Book Review,  Civil War Era

Book Review: The Mounting Cost

“The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.” In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust underscores the impact of the Civil War’s mass deaths and suffering on American society. As Faust argues, the war “challenged” Americans’ “most fundamental assumptions about life’s value and meaning” and, in the face of such incredible horrors, “forced them to question the ability to cope, their commitment to the war, even their faith in a righteous God.” Faust surmises that the “harvest of death” wrought by four years of war eventually overrode “persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood” to help establish “the modern American union.”[1]

Faust breaks down her argument into eight chapters, each highlighting an area in which the traditional culture of American beliefs on death and dying were challenged by the conflict. In “Dying,” she emphasizes the advancements in military weaponry and the expansion of rail lines to demonstrate how the Civil War became an unanticipated long-duration clash resulting in mass casualties never before seen in this era of America. Unsanitary camp conditions and medical practices contributed to the rapid spread of disease adding to the mounting death toll from violence.[2]

Drawing on numerous firsthand accounts of battlefield and hospital deaths, Faust presents compelling evidence of how the views concerning the passing of life shifted as Americans confronted unimaginable loss. Prior to the war, standards of “dying well” had been established for centuries. The “Good Death” required a readiness of mind, body, and spirit with kin prepared to carry out numerous rights and traditions upon passing. However, as Faust points out, the sudden death of soldiers on the battlefield forced many Americans to redefine the “Good Death” and the procedures surrounding the event. Often, nurses took the place of family members who once stood ready to witness the dying’s “last words,” an important aspect of “dying well.”[3] Marilyn Mayer Culpepper and Pauline Gordon Adams concur with Faust’s interpretation of nurses stepping into this assumed role of kin. In their article for the American Journal of Nursing, Culpepper and Adams detail the Civil War nurse’s significance as one who would listen “to confessions and dying words” thus bypassing the requirement for the presence of a relative as a witness to achieve the “Good Death.”[4]

In her chapter, titled “Killing,” Faust addresses how ultra-devout Civil War era Americans sidestepped the Biblical Sixth Commandment in the attempt to justify battlefield slaughter. As the number of deaths grew, “vengeance came to play an ever more important role, joining principles of duty and self-defense in legitimizing violence.” Borrowing extensively from the letters of soldiers, Faust shows how such ideas were accomplished through dehumanizing the enemy.[5]

Even proper interment of the dead became a challenge throughout the war. As Faust demonstrates in “Burying,” long established burial traditions fell by the wayside when body counts rose into the hundreds and thousands in a single battle. Lack of preparation in dealing with such a high number of casualties meant individuals were often left exposed to the elements indefinitely upon death. However, with the aid of numerous period advertisements, Faust shows how Americans embraced the practice of embalming in an attempt to preserve remains. This shift in practice served “as a foundation for the emergence of the funeral industry and the professionalization of the undertaker.”[6]

Faust employs several period accounts of civilian deaths to demonstrate how the Civil War “respected no rigid delineation between home and battlefront.” In “Realizing,” she relays the stories of individuals who lost their lives when violence and disease spilled over into communities and farms from the clashes, camps, and hospitals of war. In various journals and diaries kept by these civilian witnesses, men and women confessed to adopting such tactics as “denial and numbness” instead of realization and acknowledgement to cope with the horrific circumstances brought on by the conflict.[7]

Through “Believing and Doubting,” Faust examines how Americans searched for methods to cope with the Civil War’s extreme losses. Though traditionally Protestant or Catholic, many post-war Americans turned to spiritualism to address questions their respective faiths left unanswered. In particular, as Faust points out, this shift was brought on as a way of seeking proof of an afterlife.[8] Mark A. Lause solidified this theory in Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era by asserting that “wartime mediums” were “strained to meet the growing demand” and by highlighting the rise in post-war sales of planchettes, which became the “take-home version of the séance,” the Ouija board, in the 1880s.[9]

Additionally, concerning matters of faith, Faust asserts that both the North and the South claimed to have God on their side throughout the conflict.[10] However, Luke E. Harlow argues that, for the South, this was a departure from standards. According to Harlow, “historic southern Protestant political-theological tradition” encouraged evangelicals to refrain “from wielding religion in direct political engagement, believing the church a purely spiritual institution that should not meddle with the purely secular affairs of state.”[11]

With the war’s end came the arduous and emotionally challenging task of accounting for each lost life. Faust explores this in both “Accounting” and “Numbering.” She relies heavily on the accounts of Edmund Whitman, who was assigned to a large area of the South to locate the graves of Union soldiers after the war, and concludes that the work of Whitman for the North and grassroots organizations for the South led to the “establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries” which helped to create the “Civil War Dead” as “a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come.”[12]

Faust argues for the importance of achieving a count of the dead for this was “a way to grasp the magnitude of sorrow.” She also highlights this as a method by which “the enormity of war’s toll” might be communicated and comprehended.[13] Historian J. David Hacker agrees. In his article, “Recounting the Dead,” he states that numbers matter in relaying “just how terrible, and just how extensive” the Civil War’s “consequences” were.[14]

This Republic of Suffering provides an excellent overview of the ways in which the Civil War changed how Americans view death. Through extensive primary sources ranging from diaries and journals to personal letters and period poetry, Faust demonstrates the struggle within the struggle of coping with immense loss brought on by an underestimated conflict. Despite its sometimes repetitive nature, Faust’s book offers incredible insight into the world of suffering experienced by those on the front and at home.

The book is especially significant in adding to the general understanding of the experiences and duties of female Civil War nurses. In addition to their medical responsibilities, nurses often took the place of mothers, wives, or sisters at the bedside of dying soldiers. Faust’s abundant research illuminates the importance of these seemingly trivial roles and adds depth to the more basic existing scholarship in this area of study.


[1] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), Preface, EBSCOhost.

[2] Faust, This Republic of Suffering, Chapter 1.

[3] Faust.

[4] Marilyn Mayer Culpepper and Pauline Gordon Adams, “Nursing in the Civil War,” American Journal of Nursing 88, no. 7 (July 1988): 984, JSTOR.

[5] Faust, This Republic of Suffering, Chapter 2.

[6] Faust, Chapter 3.

[7] Faust, Chapter 5.

[8] Faust, Chapter 6.

[9] Mark A. Lause, Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 130, JSTOR.

[10] Faust, This Republic of Suffering, Chapter 6.

[11] Luke E. Harlow, “The Long Life of Proslavery Religion,” in The World the Civil War Made, ed. Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 137, JSTOR.

[12] Faust, This Republic of Suffering, Chapter 7.

[13] Faust, Chapter 8.

[14] J. David Hacker, “Recounting the Dead,” New York Times, September 20, 2011, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/recounting-the-dead/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0#more-105317.


Bibliography

Culpepper, Marilyn Mayer, and Pauline Gordon Adams. “Nursing in the Civil War.” American Journal of Nursing 88, no. 7 (July 1988): 981-984. JSTOR.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. EBSCOhost.

Hacker, J. David. “Recounting the Dead.” New York Times, September 20, 2011. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/recounting-the-dead/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0#more-105317.

Harlow, Luke E. “The Long Life of Proslavery Religion.” In The World the Civil War Made, edited by Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, 132-58. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. JSTOR.

Lause, Mark A. Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. JSTOR.


* Image courtesy of Mike Goad via Flickr