18 March 2009

This Republic of Suffering

I started eyeballing Drew Gilpin Faust's latest book back in the summer, when it was still in hardback, but didn't bite because I wasn't sure if I would like it (yes, I know who Dr. Faust is and I was pretty happy when she was offered the Presidency of Harvard University). I just wasn't quite sure if I would enjoy reading about death in the Civil War. The book got nominated for just about every major award out there so I finally picked up a copy.

Somber material aside, This Republic of Suffering is a fascinating book that details how Americans' ideas of death, dying, and patriotism were altered over the course of a war that claimed 600,000 lives (and there are probably more because the civilian deaths were never well accounted for particularly those due to disease). Faust has a very nice style of writing - not completely academic but it definitely assumes her reader is an intelligent person - and organized her work into chapters with very simple headings like "Dying," "Naming," "Surviving," etc. This way the reader progresses through the processes of dying, burial, identification, mourning, and survivorship. The lengths that soldiers might go to in assuring a dead soldier's loved ones that he died a "Good Death" - particularly in assurances that he died a Christian - were quite amazing. One of the more moving sections of the book came in "Naming" and surrounded two famous figures. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote his name and rank on a piece of paper after he was wounded so he might be identified by his father in case he became incapacitated and died before he could provide the information. Walt Whitman, who came to Washington DC in search of his brother, stayed to provide comfort and friendship to wounded and dying soldiers; it was quite heart-wrenching to read that section and then think of Whitman's later poetry.

One of the more interesting things I learned while reading the book is that established war-time procedures we take for granted these days - identification of the dead through dog tags, field ambulance service, gravesite registration, body identification and reinterment - didn't particularly exist prior to the onset of the Civil War. There really hadn't been a need because casualties hadn't been so high; I'm not sure of prior conflicts, but it seems the extremely high casualty rate made it hard to simply keep up with proper identification and burial of remains. Bodies might lay on a field for days prior to burial due to continued fighting, the body may be robbed or defiled by enemy forces, coffins were in extremely short supply, and often those comrades who might be able to record the death of a soldiers were often wounded or dying themselves. Families often went in search of a deceased husband, son, or brother, had the body exhumed, and shipped home for burial, all out of their own pocket so it is obvious that those who didn't have the means to do so were left to mourn a loved one in absentia. The national cemetery system was started after the Civil War to identify and accommodate the remains of Union soldiers (silly me thought it was started after the Revolutionary War, see what interesting things we could be learning in school that we don't?); a point Faust brings up is that the United States chose to honor and provide funds for reburial to Union soldiers not Confederate ones and that caused a rift in feeling that helped to fuel anti-federal sentiment.

The important point of Faust's book is not the numbers of dead or where they died but how those numbers transformed the American idea of death on the battlefield.

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