There is a whole industry devoted the production and distribution of books about the American Civil War; indeed many bookshops in the USA contain a whole section devoted only to those four bloody years a century and a half ago. Too many of these books add little to our understanding of that dreadful conflict. Some simply relate the chronology of the war, or over-emphasise the role of certain glamorous generals, while others limit the scope of their enquiry to disputing the minutiae of the progress of certain battles.
Drew Gilpin Faust's "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" is a unique, surprising, scholarly, and rather moving contribution to Civil War studies, which marks it out as something special in a densely crowded market. It is perhaps surprising that there has been so little researched and so much assumed about death in this period - given the appalling casualty rates, and percentage of the American population who died in that war. Yet death (including battlefield death) in the 1860s was understood in a particular way, experienced in specific ways, ritualised, expressed, grieved and remembered in sometimes new ways. It is these human responses to the killing of 1861-5 that Gilpin Faust turns her attention in this book. Drawing on letters, government papers, recorded anecdotes, literature, and a whole battery of contemporary sources, she unearths a complex, and heart-rending culture of dying; about which she is able to write with great elegance and pathos.
The book is not chronological, but thematic in its structure, and it draws equally on the experiences of both the Union and Confederate dying and grieving. 'Victorians' had a particular culture of death, part of which idealised the concept of a 'good death'. Typically, the 'good' 19thC death would take place at home, amongst friends and family and feature some departing words of faith with which to reassure the living. Amongst an extraordinary array of letters sent home from the front, Gilpin-Faust discovered the remarkable extent to which the soldiers sought to present and report on 'good deaths'.
In her chapter on 'killing' Gilpin-Faust explores what it meant for soldiers to become killers. For many of them in that profoundly Christian era, "the first challenge for Civil War soldiers to surmount was the Sixth Commandment". She details the way in which churches on both sides were harnessed by the state to promote 'just war' theories to overcome the soldiers' religious reluctance to kill. Some never came to terms with what they were called upon to do, they held onto their humanity, but were broken by the horror of their experiences. More worrying are the accounts of those for whom killing became a pleasure, to read their words is a profoundly chilling experience.
The initial enthusiasm of many of the troops in 1862 wore off as it soon became apparent that the war would be long and bloody. The technology of slaughter had advanced beyond the tactical understanding of the Generals, leading to scenes of previously unheard of fatality rates - two observations that would be repeated again on The Western Front fifty years later. Never before had advancing victorious armies, or retreating defeated ones been faced with such a huge number of corpses to bury. The chapter on burying describes the ways in which (sometimes in appalling circumstances) soldiers sought to honour fallen comrades with the rituals of burial. This was a desperate clinging to humanity, virtue and dignity in the context of mud, blood, decomposition, stench and disease.
Many of these bodies, in rough trenches, mass graves, or under rough crosses were not formally marked. High explosive shells, used for the first time in battle could render a body unrecognisable, unidentifiable even. The chapter on 'naming' describes the way in which both during and after the war, the desire to name and bury the dead in marked burial plots in their home towns consumed the nation. The unquenchable thirst for dignifying the memory of the lost led to extraordinary efforts in this regard.
When James Palmer was killed at the second battle of Bull Run, his sister Sarah wrote, "I can't realise that I am never to see that dear boy again, ..it is too hard to realise" (p145). The chapter on grief, mourning and bereavement is called 'realising'. One of the melancholy things that Gilpin Faust discovered was the extent to which the bereaved sought material proof of their loved one's demise. The chaos of modern warfare being conducted by armies with pre-modern systems of command, control, planning and communication meant that official records were often extremely poor. The families of the fallen were prevented from grieving by the presence of a cruel spark of hope, until material evidence was sent to allow them to 'realise'. Gilpin Faust both draws wide conclusions about these patterns, and brings her text painfully alive with stories of individual grief, like that of the young widow searching through the corpses of Antietam in a frantic search for confirmation of her worst fears before she "sank beneath the stern reality of this crushing sorrow."
The detailed chapter on believing and doubting is equally illuminating. While for many of the combatants as well as their families, faith was a place of retreat, for others belief in a benign deity was shaken in the hail of Minié balls piercing the bodies of their colleagues. Letters, poems, songs and poems are woven together in this chapter, which is a fascinating story of the interaction of faith, doubt and suffering. One song of the era begins, "Oh great God! What means this carnage/ What this fratricidal strife,/ Brethren made in your own image / Seeking for each other's life?"
The chapters entitled 'accounting' and 'numbering' hardly lighten the mood, but are equally deeply researched and wonderfully written. Accounting refers to the obligations the living felt towards the dead, which meant everything from repatriation of bodies, to the establishment of official war graves. The Union dead were catered for by the victorious Federal government, while voluntary societies performed this task for the shattered Confederacy. 'Numbering' is a chapter about the post-war efforts to try and quantify the suffering. Human knowledge and control so often begins with classification of subjects, and so it seems that inordinate efforts were made to seek some human control over the disaster of civil war, in order to tame it and bring it under the purview of human analysis. Gilpin Faust writes: But as the numbers solved some problems of understanding, so they presented others. William Fox worried that the sheer magnitude of the war's death toll rendered it incomprehensible. "As the numbers become great," he wrote, "they convey no different idea, whether they be doubled or trebled". Yet the painstaking counting continued for many years.
Gilpin Faust's final chapter is entitled 'surviving'. She writes (referring to many of the characters she has introduced us to in her remarkable book): John Palmer carried the bullet that killed his son with him to the grave; Henry Bowditch habitually wore a watch fob fashioned from his fallen son's uniform button; Mary Todd Lincoln dressed in mourning till she died; Walt Whitman felt that the war had represented the "very centre, circumference, umbilicus" of his life; Ambrose Bierce felt haunted by visions of the dead and dying; Jane Mitchell continued to hope for years after Appomattox that her missing son would finally come home; J.M. Taylor was still searching for details of his son's death three decades after the end of the war; Henry Struble annually laid flowers on the grave that mistakenly bore his name. (p266)
This Republic of Suffering is a tremendous work of historical research, poignant prose and astute observation. It manages to be both informative and profoundly moving, in that that the facts and voices of the time are allowed to speak, without sentimental commentary at the expense of profound analysis. The tragedy of the war is not hidden behind technical details so beloved of the military historian, but yet such details are present. The lives and deaths of the ordinary private are not hidden behind the glamorous stories of military heroes, and the scale of the suffering not lost behind individual biographies - though again, all these feature. This is quite brilliant writing, the kind of history that informs the mind, arrests the imagination, and could only leave the hardest heart unmoved, if not somewhat shaken.