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this republic of suffering

18 april 2008

Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering is an anomaly in some ways. It is an academic history, based on extensive archival research, but it has also become a popular bestseller, or at least better-seller, in the ranks of current nonfiction books. Many academic histories find trade publishers and wide audiences, but few get quite this much play. I am happy to report that the accolades and the popularity are well-deserved. The success of This Republic of Suffering may have been catalyzed by Faust's appointment as President of Harvard University, but people are reading and talking about it because it's that rare double feat: a book both academic and accessible at once.

This Republic of Suffering follows a familiar pattern. It re-groups knowledge about the Civil War into a new structure, using a central theme to ensure coherence. Such books appear fairly often, and I've reviewed others here: DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook have written about women in combat, for instance, and William C. Davis about the Civil War food supply.

Faust has taken on a theme that may at first seem far more basic: death itself. Wars are all about death, but often the actual death and dying in warfare is a neglected topic in war histories. Writing about the role of dying in warfare is a little like writing about breathing or sleeping in warfare. (Or possibly taxation, that other great inevitable of military history.)

Faust, however, breaks the process of death in the Civil War into several gerund-base chapters. "Dying" and "Killing" are familiar themes in Civil War history, and Faust's work here is not quite as trenchant as [that of] the marvelous book The Destructive War by Charles Royster. By the same token, her analysis in "Realizing" and "Believing and Doubting" – chapters about the aftermath of the war's carnage as perceived by civilians – are largely derivative, and don't match up to the work in David Blight's Race and Reunion. Some of Faust's commentary here seems facile: the War "planted seeds of a more profound doubt about human ability to know and to understand" (210), but in the same chapter, Faust has had to acknowledge that "churches grew dramatically in the South in the years after the Civil War, setting the stage for the region's emergence as the Bible Belt" (193). It's as if the deep crises in belief among Northern writers like Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson outweigh the profound and widespread response of community involvement in faith in the South.

But if I quibble about some of these gerundy chapters, I have to immediately praise the work in the others. Faust combed through an enormous amount of archival material to write the chapters "Burying" and "Naming" early in her volume, and "Accounting" and "Numbering" later on. This is the real contribution of This Republic of Suffering: an institutional history of several large-scale thanatic projects. As with food, clothing, and munitions, the Union army had an organizational advantage when it came to death. The private Christian Commission and the government-sponsored Sanitary Commission dealt with burying Union soldiers and ensuring that news of their deaths reached next of kin. After the war, the Federal government spent millions of dollars establishing cemeteries for the Union dead, reburying, listing, and counting the fallen. It was an astonishing social movement, considering that its immediate beneficiaries were beyond caring about it. But it was vitally necessary for a nation of survivors.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Knopf, 2008.