of audio lectures in the car, watched film documentaries, visited battlefields – even digitized a rediscovered trove of Civil War correspondence and memoirs for a local museum, and spent a weekend seminar with legendary National Parks historian Ed Bearss that included tours of Antietam and Gettysburg. What could be missing?
As eminent historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust brilliantly reminds us in this consequential study, what we have carelessly overlooked are the main characters: the sea of dead on both sides that totaled somewhere around 620,000 – about two percent of the nation’s population at the time, and a number equal to all dead in all other American wars through the Korean War! And these deaths did not simply epitomize a national tragedy, but they each represented a series of widespread individual tragedies for grieving mothers, fathers, wives, children and other members of extended families who were themselves victims of the Civil War even if they spent the war years hundreds or thousands of miles from the scenes of carnage that manifested these dead relations. This was a tangible and painful reality for millions of Americans touched by the war from a distance, but one that somehow had become lost to history until Faust neatly resurrected it here. It has been estimated that there have been in excess of fifty thousand books written on the Civil War since 1861, so it is somewhat astonishing when one is published that brings an entirely new perspective to what has been such an exhaustive study, but such is Faust’s triumph with This Republic of Suffering.
When we look back on mid-nineteenth century America from our twenty-first century standpoint, we cannot help but observe the prevalence of death for our relatively recent ancestors, in the explosive rates of infant mortality, in the numbers of women who perished in childbirth, in the much shorter average lifespans for those who lived in a time before modern medicine. But the inhabitants of that time could not see into the future. These grim realities were typical for their world. What was not typical, however, was the sudden loss of hundreds of thousands of men, most in their prime of life, over a brief four-year period. Two-thirds of these casualties may have succumbed to disease rather than bullets, but dead was dead, and these dead represented a significant segment of an entire generation that would be conspicuous in their absence for many decades after Appomattox. Faust deftly explores how this impacted both individual families and the nation at large, and how the survivors coped with such massive losses in practical, emotional and spiritual terms. Until This Republic of Suffering, this critical chunk of American history has been largely forgotten.
In the antebellum era, most Americans died at home rather than in today’s more commonly antiseptic hospital setting. Faust notes that there was a strong notion of an ars moriendi, a “Good Death,” that saw the end of life as a righteous path to heaven. The dead were tended to by their families; there were religious services and there was burial. The war changed all that. As Faust reveals, in the days before dog tags and databases, huge numbers of victims of munitions or measles went unidentified, leaving question marks and a profound lack of closure for thousands upon thousands of families whose soldier boys never returned home. The task of seeking such closure was a significant priority after the war’s end, but so was the recovery of the remains, known and unknown, for proper reburial. For the victorious north, whose Union dead typically fell so far from home, this became both a private and a coordinated federal campaign. Embalming, then in its infancy, and sealed coffins capable of long distance shipment, all came into their own. So did the concept of great cemeteries to house the dead and memorialize them. And while charlatans who claimed to communicate with the other side preyed on many pitiful, grieving families, the more benign comforts of traditional religion and spirituality were also challenged and had to be refashioned for a different age that presided over losses of such magnitude in this cataclysmic war.
The Civil War still resonates to this day, which perhaps accounts for its ongoing fascination for us. Every great book about that war speaks to us for our own time, and this is true of This Republic of Suffering, as well, which contains a telling side note that seems to reinforce the notion that while the north won the war, it was indeed the south that won the peace. While I was reading this book, controversy was raging over the removal of Confederate monuments in southern cities. Those who sought to retain these often awkward shrines claimed that to remove them would be to dishonor Confederate dead. Yet ironically, as Faust reveals in her narrative, at least some of the north’s sense of urgency for recovering and relocating the bodies of the fallen was based upon the widespread reports of the deliberate defilement of Union remains in the states of the former Confederacy. Edmund B. Whitman, charged by the United States with heading up the effort to locate federals for reburial, noted that “he had witnessed the ‘total neglect’ or ‘wanton desecration’ of Union graves by a southern population whose ‘hatred of the dead’ seemed to exceed their earlier ‘abhorrence of the living.’” [p228]
This unpleasantness was to be set aside, along with much else, in the great reconciliation that marked the end of the nineteenth century, reestablishing legitimacy for the unfortunately “redeemed” south while trampling upon the rights of the formerly enslaved African-American population. In 1898, President McKinley made a speech heralding a new national policy to share in the care for Confederate graves. Frederick Douglass was gone by then, but had he overheard he likely would have chafed at the sentiment, an extension of honoring the dead of both sides which had gained currency some years before. “Death has no power to change moral qualities,” Douglass once lamented. “Whatever else I may forget,” he said, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” [p269]
I am very grateful that I read this work; my initial reluctance was well trumped by its quality content. While there are parts of this book that go on for too long, and certain details that perhaps clutter up the narrative which might better have been left to footnotes, the writing is generally crisp and compelling. Moreover, This Republic of Suffering stands as a remarkable achievement for Civil War scholarship, and Drew Gilpin Faust deserves high accolades for her efforts. I would pronounce this as nothing less than a must-read for students of the Civil War era and its aftermath.
Note: A link that explores Civil War casualties in some detail can be found here: