To write a great book choose a great theme, said Herman Melville, one of the sages, fools, and common folk who appear in this vivid panorama of tragic history. So let us now praise Drew Gilpin Faust for tackling such a theme in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf , 346 pages, $27.95): We all die, yet in one particularly gruesome war men died so differently that their survivors made a new and different world.
Before the Civil War, most people accepted death as a fact of life, but then something new happened under the American sun: mass deaths of healthy men at the hands of other men. In 1861 death became unprecedented in its numbers, unspeakable in its violence, incomprehensible in its distances from home.
In the South, three men out of four answered the call to colors; one out of five Southern men perished. Some 360,222 men in blue died, and an estimated 258,000 in gray, twice as many of them from disease as from battle.
Previously most people died at home, among family who engaged in familiar rituals. One’s last words were noted as an index of one’s state of mind and readiness to meet his maker. These concepts were part of an ancient rite of passage, called the “Good Death” by the Victorians. “Dying was an art, and the tradition of ars moriendi had provided rules of conduct for the moribund and their attendants since at least the 15th century,” Faust writes.
But now as armies fought battles of attrition, men (mostly) who were beloved somewhere died afar, alone and “Unknown” in Walt Whitman’s word; 40 percent of Union soldiers (and more Confederates) were never identified. Absent notification procedures, military authorities never reported many deaths to relatives. Survivors exerted heart-wrenching, vain efforts to find their missing.
Faust cites the universal instinct among humankind to respect human remains, to honor the dead with “decent” burial. But the sheer numbers at an Antietam or Petersburg overwhelmed that practice; neither army had the manpower to deal with bodies. Homely rituals became less common; normal forms of grieving were abandoned at awful psychological cost in a kind of national epidemic of denial. In some realms, proto-NGOs began to act in loco familiae. Having waged war over the equality of all human beings, the federal government accepted its responsibility to respect those who had done the dirtiest work and paid the highest price.
In these new circumstances, new rituals evolved and new institutions arose. New dress codes appeared for ladies in periods of “half” and “full” mourning. The government ordered the reporting of every death, the systematic registration of graves, the establishment of our National Cemeteries. President Lincoln enunciated the nation’s renewed commitment “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”
The war brought a new schizophrenic confusion. How could any benevolent God allow such horror? These questions led to new crises of faith among people who considered religion more important than politics. Yet the trauma of the War and its innumerable sorrows also prompted a revival of faith, particularly in the South.
Faust identifies the cause of many postwar changes as death, one of only two events that every human experiences. So what could be a more accessible portal through which to examine so cataclysmic a period? Next question: Why didn’t some historian do this