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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.