Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Republic of Suffering

Drew Gilpin Faust's award winning The Republic of Suffering is quite the read. She looks at the Civil War, and by extension war itself, from the viewpoint of death. Each chapter in the book is concerned with a different aspect. In one she describes the "Good Death," that the soldiers desperately hoped to have. She details the challenges of burial, identification, mourning and making the right memorials.

Most Civil War histories discuss the belief of both sides that the war would be over quickly, won by their side of course. Faust explores what this meant for the aftermath of the bodies. Neither side was prepared to deal with the dead bodies. The systems in place to identify and properly bury dead soldiers did not exist. Civil society and capitalism in the North took advantage of their greater resources to step in where the could, but those in the South were less lucky.

Faust takes advantage of the fact that people of the 19th century were much more likely to write diaries, letters and memoirs than their 21st century counterparts. Much of the book is given to quoting the soldiers and their families as they wrestle with what the war wrought. She tells tragic tales of parents, siblings and spouses seeking out their lost loved ones.

The book ends with the problems of what to do with the dead. I was sad to read that one of the reasons for the construction of national cemeteries was to prevent the desecration of the dead after the war.

This is by no means a happy read, but it is an good one. Those who blithely cheer on when the threat of war is on the horizon would do well to read this book and ponder it.

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