This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering:Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust is a detailed study of how the massive numbers of dead in the Civil War changed America.  Faust draws upon vast amounts of primary documents to bring this 271-page piece to print.


Here is a summary of the book from its publisher’s website (Knopf):

An illuminating study of the American struggle to comprehend the meaning and practicalities of death in the face of the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War.


During the war, approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. An equivalent proportion of today’s population would be six million.  This Republic of Suffering explores the impact of this enormous death toll from every angle: material, political, intellectual, and spiritual.  The eminent historian Drew Gilpin Faust delineates the ways death changed not only individual lives but the life of the nation and its understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  She describes how survivors mourned and how a deeply religious culture struggled to reconcile the slaughter with its belief in a benevolent God, pondered who should die and under what circumstances, and reconceived its understanding of life after death.


Faust details the logistical challenges involved when thousands were left dead, many with their identities unknown, on the fields of places like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg.  She chronicles the efforts to identify, reclaim, preserve, and bury battlefield dead, the resulting rise of undertaking as a profession, the first widespread use of embalming, the gradual emergence of military graves registration procedures, the development of a federal system of national cemeteries for Union dead, and the creation of private cemeteries in the South that contributed to the cult of the Lost Cause.  She shows, too, how the war victimized civilians through violence that extended beyond battlefields—from disease, displacement, hardships, shortages, emotional wounds, and conflicts connected to the disintegration of slavery.


Throughout, the voices of soldiers and their families, of statesmen, generals, preachers, poets, surgeons, and nurses, of northerners and southerners, slaveholders and freedpeople, of the most exalted and the most humble are brought together to give us a vivid understanding of the Civil War’s most fundamental and widely shared reality.


Were he alive today, This Republic of Suffering would compel Walt Whitman to abandon his certainty that the “real war will never get in the books.”

After reading the book, I can tell that Faust is an academic – this is not a bad thing.  She supports all of her statements with sound research.  Unlike many history books, there aren’t any statements that are not properly footnoted.  I can now understand why she is so highly regarded in academia.  For example, she makes a very strong and compelling case about how the federal government’s approach toward the dead was radically changed during the Civil War – in the beginning of the war, it did next to nothing for the families of the dead, but after the war, it had people identifying and reburying the dead.


For the most part, I think her writing style is easy to read despite the topic of the book.  She easily gets her points across without any confusion.  In addition, the writing flows within the chapters.  She interweaves her text with excerpts from various writers, such as Walt Whitman and James Russell Lowell, about the horrors of the war.


Although this is a topic that many want to avoid reading about, I think Faust does an excellent job of addressing the cruel realities of the first “modern” war and how it affected the larger society.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.