Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering is not only an examination of how death occurred during the Civil War. More broadly (and importantly), it is a fascinating look at the ways in which the Civil War fundamentally changed Americans’ relationship to death and its meaning. Faust structures her book in such a way that her major argument, which she states most succinctly as the fact that “death created the modern American union – not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments,” (6) is clearly proven in each chapter. Rather than moving chronologically or jumping between case studies, she focuses each chapter on a specific aspect of death. This allows her to demonstrate the ways in which each of those specific aspects transformed the nation.
Each of these chapters is quite strong, but the most impressive and unique spin on the traditional Civil War narrative is chapter 6: “Believing and Doubting.” The majority of the chapter focuses on the ways in which the carnage of the war inspired both renewed religious faith and questions regarding its validity. While interesting, this is not particularly revolutionary, as Faust notes that “religion remained the most readily available explanatory resource, even as it was challenged by rapid cultural and intellectual change.” (174) So although the traditions of religion came into question, Fust seems to conclude little really changed in this regard. What is far more interesting, and what I believe to be the most innovative part of the book, is the end of the chapter’s focus on irony as a response to the war, and the more wide-reaching implication of doubt not only in regards to religion, but “a more profound doubt about human ability to know and to understand.” (210)
I see this discussion as important because in studying the Great War, it is so often pointed to by European historians as the first “modern” war, the first war to blur the lines between home front and front lines, the first war to cause mass disillusion. Faust does not overtly challenge these ideas as the bulk of the book progresses, but here in chapter 6 she draws a distinct parallel between the study of the Civil War and the World Wars, specifically quoting Paul Fussell’s work on the First World War (194), she seems to make the suggestion that the Civil War also encountered these “new” developments over fifty years prior. Perhaps due to this interest, I was excited to see that sbremer also took note of the WWI connections, looking at Faust’s methodological similarities to Jay Winter’s. I completely agree with sbremer’s assertion that Winter’s work on mourning and memorials as forms of memory work as a sort of continuation of Faust’s work. I see this (especially given her specific reference to Winter) as perhaps subtle acknowledgement of the importance of the American Civil War in terms of world history. It is interesting to see the similarities between disillusionment and reactions to death in Civil War and Great War scholarship.