This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War

Drew Faust. This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War by Drew Faust. Vintage, 2009 paper.

Drew Faust describes the ways in which death, on the scale that it was experienced in the Civil War, altered attitudes on an array of issues related to the end of life. These war casualties seemed unnatural to nineteenth-century Americans. The war killed young men in huge numbers, then the healthiest demographic and the least expected to die so young.

War deaths violated Victorian and Christian views on the Good Death. One expected to die at home, surrounded by loving family gathered around the death bed. There were last words; the dying person was fully cognizant of his impending death. All attending hoped that he or she would have an easy death. Generally some religious assurance was at hand.

Instead the bodies of the Civil War dead were scattered where they fell, often in pieces, amongst dead horses and mules. Unless quickly buried, they began to decompose. The dying were far from home and family and unattended in the final moments of life. It was a stranger’s death, in a strange land.

A good portion of the deaths were not battlefield casualties. Rather, soldiers died in field hospitals from their wounds, from gangrene, diarrhea, dysentery, and typhoid fever. Civil War prisoners were led off to an uncertain future in camps like Andersonville, Georgia. Nine percent of the Civil War dead died in prisoner-of-war camps.

Faust explains how doctors and nurses, commanding officers, and fellow soldiers attempted to restore some of the assurances of the Good Death. Letters of condolence were often written by someone who had witnessed the dying moments. If that weren’t possible, the family could be assured that their loved one had died for his country. “I have never witnessed such an exhibition of fortitude and Christian resignation as [your son, brother, husband] showed” would be a likely part of any letter. Some keepsake, perhaps a watch, diary, Bible, lock of hair, might be included in the condolence letter.

What circumstances of warfare in the 1860s shaped the ”republic of suffering?” While Civil War weaponry was more deadly than in previous wars, you were often still close enough to see the person that you were killing. Moreover most combatants were not professional soldiers. Slaying someone, even in warfare, was, for many, a transgression of the Sixth Commandment. As in most armies, a minority did most of the fighting, the rest avoided active combat.

Some individuals, however, acquired a taste for killing. Sharp shooters were particularly likely to do so. They generally killed at close range but hidden from view. When captured they were often shot. Black troops fighting in Northern armies were usually given no quarter.

Civil War soldiers did not have any official identification — no dog tags. They might carry on them a letter of identity with instructions about how to notify their next-of-kin. Neither army, at first, took identification of the dead seriously. Bodies were collected together, having been dragged across rough ground, and buried in mass graves. Thus a large portion of the enormous numbers of dead were never named, but simply declared missing in action. Grieving families would often travel to the battlefields to undertake a generally hopeless search for their loved one.

 

Had he died a ‘natural’ death, a person would have been buried amongst the cluster of his family graves in a churchyard or one of the municipal “garden” cemeteries being laid out in the north. To handle the numbers of dead and still provide some semblance of respect, national cemeteries were established alongside the great battlefields. At Gettysburg,for example. Their ordered rows of identical markers attest to the costs of the War, but also the anonymity of death.

The individual states, later and with great solemnity, erected monuments that now give character to these mass burial sites. Often the states would declare a day of remembrance that eventually coalesced around a national holiday, Memorial Day.

Drew Faust has taken an important piece of American history, previously overlooked or misunderstood, and given it focus and meaning. It won a National Book Award nomination. It is one of my favorite books

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