This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
© 2008 Drew Gilpin Faust
Oft in dreams I see thee lying
On some battle-plain
Lonely, wounded, even dying —
Calling, but in vain
Weeping sad and lonely
Hopes and fears, how vain
When this cruel war is over —
Hoping that we’ll meet again.
(“Weeping Sad and Lonely“, a song sung across the lines with such fervor that some camp commanders banned it.)
No other war has had the outsized role on American history as the ‘war for the union’, as it was called at the time. Hundreds of thousands died, still more were wounded, and not a house was without its mourners — especially in the South, where as many as 3/4ths of the men might be off, the yeomen reaping the bloody whirlwind that the planters had sown. This Republic of Suffering surveys how the enormous death rates in the war were handled — emotionally, logistically, etc — across the continent. It’s dark reading, to be sure, but draws from so much of Civil War societies that I think it an essential part of anyone’s efforts to understand the war and its role.
Gilpin begins with the act of dying itself; Victorian Americans were far more intimate with dying than we are today; not only was disease a more pervasive threat, but people generally died at home, in the presence of loved ones, and their expiration was fraught with theological meaning. All wanted to die a ‘good death’, to surrender peacefully to their Maker and not go out fighting and resisting the judgment of eternity. Death was often sudden and inexplicable in the war; a sudden ambush, a stray artillery shell, might sweep from the Earth young soldiers who thought themselves removed from danger. To die without having made one’s peace was a fearsome thing, and letters written home — either from the dying soldiers, or from their comrades in arms who took the sad duty of informing survivors of their boy’s demise — sought to assure those reading that the victim had accepted Death gracefully — and gone to a better place.
More disturbing than the thought of dying without preparing for the same was the act of killing — for most soldiers were taught that to kill was a mortal sin, and many struggled to take life– especially given that distances were often close enough that soldiers could directly link their firing a musket with another man’s death. Once the killing started, however, for many it became a routine, or even pleasurable. Some shrunk from violence, some embraced it, and bloodlust was far more likely to erupt when warring soldiers were of different ethnicity: southern soldiers and freedmen-in-arms were especially savage toward one another. The war unleashed a lot of casual violence; Sherman’s army is depicted here as shooting an old man on a mule who wouldn’t move off the road, and we learn of ‘contraband camps’ where escaping slaves were penned in by the Union army, sometimes to die of exposure and neglect. I’d never heard of these before reading Reluctant Witnesses earlier in the week, though some camps seem to have been better than others. Although ministers earnestly tried to help bereaving communities find meaning in their losses, those who worked directly with the dead — soldiers, gravediggers, grave registration units, doctors, etc– were subjected to so much of it that they had to become dead and unmoved by the losses they were witness to.
There’s no shortage of interest in this book for someone who wishes to understand the Civil War experience, but especially intriuging for literary types is the content on Walt Whitman and Ambrose Bierce. I’ve not encountered much of Whitman’s poetry, but I left this incredibly impressed by Whitman as a man; he regularly visited wounded soldiers to offer them gifts and comfort, and volunteered in hospitals as an assistant. Bierce’s inability to escape the memories of the dead and dying influenced his writing — though we are told, by soldiers and nurses alike, that the horror of a battlefield is beyond words, defying the richness of human vocabulary. It cannot be captured, nor can it be forgotten. There are also chapters of more mundane interest, like the growth of the government as it had to respond to new challenges – creating an organized approach to assaying and burying the dead, as well as paying pensions to the survivors of the slaughtered.
This Republic of Suffering is sad, but essential, reading.