Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Civil War was the costliest conflict in our nation’s history, nearly exceeding all the other wars combined. More than 620,000 men died during the war, a massive loss of life in a country of just 31 million.

A new book addresses the difficult business that the warring sides faced in dealing with the dead. The soldiers who witnessed the carnage felt the full impact of extensive wartime casualties, of course, but in “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust also examines the plight of loved ones at home who struggled to cope with this inconceivable tragedy.

The author translates her morbid topic into a soul-searching view of the war from a number of perspectives. The chapters of her exhaustive and engrossing study are broken down into the many stages that mid-19th-century Americans went through in absorbing such a great loss of life.

These include dying, focusing on the effort of Civil War Americans to construct “Good Deaths” (i.e., for the right reasons and in the correct frame of mind to move on to the next life) amid conditions that made dying so terrible.

The author explores the religious beliefs that helped those in the field and on the home front formulate the proper concepts of life, death and the hereafter.

Killing was another stage that required “intellectual and psychological effort to address religious and emotional constraints” to killing one’s fellow man. Nonetheless, there gradually occurred a transformation from soldiers’ initial revulsion for killing into animalistic behavior in the heat of battle. A prime example was the Confederate army summarily executing captured former slaves who had had the temerity to join the Union Army.

There also was the need for burying, the concern of soldiers that they would be “honorably buried with one’s comrades and preserved from the desecrations of enemies,” and the need for civilians to repossess the bodies of their loved ones.

Equally important was naming the dead by creating a method, nonexistent at the outset of the war, for identifying those who had lost their lives through disease or on the battlefield, and a means of officially informing their families that their sons had died for their country.

This resulted in the difficult exercise of realizing or accepting that loved ones, civilian as well as military, had died from war-related causes. Acceptance was more difficult for some than for others, which led, on occasion, to further loss of life from sorrow too great to bear. New methods of mourning had to be created so people would “by and by be able to look calmly on these days of grief.”

The author also addresses the believing and doubting phase. She cites a central theme that arose later in the war, as seen through the lament of the Rev. John Sweet of Massachusetts: “Where had all those young men gone?” (reprised as lyrics in a 1960s anti-war song during the Vietnam era).

Mrs. Faust introduces contemporary writers, such as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, who reflected on the enormity of these tragic events.

They were hard-pressed, as Melville put it, to resolve “the riddle of death” that confronted the entire population.

An accounting to tabulate the number of deaths and “to define the war’s meaning” was the next step in the process. Because commanders in the field inconsistently reported battlefield casualties, civilian organizations such as the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission intervened to identify the dead and notify families.

Many bodies could not be identified, however, and many families were left in doubt or denial. The governments in both the North and South eventually acknowledged the need for an accounting, and they established procedures for collecting bodies abandoned on the battlefields, calculating the numbers and identifying the combat casualties when possible.

On the Northern side, Clara Barton, who courageously had served as a battlefield nurse, was in the forefront of locating the remains of those wartime casualties buried at remote sites. Commemoration of the dead eventually would come about through the creation of national cemeteries for Union soldiers that predictably were divided into “black” and “white” sections mirroring their service in segregated units during the war.

The effort to find Confederate war victims also got under way, although belatedly. Southern women’s groups such as the Hollywood Memorial Association of the Ladies of Richmond led the way in establishing cemeteries as a resting place for their sons who had died serving the cause.

The chapter on numbering deals with the effort to calculate the actual toll of war dead. This “represented a means of imposing sense and order on what poet Walt Whitman, himself a volunteer nurse for the wounded, tellingly depicted as the ‘countless graves’ of the ‘infinite dead.’ ”

This was important both from a military perspective to see who was left alive to continue fighting and for practical purposes such as providing pensions to survivors and enabling individual states to create “Rolls of Honor.”

Mrs. Faust concludes her study with an epilogue on the subject of surviving for “Civil War Americans who lived the rest of their lives with grief and loss.”

More than 2 percent of the nation’s inhabitants died as a result of the war (the equivalent of much more than 6 million based on today’s population) and “both the unity and responsibilities of this transformed nation were closely tied to the Civil War dead.”

The author points out that at the end of the century, President William McKinley announced to the South that Confederate soldiers would be “officially honored alongside their Union counterparts.” The dead from both sides of the conflict now belonged to the entire nation.

For some, however, it was important to remember what had caused the war. Former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass declared, “Whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.”

This exceptionally well-written and researched book provides a unique perspective on the Civil War that readers will find captivating. It helps us understand how important it is to preserve the memory of those who paid the ultimate price during warfare, and by doing so, we also may learn how to preserve our own humanity while still struggling, like those during the Civil War era, to comprehend “the riddle of death.”

The award-winning author, Drew Gilpin Faust (“Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War”) has done the Civil War community and the general public a service by producing a study that was long overdue. “This Republic of Suffering” certainly will add to her laurels as a writer and scholar.

Thomas J. Ryan, of Bethany Beach, is president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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