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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
I was surprisingly captivated by this somber book about death and loss during the Civil War. Faust brilliantly captured death as a multidimensional construct during the later part of the nineteenth century, prevalent across the country, as literally everyone mourned or was affected by death in some way, shape or form. In the preface, she stated that “death’s threat, its proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared for the war’s experiences” (xiii). As 20perez16 mentions, one needs to understand the “shared suffering” just as much as the individual suffering that was going on. Despite the regional and racial differences driving the conflict, death was common ground in which the North and South could reunite at the conclusion of the war (xiii). Throughout the book, Faust utilized many sources, most coming from the words of the soldiers experiencing death directly or the loved ones who were challenged with coping and grieving, often without the closure a body would bring. As Robert and 20perez16 pointed out, she integrated her evidence and narrative seamlessly, using newspapers, letters, photographs, and poetry to show the pervasive nature of death throughout all parts of society.
The first aspect to the book that I found very compelling was the balance of the emotional angle and presenting an objective reflection of the data, both from a present analysis but also from the time. Especially in the first three chapters, Faust created an emotional and heartbreaking picture of the battlefields and at home. In the first chapter, “Dying,” she discusses how soldiers and those writing home desired to portray their death as morally “good” versus as “bad” death that could result from being executed for desertion (7, 18). The motivations for war became complicated, as vengeance entered into play and soldiers were compelled to fight against those who killed their brothers in arms (35). The emotional side of war contrasts with a removed analysis on the actual data concerning the numbers of casualties. In “Accounting” and “Numbering,” Faust looked at the actions by the government to account for the dead in a systematic and organized way. The cause for counting actually shifted after the war ended, as it tried to bring closure to families instead of account for remaining resources (252). While the numbers can not be fully devoid of the human element, Faust effectively shows the varying ways in which to understand death.
In addition, I appreciated Faust’s attention to those who worked to identify the soldiers. Often times, these were women, such as Clara Barton, who resolved to notify as many families as possible. It was these people who attempted to heal a very broken nation. Even more so, I thought the discussion on the “female responsibility for mourning” was particularly interesting (242). In this section, Faust showed how women took this informal and traditional role and turned it into “motivation for women’s leadership of the souther reburial effort” (242). Through these efforts, women who tried to honor the Confederate soldiers who had fallen, in addition to Union fighters, were displaying a personal and private act gone “unavoidably public and political” (242). To me, this connected to last week’s text, Beyond the Founders. Women were able to gain political agency after the war through public mourning of those the country deemed not worthy of grieving for. Just as in Beyond the Founders, women, like Clara Barton, were able to establish some political culture as a result.
Finally, Faust delves into ideas and thoughts about memory, as the soldiers and their families desired to create closure. Soldiers did this through their actions of wanting to be identified, such as keeping artifacts on them that could help them be named if found dead on the battlefield (28). The entirety of chapter 3, “Burial” showed the lengths at which the military tried to give combatants proper burials. However, it was the families of those who had died who suffered the most in terms of memory, as some drove to great lengths in order to preserve the memory of their loved one loss. J. M. Taylor, who lost his son, spent many years after the war still looking for specific details on how his son died (134). In sum, this text was incredibly put together, with an effective structure and use of evidence, woven to create a heartbreaking but irresistible story of Civil War death.