The very interesting This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, might be a bit morbid for some readers since it deals with death, dying, burial and such issues during the Civil War. Then again, the American Civil War was a gruesome war. Faust explores the major changes to mid-19th-century America’s traditions and customs of honoring the dead. Many died away from home and family, often buried without headstones inscribed with their names. As a result, families often did not know that their loved one was dead, since notification of a fallen soldier’s next-of-kin did not happen until later wars. The only notification - if they were lucky - came from those with whom the dead soldier served.
Faust examines what a “good death” was for the people of middle nineteenth-century America, what people expected to happen and what they looked for. Many hoped to die in bed with family and friends around them. The Civil War changed that, because many soldiers died on the battlefields or in hospitals, often among strangers.
Civil War soldiers had to learn how to kill their fellow man. This went counter to ingrained religious training; most people did not want to be murderers. In the soldiers’ first battles, many guns were not fired – or, if they were fired, had been shot into the air. Some may have even simply pointed and fired without looking. It took time for new soldiers to get use to shooting and killing the enemy.
American society of the 1800s had set traditions and customs as to how the dead were to be disposed of. Usually this was not a problem, since those who took care of the dead only had one or two to take care of. In the Civil War after battles occurred, morticians or undertakers had to work with lots and lots of bodies; they were overwhelmed. So many died away from home that the bodies were not lovingly taken care of but hurriedly buried, if at all. Some families came to the battlefields looking for their dead relatives. When they were lucky enought to find them, they usually took them back home. This required embalming or a metal, leak-proof casket being purchased to return the body home. Experimentation with embalming increased. Usually the victor of the battlefield buried his soldiers but left his enemies’ bodies unburied.
Most graves of dead soldiers of the Civil War are labeled with markers that either say “unknown” or contain only a number. A great fear of Civil War soldiers and their families that the soldier would die and his grave be unmarked or his identity lost.
Families found mourning difficult, since most of the time they did not have a body to bury. They were not always sure if their relative had, in fact, died or not and had a hard time reaching closure. The Civil War affected many families, especially in the South where nearly everyone had a relative or someone they knew who was killed in the war. The staggering number of dead and wounded overwhelmed the casualty lists, which were littered with inaccuracies. Never before were so many people killed in North America as during this war.
Americans today are accustomed to having dead soldiers and their families taken care of with notification of next-of-kin, national cemeteries, and other aid the government provides. During the Civil War, none of these existed, but this changed after the war. People wanted national cemeteries created to take cradle their honored dead. National cemeteries were created and the bodies of Union soldiers re-buried there. Confederate soldiers, however, were not buried in these cemeteries unless by mistake. Southern women’s organizations organized and created cemeteries, or provided for the burial of Confederate soldiers. In the war’s immediate aftermath, bodies and graves were desecrated by their enemies. As time has passed, this no longer happens. Both sides are now honored and respected.
Dr. Faust provides a great examination of the effect the Civil War had on the customs and traditions of death and burial of family members and others in mid-nineteenth-century America. The war changed how the government took care of its dead soldiers and brought home the fact that the waging of war had changed. No longer were only a few men involved. Now many could be killed and wounded. Society had learned that it needed to take care of these dead bodies in an organized and fitting way.
The many black-and-white drawings and photographs from various sources such as the Library of Congress help illustrate what the author is taking about, like seeing a grave of a Union soldier with a dead Rebel’s body still lying unburied next to it. Some photos show the carnage of the battles. Endnotes are included, as is an index. This Republic of Suffering is probably not for the general reader or for those who have problems seeing dead bodies, but most Civil War enthusiasts will be interested in this book, as will people who study death and burial customs.
Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University, where she also holds the Lincoln Professorship in History. She is the author of Mothers of Invention (1996), Southern Stories (1992), The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (1989), James Henry Hammond and the Old South (1982), The Ideology of Slavery (1982), and other books and articles.