This Republic of Suffering

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

In This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust demonstrates how the unprecedented carnage, both military and civilian, caused by the Civil War forever changed American assumptions about death and dying, and how the nation and its people struggled to come to terms with death on an unimaginable scale. As Faust explains, “Death transformed the American nation as well as the hundreds of thousands of individuals directly affected by loss.” The war created a veritable “republic of suffering,” in the words that Frederick Law Olmsted chose to describe the wounded and dying arriving at Union hospital ships on the Virginia Peninsula. Her chapter titles“Dying,” “Killing,” “Burying,” “Naming,” “Realizing,” “Believing and Doubting,” “Accounting,” “Numbering,” and “Surviving”succinctly yet vividly portray the United States’ ordeal and transformation during and after the war as the country struggled to invent new ways of dealing with the onslaught of death.

The scope of death caused by the Civil War is almost incomprehensible today. Between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000 soldiers died, a number approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The rate of death was six times that of World War II, about 2 percent of the population, which would total six million dead in a war today. Confederates died at a rate three times that of Union soldiers; in fact, one in five Southern men of military age died in the war and more than fifty thousand civilians also perished.

This unprecedented loss of life was neither expected nor prepared for as the war began. The Union army assumed it would make short work of the rebels, and it made no provisions to deal with the carnage that was to ensue. Until 1864 the Union army did not even have an ambulance service. More than two weeks after the battle at Antietam, a horrifying number of corpses remained unburied on the battlefield, stacked in rows a thousand long. Following the battle at Gettysburg, more than six million tons of animal and human bodies were left for disposal. There was no provision for burying the dead, a job which usually fell to the victorious army, which often had neither the will nor time to take care of its own dead, let alone those of the enemy.

The Union and Confederate armies did not have a process in place for burying their dead, and they had no procedure for identifying the bodies or informing the families of deceased soldiers. There were no dog tags or any other official means of identification, no procedure for counting the dead, and no national cemeteries in which to bury them. Only officers had access to coffins; at best, enlisted men might be wrapped in a blanket before being buried in a mass grave, and others were left where they fell. Chaotic record keeping led to reports of deaths of soldiers who were still alive. Nurses and hospital volunteers did their best to contact family whenever possible, but often family members traveled to battlefields in search of news of their loved ones. The poet Walt Whitman regularly visited hospitals to write letters for wounded soldiers to their families, and he made every effort to inform them when their son, husband, father, or brother had died. Nursing pioneer Clara Barton devoted her time after the war to identifying the war dead as well.

In the mid-nineteenth century, people generally died at home,...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

America 198, no. 16 (May 12, 2008): 32-34.

American Historical Review 113, no. 4 (October, 2008): 1108-1110.

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Publishers Weekly 254, no. 40 (October 8, 2007): 45-46.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 2008, p. 7.

The Wilson Quarterly 32, no. 1 (Winter, 2008): 98-99.