Wednesday, June 04, 2014

This Republic of Death -- Thoughts on the book by Drew Gilpin Faust

I just finished reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. The author's subject is not death in general, but the deaths of soldiers during the war and the ways society responded to those deaths.

(Note that old people, infants and children, and women continued to die during the war, and there would be more of their deaths than deaths of soldiers. Black civilians must have died in considerable numbers as they sought to escape from slavery, as they followed union troops and in the so-called "contraband camps". There would have been civilians who died as "collateral damage" during battles, and others who died directly as a result of contagion from the epidemics sweeping armies and prison of war camps. As a result of the extensive loss of agricultural crops, there must have been a lot of hunger; this would have been especially true in the south under embargo, with infrastructure under attack, and cotton -- the major trading good -- in short supply; that kind of hunger leads to death from disease and even starvation. It must also have been hard for people to deal with these deaths per se, and at the same time as the deaths of so many soldiers.)

The Conduct of the War

The books paints the governments of the Union and the Confederacy as quite amateurish. Almost none of the people in power realized what the war would be like when they started it. In 1861, volunteers flocked to the standards of the two countries for three month terms of service, assuming that a battle or two would end the war. The early encounters, fought by amateur soldiers were marked by radical military incompetence. They were, however, not very lethal,

As the war went on, campaigns and battles become more and more lethal, with tens of thousands of casualties in a single day, and some 50,000 casualties in the battle of Gettysburg. Author Faust attributes the battle deaths to the improved weapons technology used during much of the war with tactics better suited for earlier wars fought with less lethal technology. The high level of mortality may also be due in part to the primitive medical technology of the time. Moreover, there was no general ambulance service to bring the wounded to care until the last year of the war, and wounded would sometimes have laid in the field of battle for days before reaching medical care.

But casualties in battle pale before the deaths due to disease; the armies had little or no understanding of basic hygiene and twice as many soldiers died on the march or in camp as in battle. The prisoner of war camps were worse.

Faust points out that neither army kept good records of their soldiers. Thus it was not clear how many soldiers were killed or wounded, how many were absent without leave or deserted, how many were too sick to fight, nor what the actual strength of units were. Moreover, these data tended to be falsified to make the strength of units difficult for the opposition to accurately estimate. The record system that had sufficed for the small professional army of the 1850s was completely inadequate for the much larger armies of the Civil War.

So too, there was no adequate system in either the Union or the Confederate military to retrieve, identify and bury the dead. Thousands of skeletons lay unattended, and thousands more bodies were unidentified in mass graves at the end of the war. Despite a major effort after the war, the fate of hundreds of thousands of soldiers was still uncertain.

As a result of these deficiencies, no one really knows how many soldiers died in the Civil War. Author Faust gives the estimate of 620,000 or about two percent of the prewar population, and that is justified by a century or more of work by statisticians and historians after the war. However, it is only an estimate.

The book suggests, however, that it was in the aftermath of the Civil War that many of the modern systems for dealing with the wounded, keeping records in battle and dealing with dead soldiers were developed.


One of the points made in the book that I found shocking was that southerners would desecrate the bodies and graves of Union soldiers and that northerners would desecrate the bodies and graves of Confederate soldiers. After the war, the U.S. government created a network of national cemeteries and moved the Union dead to these cemeteries to the extent possible, but did not do so for the Confederate dead. Many who had supported the Confederacy, who were living under harsh conditions and suffering from aspects of the Reconstruction, were especially upset and angered by the unwillingness of the federal government after the war to bury the Confederate dead in national cemeteries. It was only decades after the war that the government took over the maintenance of the graveyards of the Confederate dead.

I was surprised by the degree to which non-governmental and even commercial enterprises carried out functions that we now assume to be governmental. Clara Barton took a wagon load of medical supplies to Antietam and stayed to nurse the wounded, doing both as an individual; later she organized an office to respond to requests for information from the families of soldiers before the government responded to that need.

For profit outfits sprung up to embalm soldier's corpses, sell coffins (metal and wood) and ship the bodies back to their homes. People sold the service of searching for the bodies of loved ones.

Many non profit associations sprung up to perform functions such as the operation of cemeteries for the Confederate dead, or care for the soldiers. The largest of these -- the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission were very large by the standards of the 19th century.

Comforting the Survivors

How were the friends and families of the dead to be comforted? Soldiers sometimes prepared letters of comfort for their families before going into battle; others soldiers wrote such letters on their death beds. Comrades in arms or their officers wrote home about the deaths of soldiers, as did doctors and nurses who attended them in the hospital. Faust points out that such letters tended to assure the recipients that the soldiers had had "good deaths". Most of the soldiers were Protestants, and an aspect of the good death was that the dying man was religiously prepared for death. Faust also found letters that asserted the soldier carried out his duty to his country, acted in a manly fashion, and was brave in the face of the enemy. The letters sometimes gave directions as to where the grave was located.

