Faust – Death and the American Civil War

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Drew Gilpin Faust’s brilliant book This Republic of Suffering details how the massive death toll of the Civil War changed American society. Faust’s book tackles a seemingly obvious fact – that many people died in a war. However, Faust is able to successfully show that in many ways death in the American Civil War occurred in many unprecedented ways. First was the massive scale of loss, with 600,000 soldiers being killed, or equivalent to six million of today’s population (P. xi). Second was the rapidness, unpredictability, and efficiency that soldiers killed.  Faust illustrates how new technological advances, such as rifled barrels and greater artillery, led to greatly increased ranges and effectiveness for killing (P. 39). Faust also illustrates how it was not just soldiers who lost their lives, but also an estimated 50,000 civilians were killed between 1861 and 1865. As a result of such a massive loss of life, society had to come up with new means of coping with death, and soldiers doing the fighting had to develop means to come to terms with the carnage occurring all around them.

As morganstocks points out, Faust is able to effectively produce an emotional book while maintaining her objectivity. This Republic of Suffering is a deeply moving work. This much is very clear from just the beginning pages of the book. However, as Morgan points out, she also looks to factual number data from the government as a means of study as well. Faust also portrays the effects death had on people from nearly every angle. Understandably her focus is on the troops involved, but she gives the Union and the Confederacy an equal treatment. She also includes an (albeit brief) discussion regarding African-American soldiers and how they coped with dying and killing and how they were in some ways uniquely affected by death. However, an interesting thought was raised by Robert, in that the focus is much heavier on the eastern campaigns than the western ones.

As many have already pointed out, Faust’s sources are fantastic. Her book is heavily primary-source based, and she uses them brilliantly. Her selection of soldiers’ letters perfectly describe the horrors of war, and are positively heart wrenching at times. I was also impressed with Faust’s selections for her chapter titles. They are simple, one-word titles but they perfectly encapsulate the theme of her chapter. I found this to be particularly true in the “Naming” and “Realizing” chapters. Faust is able to show how the deaths of the Civil War were instrumental in bringing out modernity as well. Whether it be in the creation of dedicated cemeteries for fallen soldiers such as that at Gettysburg, in improved bureaucracies for documenting fallen soldiers, or in refrigerated coffins or embalming methods this argument is repeatedly proven to be true.

In reading Faust’s book I cannot help but think of Jay Winter’s book Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, which details the massive deaths of World War I and how those of the cultures involved dealt with it. Winter argues that society turned to preexisting, more traditional methods of coping, many of which can be found in This Republic of Suffering. Faust also mentions Winter, but only in passing (P. 30). Winter’s book, though published first, can be read as something of a continuation of Faust’s book. In sum, Faust’s book is a profound, deeply moving, very well researched, and thought-provoking work.  I cannot speak more highly of Republic, and I think one would be hard pressed to find someone who did not feel the same. 

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