Thursday, March 6, 2008

Faust: "This Republic of Suffering"

[This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (Knopf, 2008). Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes. Pages: 368 ISBN: 978-0375404047 $27.95]

I would venture to guess that many local papers that rarely devote space to Civil War books have carried a review of Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering. A trip across death's landscape can hardly be called enjoyable, but if we may redefine its fringes to include a soberly inquisitive appreciation of the Civil War's uniquely grim (for Americans anyway) scale of death, then Faust's study fits the bill. The book is well organized, with the various themes surrounding death -- dying, killing, burying, identifying, mourning, believing, doubting, and accounting -- all brought together to form a cohesive narrative. The "Good Death" concept is a pervasive theme in This Republic of Suffering. Expiring in such a manner involved many elements -- a serene acceptance of death. with last words reaffirming a lifetime of faith in God and love of family. Even the condition of the body post-mortem (to include a "peaceful countenance") was a comforting confirmation of a Good Death.

Behavioral science concludes that significant social pressures must be brought to bear before man's innate reluctance to kill can be overcome. Faust briefly discusses how Civil War combatants coped with the dissolution of this barrier. With the Union army's addition of burgeoning numbers of black troops to its armies operating in the South, she notes the particular weakening of restraint along racial lines1. The scale of civilian deaths, violent or otherwise, goes largely unexamined, but the author correctly notes the absence of systematic studies on the subject.

The overwhelming task of burying the massive numbers of battle dead and attempts to ensure later identification for re-interment are detailed. Providing a "decent burial" for the dead of one's own side was a constant struggle; one that most often left little time, resources, energy, or desire for similar efforts to be directed at enemy remains. Faust ably traces the process of identifying and burying the dead, from a task with negligible resources and foresight devoted to it, to a later one of massive government expenditures and dedicated civilian and governmental oversight. While private burial and identification efforts are duly recounted, one of Faust's more intriguing (and oft repeated) contentions is that the scale of death marked a historical turning point in the degree in which the general government was obligated to its citizens on an individual level. The colossal departmental apparatus assembled by the war was put to work identifying the Federal dead and re-interring them in national cemeteries. The author credits this program, along with the massive pension system, with a significant role in transforming the U.S. government into a modern, paternalistic bureaucracy.

For me, the most engrossing section of This Republic of Suffering was Faust's examination of how the scale of carnage affected the belief systems [e.g. religious convictions and faith] of the dying and the survivors. The targeted analysis of contemporary literature -- from the wit of Mark Twain and bitter irony of Ambrose Bierce to the poetry of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson -- will resonate with many readers2. Faust's idea that the traumatic scale of killing meant that the description and meaning of the war's carnage could no longer be expressed through traditional narrative is memorably developed, if perhaps too broadly stated.

While reasonable observers may differ with some of Faust's generalizing conclusions about the degree of transformation wrought by the Civil War's death toll in terms of American culture and government, her arguments are worthy of considered thought. Not an exhaustive treatise, Faust's study should be evaluated/appreciated for what it is -- an artfully written popular history selectively conveyed through the eyes of mostly recognizable figures. In a field awash with such works, This Republic of Suffering tackles a particularly difficult subject in a manner far more engaging than most, and often rings true.

Add'l Comments:
1 - The idea that the broader commonality of the cultures of the North and South bred a more restrained attitude toward killing fellow whites is largely true, but is a bit overgeneralized in Faust's study. Many significant departures existed. A particularly grim example would be the northern dehumanization of white, pro-slavery Missourians as "pukes" [a troubling viewpoint stemming largely from the Kansas border troubles and vividly characterized by Michael Fellman in his classic study
Inside War].
2 - The snapshot assessments of Bierce and Melville are fine, but it's clear that Faust has a special regard for the poetry of Ms. Dickinson. Can't say I blame her.

1 comment:

  1. I just picked this one up from the Military Book Club. It was apparently an editor's choice both there and at its sister club, History Book Club. Thanks for the review Drew. I look forward to reading it.


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