Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering is about memory and the Civil War, but not in the conventionally understood fashion. Although Faust writes a bit about the memory of the war in the national narrative, she’s more interested in how the raw butchery of the war affected American culture on a micro level. The understanding of death in the family and in literature, she suggests, was transformed by the immense human cost of the war and the distance of major battlefields from the homes of many soldiers. Death, as it were, was conducted differently after the war than before.
Faust suggests that a particular understanding of the “Good Death” predominated in the United States before the war. The Good Death involved dying at home, with one’s family, and with the presence of mind to understand and accept the process. The United States had thus far missed out on the opening stages of industrial war, participating only on the periphery of the Napleonic Wars and defeating Mexico without substantial loss. The Civil War represented a demographic event, so to speak, that made the previous appreciation of death difficult. Death came suddenly, often with great pain, and sometimes left no identifiable remains. Even when remains could be identified, the state lacked the bureaucratic and physical infrastructure necessary to transfer the bodies home. Technology also presented a problem, although the use of embalming expanded exponentially during the war.
The Civil War represented a unique expansion in the capacity of the state in nineteenth century America, including growth in its capability to manage death. The raising of large armies, their operation in war, and the management of their demobilization all stressed and expanded the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. Faust details how the managing of Union war dead during and after the war required the state to act in previously unimagined ways. There was substantial difference between the North and the South, of course, in part because the war was fought mostly on Southern soil but also because of the poverty of the South after the war.
The war transformed death bureaucratically, but it also changed how Americans understood mourning at the family and community level. Belief in the literal Resurrection of the body, for example, ran up against the difficulty of missing or scattered remains. The demographic impact of the death of over 600000 military age men left a common set of holes in families and communities. The war also taxed what were widely believed to be pacifist Christian commitments. Christians in the North and the South justified the war in their own ways, but as the United States had not previously experienced a large mobilization for war and had substantially smaller military forces than its European counterparts, pacifist resistance to the idea of killing remained a factor. Faust writes a bit about the problem of killing, but doesn’t really add much to the literature on the creation of the citizen-solider-killer.
It’s an interesting book, and it included quite a few interesting stories, but in the end the effort left me cold. From a social science point of view I would have liked some comparison; the entire nineteenth century was an era of social transformation, and in particular the expansion of the bureaucratic expansion of the state, so I’m skeptical that the Civil War played a singular role in the transformation of the management of death. In fairness, Faust doesn’t explicitly argue that it was such, although I think she heavily implies it. A less social science-y way of approaching the book is to think of it as a story about the reaction to a social shock in early modernity, without judgment about any particular cause or effect. That’s OK, but I guess I want a little bit more analysis. As I suggested, the story that Faust tells is interesting, but perhaps not quite interesting enough that, sans analysis, it can carry a full book.