This Republic of Suffering

The American Civil War has been covered by historians across the board, from military historians, to economic and political analysts, to fiction and non-fiction writers and many others. However, Dr. Faust found a niche that not many persons nor historians have focused on, that of Death, and how Death during the Civil War fundamentally changed the United States, North and South. Republic of Suffering is a superb example of how to write an historical narrative and not follow the same-o bland narrative of “this battle or that battle” or “this general did this and this general did that.” Instead, Republic stands as an island of uniqueness in a sea of normality. Dr. Faust organized her book into chapters that drew on a person’s sense of understanding, compassion and sadness, with such chapter titles as Dying, Killing, Burying, Naming, Realizing, Believing and Doubting, Accounting and Numbering, all of which seemed to flow in good sequential order. Dr. Faust pulls on emotions as she begins to unfold her story and Death becomes the primary factor in the lives of soldiers, civilians and families. Although Republic is an outstanding literary work, it is missing information on the medical field, i.e., doctors, nursing, hospitals, medical knowledge and medical advances. Dr. Faust only briefly mentions these topics in her work, but in my opinion they go hand-and-hand with Death.

Dr. Faust’s book, Republic of Suffering, is almost a perfect book. I mean, it won the Bancroft prize and was a Pulitzer finalist; not many writers can say that. If anything, I would say Republic is only lacking in a few areas: 1) the medical field, and 2) the Western theater of war. Let me take #2 first, Dr. Faust does mention the Western theater but only in passing. She cites soldiers under Grant and other generals who fought in the West, and Death statistics from those campaigns, but those statistics are most of the time combined with the Eastern theater to give a complete picture. There is nothing wrong with combining statistics, but a chapter or a few paragraphs about Death in the West would have been appreciated. As for #1, there is an unofficial thought or perception among undergrads and those who are not history majors, I was one of these before I began my higher learning, that the medical knowledge of the era was antiquated, outdated, unsophisticated, and backwards. In one sense it was for modern germ theory had not yet been discovered; it was “officially” discovered and accepted in the 1890s. Yet, doctors at the time were treating the wounded and dying with the best medical knowledge available, be it under inhospitable conditions and without the proper supplies or help most of the time. Republic, despite its two faults, is a must buy for Civil War and/or military historians. Dr. Faust wrote such a fantastic book that any study on Death pertaining to the Civil War should cite her book. As I was reading Republic, I could not but be amazed at the number of sources, citations and quotes Dr. Faust incorporated into her book; every paragraph contained at least ten or more examples of these primary sources. She interwove these “sources” perfectly into her narrative. Her chapter notes in the back of the book contained page after page of prime examples to further her thesis and connect a twenty-first century reader to the lives of those who witnessed the carnage and Death of the American Civil War first hand. Dr. Faust did not waste her sources and use them as filler for a lackluster book; instead, she handpicked every source to further the chapter arch and paragraphs under discussion.

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