In her attempt to examine the history of a mostly ignored aspect of the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War takes a look at the history of death, dying, and suffering on a massive scale and how American society in both the North and South dealt with such a loss. Although my knowledge of the American Civil War tends to be limited to what has been often told in popular American history, I did find Faust’s attempt at bringing a new perspective to previous Civil War scholarship through the idea of “empathy” refreshing. Early on in the book, Faust noted that a majority of the deaths and fatalities were either caused by combat but “disease proved a far more deadly killer than combat… [for] twice as many soldiers died of disease as from battle wounds” (p. 48). Throughout the book, Faust’s main argument revolved around the idea that the war produced untold suffering yet it also helped transform American society, culture, politics and its institutions in the nineteenth century. Not only did the war dramatically alter the way Americans previously thought about death but it also changed their perceptions on the subject matter of religious faith during wartime.
By exploring the topic of religion and war and its significance on the soldiers who willingly risked their lives just so that they could die in God’s good grace, Faust claimed that the war undeniably challenged the foundations of American faith and religious devotion. Drawing on a huge range of primary sources from Ambrose Bierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., to Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, Faust made great use of the documents, letters, and diaries scattered throughout her book while relying heavily on the writings of others as well. Like sbremer and Taylor, I was also reminded of Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning as well as Susan R. Grayzel’s Women’s Identities at War when Faust focused on the topic of mourning and how women essentially coped with the deaths of their loved ones after the war. While Winter’s and Grayzel’s books both took place during the First World War, they similarly addressed the strict regulations of mourning dresses for women and how society ultimately dealt with mass death through the use of public spaces and war memorials.
As for what I liked most about this book, I found that although nothing Faust talked about in her book was particularly new, innovative, or insightful—especially when it came to the killing of others on a national scale and the consequences of it in the aftermath of the war, she did an incredible job detailing the struggles of Americans as they reacted to the systemized slaughtering of others while maintaining a strict and long-cherished belief in their faith. Her use of letters, poems, photographs, and memories of soldiers and their families made for a heartfelt read. Despite its repetitiveness, This Republic of Suffering should still be considered a powerful, well-researched, and well-written book that covers much more than just the Civil War but on the true meaning of war and human life.