Good Reads: ‘This Republic of Suffering’

There are shelves and shelves of Civil War histories, and Lord knows there’s no shortage of riveting battle narratives and larger-than-life personalities to write about. But Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and lately Harvard’s president, takes a novel tack by focusing on the inevitable outcome of all that: the unprecedented thousands of war dead.

In This Republic of Suffering: Death And The American Civil War, Faust explains how the Civil War changed our understanding of death and mourning as surely as it changed the generals’ understanding of warfare. “We still live in the world of death the Civil War created,” writes Faust. Measures we take for granted today — the notification of next of kin, registering of graves, armies taking responsibility for soldiers’ decent burials — are really products of the Civil War. The carnage that occurred on an entirely new scale demanded entirely new systems for grappling with it.

In the chapter “Burying,” Faust recounts the evolution of burial procedures on the battlefield, and the rituals, often hastily improvised, that soldiers enacted to provide a sense of ceremony in the absence of clergy and family. “Believing and Doubting” explores the wrenching challenge to faith posed by the ever-mounting tally of losses. A surging interest in spiritualism and an outpouring of tragic popular ballads were two typical signs of the times.

What really spurred lasting change was the massive scale of deaths, and their remoteness from loved ones who desperately wanted a body to bury and a gravesite where they could mourn. Undertakers did a booming business at the battlefields for families who could afford to have bodies located, embalmed and shipped homeward. Thousands more soldiers were buried in common graves, and more than 40 percent of Union dead remained anonymous at war’s end. (The percentage was even higher for Confederate soldiers.)

The inability to account for fallen soldiers seems ridiculous to us today, but it was rather typical for its time — certainly the dead of the Mexican War fared no better. Still, by war’s end, the yearning to name and account for the dead crystallized into a national movement to create official burying grounds for them — the beginnings of the national cemeteries of today.

Books like this are valuable to the family historian, illuminating social assumptions and customs that have faded from memory, and giving us greater understanding of the ways our ancestors grappled with grief during this time of incredible upheaval. If you have a Civil War soldier in your family tree, it’s definitely worth a look.


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