Drew Gilpin Faust’s Landmark: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Turns 15

Drew Gilpin Faust’s Landmark: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Turns 15

In 1866, while surveying former Confederate landscapes, Edmund Whitman observed that the “entire country over which the war has extended, . . . composes one vast charnel house of the dead.”[1] Although southerners were mostly the denizens living inside that veritable “house of the dead,” Drew Gilpin Faust has produced an intellectual history of Civil War death that focuses chiefly on New Englanders. In so doing, Faust breaks with decades of her previous scholarly attentiveness towards the white South. Dr. Faust’s professional background sheds light on this latter-day concentration. Faust researched and wrote the book during her tenure as dean of the Radcliffe Institute, and became Harvard’s 28th president six months prior to its publication. Beginning on the second page of Faust’s preface, Civil War-era Harvard graduates, dropouts, and professors appear, with figures that include Henry L. Abbott, Robert Gould Shaw, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Francis Channing Barlow, Edmund Whitman, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dr. Henry Bowditch, poet James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others.[2]This crowd of Bostonian soldiers, intellectuals, and reformers, (in a monograph about killing in the American South), reveals the purpose of the book. This Republic of Suffering is a study of the reactions, reflections, and reforms provoked by the carnage of the American Civil War – what Faust calls “the work of death.”[3] The book’s title divulges Faust’s converging approaches. While observing dead and dying Union soldiers in the South, Frederick Law Olmstead reflected that such carnage had created a “republic of suffering.”[4] Across the 271-page narrative, Faust uncovers how the “work of death” fundamentally reshaped Victorian grief customs among men and women, yielded a literary harvest of fiction and poetry, and altered the Federal government’s obligations to the dead and their families. In total, Faust’s Republic  emerges as a monumental contribution to the intellectual history of the era.

The book opens with the reactions of an American people, government, and military bureaucracy that were wholly unprepared for the killing that would ultimately claim at least 620,000 combatants.[5] In lieu of the “Good Death” defined in the medieval ars moriendi, Civil War soldiers met inglorious ends at the hands of disease, accidents, suicide, executions, and the weapons of the Industrial Revolution. Soldiers were suddenly brutalized and desensitized by the nature and scale of Civil War killing. The constant conundrum of how to respectfully (or even physically) dispose of so many human bodies is an undertow that runs throughout the book. “At war’s outset,” Faust writes, “the coffin [was] the basic marker of the ‘decency’ that distinguished human from animal interment.”[6] With so many to bury, however, the coffin was the first norm to disappear as soldiers “shoveled corpses into pits . . . dehumanizing both the living and the dead through their disregard.”[7] As one Union soldier wrote after Shiloh, he and his colleagues would “dig holes, . . . pile them in like dead cattle and have teams to draw them together like picking up pumpkins.”[8]After Antietam, fifty-eight dead Confederates were thrown into a well.[9] Additionally, bodies were robbed of jewelry, wallets and clothing. Amidst such conditions, a Union surgeon found that “all signs of emotion . . . or ordinary feelings of tenderness and sympathy” disappeared.[10] The “unforgettable scenes of battlefield carnage,” Faust reasons, “made soldiers question both the humanity of those slaughtered like animals and the humanity of those who had wreaked such devastation.”[11]

As with all wars, notions of violence and manhood became inextricably intertangled. W.E.B. DuBois later thought it “extraordinary . . . that in the minds of most people . . . only murder makes men.” DuBois mocked this marque of masculinity, saying “The slave . . . was humble . . . and the world ignored him. The slave killed white men; and behold, he was a man!”[12] Through connecting emancipation to killing, however, Faust notes that the war gave enslaved males “an opportunity to become the agent rather than the victim of violence. Killing for black soldiers . . . was an act of personal empowerment and the vehicle of racial emancipation. To kill and to be . . . permitted to kill was ironically to claim a human right.”[13] But with killing also came retribution. The concept of vengeance against both the living and the dead constitutes the most searing sections of the book. Pushing against “the oft-repeated trope” of the “brothers” war, Faust exposes an “emerging delight in killing,” and a deepening sense that “vengeance came to play an ever more important role, joining principles of duty and self-defense in legitimating violence.”[14] Faust persuasively illustrates that the appetite for revenge did not end at Appomattox. “The hundreds of thousands of Union bodies in their midst,” Faust argues, “provided an irresistible target for southern rage as well as a means to express the refusal to accept Confederate defeat. It had proved impossible to overcome a live Union army, but bitter Confederates could still wage war against a dead one.”[15] This vengeance against poorly buried Union corpses, highlights the practicality of a formalized national cemetery program.

Norms disappeared, but so did individuals.  Soldiers’ bodies were literally “vaporized by the firepower of this first modern war.” According to Faust, civilians “found this outcome incomprehensible, but soldiers who had witnessed the destructiveness of battle understood all too well the reality of men instantly transformed into nothing.”[16] With thousands listed as “missing” on casualty roles, families hired “paid agents” engaged in detective work to find the graves of the disappeared.[17] Sutlers sold name badges to help identify bodies. Both Union and Confederate governments were slow to adequately address the crisis of missing soldiers and “Unknown” graves, but in July 1864, newly organized “registration units” managed to identify “every Union body” and record “every grave” at the Fort Stevens battlefield.[18] This success at “naming” Civil War dead, however, was unmatched before Fort Stevens and never replicated after.

For Faust, the work of reflecting upon the losses and disappearances is mostly left to northern poets, authors, and intellectuals. Faust probes the literary meditations of army nurse Walt Whitman, combat survivor Ambrose Bierce and New Englanders like Herman Melville, professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the reclusive Emily Dickinson (the latter three of which never wrote within one-hundred miles of a battlefield). [19] Within this rich harvest of Civil War literature, the “Good Death” itself is missing. Bierce, for example, focused on the ignoble, often “sudden” deaths of suicides, executions, and the thrashing about of battlefield casualties in their final moments.[20] Although Faust mentions Confederate poets Henry Timrod and Abram Ryan, the South’s literary musings are noticeably absent.[21]

Leaving the literary realm, Faust returns to her principal theme of reform. To compensate for government deficiencies, private organizations, and common citizens stepped-up to push for and provide needed improvements designed to limit casualties, as well as collect, preserve, memorialize, and account for dead and missing soldiers. Although previous historians regard surgeon Jonathan Letterman as progenitor of the Union Army Ambulance Corps, Faust lauds an obscure father. When Bostonian Henry Bowditch’s wounded son, Nat, died following days of neglect on a battlefield, Bowditch turned a need for an army ambulance service into a “cause célèbre.”[22] The state, he insisted . . . had an obligation to its soldiers.”[23] Bowditch’s goal, buttressed by what Faust calls his “moral influence,”[24] (as a grieving father), “was achieved in the last year of the war.”[25] With this accomplishment, Faust reckons, “Bowditch transformed Nat’s suffering into the salvation of others.”[26] Beyond individuals like Bowditch, Faust surveys newly founded and privately run improvement associations like the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the New England Soldiers Relief Association, the Christian Commission, the Pennsylvania State Agency, Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office, the Central Association of South Carolina, the Louisiana Soldiers Relief Association, and the South Carolina Relief Depot.[27] These organizations engendered reform, far beyond anything within the antebellum military imagination and new directions in federal legislation (often ushered by soldiers’ families) led to pension and survivors’ benefits.[28]