Similarly, ministers gave sermons that apparently were designed to comfort the friends and families of the deceased, with much the same messages. Many people believed the war to be in some sense a holy war. Some people on each side felt that their side was God's  side in the war. Lincoln famously said that perhaps it was God's will that blood be shed to expiate the sin of slavery. Thus soldiers could be seen as ascending to heaven after death (to eventually be rejoined with their loved ones in a perpetual afterlife) and in carrying out God's plan in the war.

There was even, according to the author, a movement of spiritualists who offered communication with the dead, with large numbers of spiritualists reaching large numbers of people with their messages. (Author Faust does not express any misgiving about the validity of these services nor the motivations of those providing them.)

Early in the war, dead soldiers were given parades and public funerals. This was especially true for officers, and the more senior the officer the grander the public event. Later in the war, when deaths came wholesale, only a few of the most prominent were so honored. Yet there continued to be major public outpourings of grief and commemoration when major heroes died -- notably Stonewall Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. This public mourning seemed to give comfort not only to the millions who admired the honored dead individuals, but to the larger community of people mourning for loved ones and friends.

The Meaning of the War

620,000 men had died to what purpose? Why had they died in such horrendous battles (which for the first time could be experienced by the home folk through photographs and newspaper illustrations).

I suppose one explanation is that as Union soldiers died to save the Union, Confederate soldiers died to save the Confederacy.

Confederate soldiers were described as having died to save the way of life of the Confederacy, and their political ideology which they felt best exemplified the spirit of the American Revolution. Union soldiers were described as having died to assure that the (only) government of the people, by the people and for the people should not perish from the earth.

Some described the northern troops dying to end slavery, the original sin of the United States. Others recognized that only by ending slavery could free labor be the basis of a modern capitalist society, and the Union soldiers died for a nation that developed in the aftermath of the Civil War to be the most influential, free and affluent in the world.
Ronald Reagan used to tell this joke:
Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities -- one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist -- their parents took them to a psychiatrist. 
First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. "What's the matter?" the psychiatrist asked, baffled. "Don't you want to play with any of the toys?" "Yes," the little boy bawled, "but if I did I'd only break them." 
Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. "What do you think you're doing?" the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. "With all this manure," the little boy replied, beaming, "there must be a pony in here somewhere!"
It takes a real optimist to believe that the deaths of 620,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians in the Civil War must have been in a good cause. Would it not have been better to avoid the war by agreeing on a process for the abolition of slavery which prepared the former slaves to live free, and which avoided the legacy of Jim Crow in the south? Why was not such a solution found? Why were the few who realized what the outcome of the war would more probably be unable to carry the deliberations in order to avoid the war?

Perhaps the Confederate dead died in an effort to sustain the bad policies of the leaders of the Confederacy, and the Union dead died because the leaders of the Union were unable to find a better solution than war to the ideological dispute with their southern counterparts.

How Good Was the Book?

This Republic of Suffering won two prestigious prizes, but I must be in the minority. I didn't like it much.

Reading the book I found myself thinking of the expression "the plural of anecdote is not data".  Author Faust quote lots of letters, sermons and speeches. Indeed, there is little possibility of remembering all the names given in the book, since so many of them are of little national importance and only mentioned once in regard to a single quotation. I found it hard to accept that the selected anecdotes were statistically representative of the whole correspondence. Moreover, I wondered whether letters home, sermons and speeches by politicians were accurate depictions of what people really thought and felt.

I recognize that there is a relevant cultural history described in the book. What do people say to console the grieving family of a fallen soldier? What does the minister say in a funeral service? How does a politician spin the deaths of many soldiers? I have little doubt that such things are culture specific, and indeed that the way people spoke in the 1860s was different than the way the spoke in 1776, or 1945, or today. However, I wonder whether there is not a more fundamental level at which we can understand suffering. But as I found Faust's depiction of the proper dress for widows to be uninteresting, so to the cultural history of forms of language seemed not to live up to the billing of a study of suffering in the Civil War.

In some countries in the past, half of all children born died before the age of 5 years. In such countries, the average woman gave birth to many children. It has been suggested -- reasonably I think -- that in these countries parents protected themselves against the grief of so many deaths of their children by maintaining an emotional distance from each child, at least until the child passed the most vulnerable age. (I recall a Latin American country in which a "live birth" was defined as a child born without major deformity who lived for 24 hours after delivery.) I wonder whether the deaths of soldiers by the hundreds of thousands over a few years dulls the emotional response to each new death?

Clearly author Drew Gilpin Faust has read a great deal, both of original source documents and of other historians. Still I found myself bothered by Faust's comment that "killing is battle's fundamental instrument and purpose". Don't most historians of the Civil War ascribe other purposes to its major battles? Are not the purposes of an army in battle often better served capturing or wounding enemies rather than killing them? Indeed the phrase implies that private soldiers, their officers, generals, and the civilian authorities in the national capitals all have the same purposes in each battle; how can we believe that thousands of men at different risk and with different roles and experiences have uniform purposes? (See also my post "Why Did Civil War Soldiers Fight".)

This book was not my cup of tea.

Incidentally, I have previously posted on this book (first, second and third previous post.)

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