Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thoughts on Reading of This Republic of Suffering.

I am reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. I already posted once on a related topic.

The first chapter deals with the concept of death, as experienced by soldiers. It is interesting as cultural history. Attitudes towards death vary over time, and with life expectancy and death rates. As the United States entered the Civil War, the death rate here was much lower than in Europe; it might be expected that death would be less acceptable. And, of course, the death rate in men of military age was quite low, so the rapid increase in the death rate of soldiers would have been especially culturally disruptive.

Faust suggests that a "good death" at the time was one in which the dying person was surrounded by family and carried out within the Protestant church. This is attested by letters. I think the letters do in fact show a cultural attitude as to how letters home should be written by the serious ill and dying, but perhaps are not equally accurate as a reflection of how such people actually think and feel. I have written letters to my parents at home when I was at school and living abroad, and took care to write things that I thought would interest and please them, rather than things that might distress and sadden them.

I could not help but think of the culture of the "good death" in terms of Irish Americans, since I am one. It is estimated that at least 150,000 Irish Americans fought on the Union side, and there were also Irish Americans fighting with the Confederation (think of the O'Haras of Tara in Gone With the Wind).

There was a custom of the American Wake in Ireland when Irish emigrated to America. Theemigrants belived that they would never see the home folk again, and their parents and siblings believed that they would never see the emigrants again. Death surrounded by one's family may not have been seen as possible for the Irish American soldier, and thus not part of the "good death".

The Irish American Catholics would have seen a "good death" as being one following confession, absolution of his sins, attendance at mass, reception of the sacrament of extreme unction, and burial in hallowed ground. Indeed, the Absolution delivered by Fr. William Colby to the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg is rather famous. These expectations were seldom realized. They were also different than those described by author Faust.


The second chapter of the book deals with killing. Author Faust writes that "killing is battle's fundamental instrument and purpose". I suppose the fundamental purpose of the war for the Confederacy was to preserve the Confederacy, as the fundamental purpose for the Union was to preserve the Union. Each side initially thought the purpose of the war could be achieved through a few battles (and indeed with little loss of life).

Campaigns were fought for strategic purposes. The Union fought to control the Confederate ports to starve its economy. It fought to control the Mississippi to divide the Confederacy in half and cripple its commerce on the river. Sherman's March to the Sea and campaign in South Carolina were designed to break the will of the Confederacy and to reduce its economic capacity to prosecute the war; Sherman in fact often avoided battles in furtherance of his strategic goals. When Lee moved his army into Maryland  in 1862, the strategic goals might be to described as diminishing the will of the Union to fight and increasing the likelihood of the Confederacy's obtaining foreign allies; the Union at the Battle of Antietam sought to stop the drive north while protecting the capital, and gain a victory that would allow Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation (which would deal a huge economic blow to south and make it extremely difficult for European powers to support the Confederacy). Killing opponents in these battles do not seem to me to be their purpose.

Indeed, winning a battle is usually defined in terms of the side left holding the field, and it is the losing side that retreats from the battle. (The Vietnam war that defined success in terms of body counts was I think an anomaly and the approach was not successful.)

Indeed, in the Civil War each side took prisoners in battle and later paroled them, allowing them to return to their own side on the basis that they would not participate in fighting until and unless formally exchanged. Thus a Union soldier paroled in the north could be exchanged for a Confederate soldier paroled in the south, and both could return to combat. Prisoners were not simply killed (with the exception of black prisoners by Confederate troops) as they might have been if killing were the purpose of the battles.

Moreover, it seems likely that an enemy soldier permanently disabled by his wounds in battle was even more of an objective of the fighting than a dead enemy soldier. The wounded soldier had to be cared for (using resources of the enemy state) and would in all probability be an economic burden on the enemy government or people for the rest of the war. In the fog of war, soldiers participating in major battles with often inaccurate weapons and limited visibility might believe (correctly) that they were far more likely to wound an enemy than kill one, and that any one shot was unlikely to do either.

I am also dubious that one gets an accurate view of soldiers views of killing in battle from the letters that they write home to wives, children and parents. I suspect that the soldiers, largely coming from rural backgrounds, have much more experience with the slaughter of animals that we urbanized Americans do today. That might make it harder for us to understand the views of people 150 years ago. I have never served in the army, much less than in battle, so I don't really know what killing is like; I doubt that author Faust does either.

Statue of Fr. William Corby at Gettysburg National Battlefield

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