Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering demonstrated that “death created the modern American union— not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments” (xiv). The survivors’ mourning became a “shared suffering” in order to understand the meaning behind all the death caused by the Civil War (xv-xviii). While Faust addressed the numbers of civilians and soldiers killed, her book shifted the focus onto personal experiences related to death. She grappled with the aftermath of death, rather than simply stating that many battles and death had occurred. America had not really experienced anything like this until the 1860s. Faust examined the response of American society and culture to these new developments of total war.
A soldier’s death was necessarily an isolated and impersonal event. Instead, Faust argued that the Civil War should be understood through the idea of the “work of death” (xiv-xviii, 54). She connected this idea to the social and cultural transformations as a reaction to mass death. Each section highlighted an aspect of the work of death. Soldiers had to prepare themselves for certain death as well as the issue of killing another human being. Their lives were already brutal enough, but they also involved the laborious practices of burying their fallen comrades. The book also explained how the works of mourning and naming caused northerners, southerners, and the government to rethink their beliefs regarding their great loss and bereavement.
Faust’s argument for the work of death was especially exemplified through her use of letters, dissertations, diaries, newspapers, photographs and other sources. Like Robert, I also noticed Faust’s extensive use of sources. Although her interpretation was interwoven throughout, she also let the voices in the primary texts speak for themselves. This approach allowed me to perceive the personal and emotional struggles of the historical characters in their own words. It was also helpful to see contrasting examples, like with the information gathering methods of the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission (110-112).
This Republic of Suffering was similar to Stephanie Camp’s book in that both examined how people groups dealt with harsh circumstances. In Camp, enslaved people responded to their bondage through acts of truancy and defiance, such as stealing or going to parties. Civil war Americans had to create ways to cope with death and its consequences. Civilians and family members sought to retrieve and memorialize their fallen soldiers. They adapted their traditions, such as the “Good Death,” and developed a system to help them mourn those buried far away. Camp and Faust started with the popular historical topics of slavery and the Civil War but added another dimension to them by adding agency and human emotion to their histories.
Overall I thought the book was a fascinating read. Having studied the Civil War before, I appreciated this new take regarding death’s impact on the country’s values and practices. Faust wrestled with the dehumanizing consequences of death, yet still provided her readers with a personal humanized understanding of the suffering. This book gave me an opportunity to recognize the historical significance of death. Perhaps it is also meant to demonstrate to modern readers that death, in general, cannot be downplayed or ignored (176-177).