Friday, October 31, 2014

Nonfiction RC #12

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War - Drew Gilpin Faust., 2008,

This is a somber but fascinating study of mass death and how Americans coped with it during and after the American Civil War. Faust spends nearly zero time on the politics or reasons behind the conflict, which is a plus given the huge literature on causes, aims, and battles. Instead, Faust wants us to see the war from the point of view of people who participated in it. We post-moderns have different views of death from our 19th century forebears so we need historians to teach us what mourning and grieving meant to people back then, to describe the reality of bodies of slain soldiers left on the field of battle for weeks and the experience of their families members swarming the field and trying to find the remains of their husbands, sons, brothers.

For instance, Faust discusses the 19th century concept of the good death.  Such a death occurred at home, in the bosom of family, aware death was approaching, expecting to live in the hereafter because of firm Christian belief, giving last wishes, a decent burial. Death in battle made mock of this: far from home, among relative strangers, in an instant pulverized into nothing by a shell. The normal patterns of mourning and grieving were disrupted. Death and its aftermath became not at all what they were supposed to be.

Tens of thousands solider and civilians resisted dehumanization caused by mass death. Soldiers would try to identify their comrades and made notes as to where they buried the fallen, hoping the family members could return and find the body and recognize it. They left notes in bottles on bodies. Families arranged for bodies to be shipped home. The funeral industry developed embalming methods An industry came about that manufactured ID badges. Civilians too gathered information to turn over to authorities after the war. The government established cemeteries to acknowledge that the dead were not just the responsibility of their families, but of the nation for which they died. After the war, about 300,000 Union dead were located and reburied by soldiers. The League of Southern Women organized a similar effort on a private basis.

Still, about half the dead were not identified. There were many errors, such as men reported dead who walked in the door after the war. Tens of thousands of ordinary people didn’t have sure knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. Many people held out the fantastical hope that the person would return. Closure was impossible, since the acceptance of the reality of the death is uncertain when there are no remains. No wonder they tolerated the public and private corruption of the Gilded Age – they had other things on their minds. Death became a cultural preoccupation for many grieving families, and spiritualism grew in popularity.

About 620,000 soldiers were killed, which reckons to 2% of the population. In fact, we can’t rely on figures because of the failure of Union bureaucracy to keep an accurate count at the time. Uncounted too were deaths whose wounds whose complications didn’t kill until years after the war.  The federal government did not have the resources to keep track of who was killed and where they were buried. Furthermore, there is no way to count civilian deaths. The number must have been in the thousands due to stray bullets, errant artillery shells, epidemic diseases that spread from army camps, food shortages and hardships especially in the South. Guerilla warfare in which neighbors killed each other in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and northwestern Virginia and West Virginia. The death rate was very different in the North and South, higher in the South because huge armies were created from a small population. About 20% of Southern men of military age died in the war.

Faust approaches her material as a humanist, but as a historian she is impressive as well. She draws on primary sources. She provides fact-based examinations of how the dead were identified (only about half the time, sadly) and how the funeral business grew. She also examines the changing relationship of the individual and the state. That is, if the individual was going to die for the country, the country had better attend to the dead with national cemeteries and taking on the duty of informing families of the death of their loved ones. Government never felt this fundamental obligation to those who served before - there are no national graveyards for the who died in the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812.

1 comment:

  1. Hopping over from the Nonfiction Challenge....

    What an interesting approach to the Civil War. I learned things just by reading your review!

    Joy's Book Blog