Friday, January 30, 2009

This Republic of Suffering - by Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering - Death and the American Civil War
by Drew Gilpin Faust
Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.
New York, 2008
ISBN 9780375703836

The Republic of Suffering was chosen by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2008. Written by Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, this book examines the ways in which Civil War deaths had an impact on society, both military and civilian.

A most startling statistic is cited in the opening pages of this book:

"The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865 [in the American Civil War], an estimated 620,000 is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. . . . A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities." And "Twice as many Civil War soldiers died of disease as of battle wounds."

The problem of how to deal with the dead was of particular importance in Fredericksburg. Betty Herndon Maury writes of a New York soldier being buried by the kitchen door of her cousin John Minor's house; and there are other local legends of soldiers buried in the yards of Fredericksburg homes.

Many of these dead were later reinterred in cemeteries devoted to Civil War soldiers. Confederate and Union soldiers were segregated in death. While the federal government organized national cemeteries for the Union soldiers, Confederate cemeteries were organized by Ladies Memorial Associations, including the one in Fredericksburg which still exists today. These ladies' groups also arranged monuments to the Confederate dead, such as the huge stone pyramid in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery and a similar pyramid near Fredericksburg, placed so as to be visible to train passengers.

To those who have never visited a Civil War cemetery with rows upon rows of graves marked “Unknown”, it might be surprising that the effort to identify and record the names of the battle dead is of relatively recent origin. One can only imagine the agony of not knowing the fate of a husband, son, brother, not knowing where a loved one is buried.

The new art of photography brought forward images of death on the battlefield, projecting the reality of war in a way never before known. Many of these disturbing images are reproduced on the pages of this book, disturbing even to 21st century readers hardened by television images of the death and destruction of war.

This Republic of Suffering is a profoundly moving book, bringing focus to an aspect of The War of Rebellion/The War Between the States that has been neglected or glossed over. It brings to mind the song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" which would have been popular when Dr. Faust was of college age. How fitting that a woman of the generation which came of age during the Vietnam war and the concurrent protests should write such a tribute to the experiences of those who endured the American Civil War.

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