Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This Republic of Suffering

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
By Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering is a very different Civil War book. I'm used to Civil War books that tell the story of battles, campaigns and leaders. This is a book about how an entire society, North and South, dealt with the most pervasive aspect of the war: its indiscriminate slaughter. Six hundred thousand people died in the Civil War, 2% of the population, by far the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans.

In a series of chapters most of whose names consist of just a single word—Dying, Killing, Burying, Naming, Believing and Doubting, Numbering—Faust examines death from every point of view: the soldiers who fought and died, the families that mourned them, their fellow comrades who struggled to bury them, the civic and religious leaders, writers, poets and ordinary citizens who sought to make sense of the war and its awful toll.

Throughout the book it is the voices of ordinary citizens that we hear, mostly through their letters or diaries, and already in a chapter or two we are already aware of the trauma that this war inflicted on everyone. It changed the way war was waged; it changed the way the army and the society treated the memory those who had fallen. One of the scandalous aspects of the war was how many dead soldiers could not be identified or counted or buried properly. After the war ended the army and the society at large undertook an enormous effort to rebury and identify them. This led to a permanent change in the way the U.S. military operated; identifying the dead and protecting and preserving their remains became a core value of military service. Honoring the memory of those dead, through holidays like Memorial Day, was a lasting legacy of the Civil War.

This is a work of immense scholarship, precise and eloquent prose, and lasting impact.

(For information about my new novel and my other writing, see www.efremsigel.com)


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