This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

The dead, the dying and the living are all represented in Dr. Dew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which covers how the Civil War changed the American perspective on just how devastating a war can be. From the killing of soldiers on the battlefields to the mass graves where they were buried, the Civil War took its toll on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line and left a nation sacred. From the book, one does get a sense of just how one goes out and counts the unprecedented number of bodies lying in the fields and streets. However, even with such a grim subject and successfully telling it in a sufficient manner, the book is not without its faults and does lack some strength to it.


The book is about the work of death during the American Civil War and how between 1861 and 1865 and into the decades that followed Americans undertook a kind of work that history has not adequately understood or recognized (pg. XIV). In the end Faust seeks to describe how Americans both during and after the war came to understand the costs of war through measuring the causalities that come from it. By Using personal accounts, photos, illustrations, and governmental documentation Faust tries to paint a picture on the effects of losing so many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons in the most horrific ways that Americans have ever witness at the time. More importantly, she establishes the notion of killing was not simply justified but also required, even when such action demanded suspension of fundamental rules of war and humanity (pg. 47). Besides providing the methods to as to which both the Union and the Confederacy used in order to obtain victory and to ensure men would be killing, Faust focuses on the effects of the mass killing had on the home front both sides of the war. For example, upon hearing of the casualties of a battle, many families went to the battlefields in the hopes that they could find the remains of their family member so they could bring him/them back home (pg. 85). Faust describes just how death became fixated with everyday life. Some examples include families and soldiers alike, frantically waiting for reports from the battlefields in the hope of learning the fate of a family member or friend and attempting to cope upon learning the news and fate of a person some one cared for. While railroad companies made money hand over fist, by providing and offering transpiration for grieving families to have the remains of their lost loved ones shipped back home to be buried (pg. 91-2). Not only did the Civil War tore apart families it was also successful in creating religious doubt, leaving many questioning why would any god allow the war to happen? As a result, many Americans began to redefine their faiths in all loving and responsive deity, while some went as far as to rejecting their old beliefs (pg. 210).
Faust’s main ejective is that she wants the reader to know that even with the Civil War being over and those who fell in the line of duty are now buried, there is still the need to continue remembering the dead for their sacrifices. In addition, she calls for the preservation of our humanity to the point where we do not come face to face with the same type of death and destruction brought about by the Civil War (pg. 371).

Her greatest strength is the use of documentation and a variety of primary sources that help the reader come to an understanding on just how grim and horrific the Civil War was. Faust does her best to bring the war into focus on just how much effect it had on both sides of the conflict. From Confederate soldiers on the battlefield, who showed no remorse or mercy in killing black Union Troopers too President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address which explained the justification of the wars carnage (pg. 189). By presenting sources that are from the different social and racial classes of the period enables the reader to get a broader perspective on just, what the war meant and represented to them. To the newly freed slaves, it was a chance to fight for their humanity and for the further abolishment slavery (pg. 47-8). While other non-black soldiers on both sides saw the war, as a military adventure that called for heroism and glory for which they would be whiling to die for, however the war turned into a living hell that lasted for four years. Although her book is compelling, in the sense that she sheds light on just what affect death had on the American people both in the north and in the south during and after the war, she does tend to fall flat. I completely agree with Robert Huitrado when he mentioned how “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.” Because she only seems to be focusing on the well-known battles that accrued on the Eastern-Theater of the war. Yes, she does mention William Tecumseh Sherman’s march but, it is only limited to his interactions with southern civilians. But the best way to get the complete bloody picture that the Civil War painted is to display and the many lives that were lost and disrupted is to inform the reader about the Western-Theater as well. She does however mention the number of dead created by the Battle of Shiloh but, only gives the bare minimum and does not provide substantial information on the lives lost in the battles of Vicksburg, Stones River, or even the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, but gives information on the loss of civilian life when Union gunboats fired on Natchez (pg. 138). By spending a little more time on the Western-Theater would display not only how bloody the war got but, also show the reader just how far the war got to enable it to have such an effect on the American people both during and after the war.


What the book also lacks is the information on the different types of weapons used during the war to just how effective they were. In her defense, she does list the percentage of fatal, but the reader does not get a sense of what type. Were they muskets or rifles? She mentions that 95% of Union injuries were sustained by bullets, however she failed to mention that there is a difference between muskets that fired balls that bounced around inside the barrel and was very inaccurate once it left the barrel and a rifled gun that shot a bullet that was more accurate (pg. 41). Information, such as what was the average caliber of a round and how fast was it when it left the barrel, which can show the reader the amount of impact bullets and mini balls had on a soldier’s body to cause him to sustain an injury or case of death. By including more information on the variety on the types of weapons used and their effectiveness on the battlefield, the reader could gain a more comprehensive understanding on just how the battlefields became so deadly and the killing fields that the photos that she has in the book show.