Book Review: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

About 625,000 people, probably more, died as a direct result of the American Civil war from 1861-65.  Death is such an overpowering element of the Civil War that one could write a whole book just about it. This Republic of Suffering (2008) is that book, written by Drew Gilpin Faust, noted historian and now President of Harvard University.

Chapter by chapter explores an aspect of death, beginning with dying.  Religious and moral ideals of the time thought of The Good Death, but death in the war from disease and battle was rarely good.  It was even harder for many soldiers to kill based on the same religious and moral beliefs although the concepts of revenge and mission led to a greater willingness to kill as the war raged on.  Disposing of the dead became a real problem as it was difficult to properly inter the bodies of those killed among battle and troop movements.  Mass burials though loathsome became common, although there also was an uptick in the mortuary arts for preserving bodies and shipping them to surviving family members.

The survivors mourned in many ways both public and private. Many turned to faith for solace or turned away from belief in horror.  The great number of dead lead to new government practices accounting for the dead, locating and identifying bodies, and creating national cemeteries.  The numbering of the dead continued after the war growing into a large bureaucracy.  The accumulated records — the “literal weight of history” as Faust describes it — led to a collapse of two floors in Ford’s Theatre in 1893 killing 22 employees (p. 256).

This is a chilling, yet beautiful historical account of the Civil War from a unique perspective, and very thorough.  It’s definitely a recommend read for anyone interested in the American Civil War, especially those who still believe in the glory of war.

Favorite Passages

Focusing on dying rather than killing enabled soldiers to mitigate their terrible responsibility for the slaughter of others.  As men saw themselves mirrored in the faces of those expiring around them, they struggled to come to terms with the possibility and the significance of their own annihilation.  Dying assumed clear preeminence over killing in the soldier’s construction of his emotional and moral universe.  – p.6

The establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries created the Civil War Dead as a category, as a collective that represented something more and something different from the many thousands of individual deaths that it comprised.  It also separated the Dead from the memories of living individuals mourning their own very particular losses.  The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come.  The reburial movement created a constituency of the slain, insistent in both it existence and its silence, men whose very absence from American life made them a presence that could not be ignored. – p. 249

Faust, Drew Gilpin.
This republic of suffering : death and the American Civil War / Drew Gilpin Faust.
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
346 p. : ill. ; 25 cm

Book Review: The Declaration of Independence: A Global History by David Armitage

The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007) by David Armitage takes a different approach to studying the Declaration of Independence of the United States by showing how it’s been received around the world and how it’s affected history and politics globally since it’s publication.  Even Americans need a review of what exactly the Declaration of Independence is, and Armitage sums it up in three parts: 1) a statement of the world of independency of the American states, 2) a summary of the offenses by the King of Great Britain that lead to this break, and 3) a statement of political philosopy on the rights of human beings.

Modern Americans remember the Declaration for the latter, but is the first two parts that were important at the time.  Governments around the world had to decide whether to recognize the United States and for many declaring independence was not enough, but force of arms prevailed on opinions.  Others attacked the notions of the rights of men in the Declaration, most notably Jeremy Bentham whose interesting questions regarding how something can’t be self-evident just because one says so is included in a complete republication in the book’s appendix.

The Declaration would also influence the independency of future nations with a declaration of independence an important part in their creation whether the country was born in revolution or peacefully ceded.  These often cribbed words and structure straight from the US Declaration, most strikingly in the 1945 Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam written by Ho Chi Minh.  Other declarations are different in their goals.  Armitage makes the comparison of how the US Declaration speaks of continued friendship with British bretheren, while the Haitian Declaration makes a point of stating eternal hatred to the French.  Perhaps that’s the effect of really being enslaved instead of using slavery as a political analogy.

Armitage has written an interesting book from an unique perspective.  It’s a quick read even if at times it appears to be a doctoral thesis or maybe a long research paper.  The appendix includes a number of worldwide Declarations of Independence in their full-text from 1776 to the present day.

Armitage, David, 1965-
The declaration of independence : a global history / David Armitage.
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2007.
vi, 300 p. ; 19 cm