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The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

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The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. By Drew Gilpin Faust. (Vintage: 2009. Pg. 368.) ISBN: 0375703837.

Reviewed by Herbert White December 29, 2008

One of the unspoken hallmarks of the American Civil War (1861-1865) was death - death on an unprecedented scale. More Americans died during the Civil War than died in any conflict before or since. Exact casualties figures do not exist, but roughly 620,000 soldiers died in the war. This is not counting civilian casualties, or those that later succumbed to their wounds. In her absorbing history, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University and a distinguished history professor, examines how their astronomical death toll changed Americans' attitudes toward death and dying, and how the military and civilian population dealt with the masses of dead bodies that littered the military camps, hospitals, and battlefields.

While her topic is morbid, it is also fascinating. As important, this book offers significant contributions to the body of information available on the American Civil War, and it will make you rethink all that you thought about the Civil War and the handling of casualties. In the past, when I've read about the great battles of the Civil War, such as Gettysburg, Antietam, or Bull Run, I never once stopped to ponder how they dealt with the thousands of dead - both physically and psychologically. Now I know how they did, and it is simply amazing - from the advent of embalming and the growth of the mortuary business to the shipping of corpses home in ice lined boxes - or more often, a lonely interment in an unmarked grave near where the soldier died. This book is well illustrated, and the text is interspersed with excerpts from letters, diaries, newspaper accounts and other documentary sources, including literary sources such as those penned by Walt Whitman, which detail how people felt about the death and dying that was all around them.

The Republic of Suffering is in equal parts a social history of death and dying in relationship to the American Civil War and a psychological analysis of how Americans on all sides of the conflict dealt with the trauma, grief, and even the economic impact of so many dead. Faust examines the growth of the 'Good Death' cult, the organization of societies to tend the graves of the fallen, changes in burial practices and care of the dead, and the development of ambulance services and an increased importance on medical care for the injured. Within the scope of this study, Faust also looks on how the war continued to impact American culture and social life even years after the war had ended. She examines the long term impact of this national trauma, and how it was to change how the dead and wounded where treated in future conflicts. In short, Faust has crafted a profoundly moving and historically important history of an often overlooked aspect of the American Civil War.

Most important, The Republic of Suffering is an extremely readable book that presents a great deal of information without being overwhelming. In addition, Faust writes in a narrative style which will be most pleasing to both general readers and academics alike. For those with an academic bent, Faust has included a detailed bibliography that can be used as a stepping stone toward further study on this topic. This book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the American Civil War as well as American Social History, Cultural Studies, and Military History.

Related Reviews:

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, by James M. McPherson.
The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, this compelling history chronicles the battle that took place on September 17, 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland. This day remains the single most deadly days in American history, and the outcome of the battle was to change the course of the Civil War.

Gettysburg, Day Three, by Jeffry D. Wert.
Wert, a respected Civil War historian, chronicles, in exacting detail, the entirety of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a battle which was to change the course of a war.

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