69: Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering

In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust uses a wide variety of primary materials to understand the cultural implications of the Civil War.  Working from correspondence between soldiers and their families and friends; poetry and writings by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, and others; and the voices of the legions of relief workers, coffin manufacturers, government bureaucrats, and other support staff, Faust shows new processes of dying and killing, along with new ways of making sense of these processes, helped shift the nation from a relatively unstructured agrarian federation to a modern, centralized, bureaucratic, industrial state.

The Civil War produced some 620,000 dead, which made death not just one of many features of the war but the defining element of it.  The sheer mass of bodies, generated by the combination of old styles of warfare with new, technologically-enhanced ways of killing, created huge logistical issues.  Soldiers died in new and gruesome ways, which made identification difficult; but even if they didn’t, there was still the problem of mitigating bodily decay while trying to identify thousands of bodies and return them to their families.  These new problems generated new social and technological systems: refrigerated coffins, new embalming practices, streamlined accounting methods, and new bureaucratic systems to oversee the sheer volume of bodies needing to be processed.  Dealing with death thus helped businesses and the nation develop more modern systems for mass production and distribution.

New ways of dying also upset the Victorian cultural practices of “The Good Death,” where the dying get familial comfort and spiritual peace before their death, so that family and friends can be assured of their spiritual fulfillment.  Americans thought that death was properly in the home, and read sacred meaning into burials of their loved ones.  The Civil War made this cluster of practices extremely difficult to maintain, and many of the modern technological developments and bureaucratic processes that developed to deal with death during the Civil War were shaped by the cultural need for The Good Death.  However, while families eager for accounts of their loved one’s last moments sought out soldiers who had survived, and businesses and the government devised systems to identify and return bodies home for proper burial, many soldiers died anonymously and were buried in unmarked graves.  Even though the Union created a special agency for finding all Union soldiers and returning them to the North, decomposition (and acts of Southern resentment) destroyed bodies beyond all recognition.  In this new world of mass anonymity in death, the meaning of death became less about an individual’s duty to God and more about his duty to the country.  Abe Lincoln sanctified this new kind of “national sacrifice” in the Gettysburg Address.

By examining the “work of death” from multiple angles, including technological, cultural, economic, and political, Faust argues that the Civil War was a turning point in American history – because it prevented Southern secession and ended slavery, of course, but also because death during the Civil War helped usher in a new modern state.

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