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

July 14, 2011

This book is on the syllabus of David Blight’s Civil War class at Yale, available through the iTunes U free lectures. The class was amazing and sparked in me a new interest in Civil War history, the ideas of the war and how it shaped our country in ways that are still evident today.

The Civil War lay at a particular juncture in history. Weaponry had outpaced both military tactics and medicine. Most soldiers were untrained and ill equipped for battle. As a result, the war wrought unprecedented death upon the country. This book is about that death.

When we studied the Civil War in school, I pictured fairly tame scenes of men in blue and grey firing wildly inaccurate muskets at each other across open fields. In reality, the Civil War is the most devastating event this nation has ever known. It is estimated that approximately 625,000 men died, more than the Revolutionary War, WWI, WWII and Vietnam combined. In the North, 10% of men of fighting age (approximately 18-45) were killed. In the South, the rate was 30%. To achieve such a toll per capita today would mean a loss of 6.2 million men.

Both sides entered into the war naively, predicting a short and bloodless conflict (many of the soldiers had only enlisted on a three-month tour). At the First Battle of Bull Run, throngs of Northern spectators lined the battlefield as if they were attending a performance, only to witness shocking carnage as their army was thoroughly routed. Later battles, such as Gettysburg, left so many dead bodies that observers reported being able to walk as far as the eye could see without stepping on the ground.

The sheer number of dead created unique practical problems—how to record the casualties, how to bury all the bodies, how to notify the families. It also created a psychological challenge as the nation struggled to find meaning in the devastation, cope with the loss, honor the fallen and define what it meant to have a “good death.”

The book is interesting throughout, if not always exciting. A few of the chapters on the logistical challenges are particularly dry. But this is offset by the book’s greatest strength—the range of sources from which Faust draws. Letters from soldiers, newspaper reports, obituaries, diaries, novels and poems together illuminate not only the battle wounds of the nation, but how the Civil War shaped the American understanding of death.

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