With the September 1861 General Orders No. 33, government reforms toward burying the dead commenced.[29] That necessity did not stop until the central state stood “in loco parentis” toward those who had fallen in its defense.[30] In so doing, according to Faust, “the federal government assumed new responsibility for the war dead.”[31] “No longer simply the responsibility of their families,” Faust continues, “they, and their loss, now belonged to the nation.”[32] This increasing government stewardship, led directly to the genesis of the national cemetery system.[33]Beginning with emergency measures by generals in the field, followed by more organized directives from the War Department,[34] and ultimately with congressional legislation in April 1866 and again in February 1867, national cemeteries for Union dead eventually broke ground in every state that witnessed a major battle.[35] Here too, however, private citizens like David Wills of Gettysburg and reformers like Clara Barton were deeply involved, as were Union army officers like James Moore, Edmund Whitman, and Chaplain William Earnshaw. By 1871 the work was complete. 303,536 Union soldiers were reinterred at seventy-four newly established national cemeteries, at the cost of more than four million dollars.[36] The defeated Confederacy, led by local Ladies Memorial Associations, took years to catch-up and buried rebel dead in separate cemeteries. The number of graves marked “Unknown” in Union and Confederate cemeteries today, remains as a testament to the belatedness of measures to identify, collect, and account for the dead and missing.

Faust explains that the postwar work of death gave the United States its Memorial Day. Initiated by Charleston freedmen on May 1, 1865, “the first Decoration Day” occurred at a burial plot for Union prisoners of war. [37] In 1866 southerners set April 26 (and other dates) to honor their dead. Finally, in 1868, General John Logan fixed May 30 as the nation’s official Memorial Day. Although, as Faust notes, “Even today many southern states recognize Confederate Memorial Day on a different date from the nationwide holiday.”[38] In terms of chronology, this point is Faust’s final major distinction revealing the separateness of the Union and Confederate burials and customs.

Despite the “remarkable shift in attitudes and behaviors toward accounting for the dead”[39] begun by individuals, private agencies and government offices, Faust expertly addresses the fact that the number of noncombatant civilian Civil War deaths remains completely unknown. “[N]o one then or since has tried to make a systematic compilation or enumeration of such deaths,” Faust observes. “Their losses remain the stuff of anecdote and even legend.”[40] This “work of death in the American Civil War,” therefore, remains unfinished. In 2011, however, demographic historian J. David Hacker published exhaustive census analysis revising the century-long agreed upon combatant death count of 620,000 to a “preferred estimate” of 752,000.[41] Hacker’s 2011 findings, therefore, constitute the greatest post-Faust stride toward Civil War “accounting” to date.

Fifteen years after publication, This Republic of Suffering endures as a remarkable model of intellectual history, but much ground is still left unbroken. As stated earlier, those southerners living inside the veritable “house of the dead” during the war are given short shrift in Faust’s mostly New Englander narrative.[42] Scholar Angela Esco Elder’s recent Love and Duty offers trailblazing insight into white southern wartime widowhood.[43] Additionally, John Neff and Caroline Janney have written admirably about post-war reconciliation, commemoration, and Lost Cause traditions related to the South’s dead.[44] But until historians further explore the wartime experience of  black and white southerners watching their states, towns, counties, farms and yards turned into mass graves, the history of death and the American Civil War will remain profoundly incomplete.[45]

[1] Faust, 221-222. This quote is partially repeated on page 228.

[2] Other Harvard figures deliniated by Faust include Francis Palfrey, John Pierpont, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and James Freeman Clarke. Another Harvard individual that is found throughout Faust’s book, but never named, is Henry Whitney Bellows. As the architect and founding president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Bellows’ work ranks among the most discussed and lauded in Faust’s narrative.

[3] Faust, xiv, emphasis added by Jones.

[4] Frederick Law Olmsted, quoted by Faust, xiii. Especially in the arena of public health, Olmstead is considered a public intellectual.

[5] Faust cites the facile death toll of 620,000 Civil War combatants, even though she discusses J. David Hacker’s dissertation, wherein he argues that the combatant death count is underestimated. Since then, Hacker has published findings that raise the estimated Civil War combatant dead to some 750,000. Mention of Hacker’s conclusions are not listed in her text or endnotes, simply because his milestone essay “A Census Based Count of Civil War Dead,” Civil War History, 57, no. 4 (December 2011) was still three years from publication. See Faust, 273n(2)-274.

[6] Faust, 73.

[7] Faust, xvii.

[8] Faust, 71.

[9] Faust, 69.

[10] Faust, 59.

[11] Faust, 31.

[12] Faust, 48.

[13] Faust, 55.

[14] Faust, 32; 37; and 35.

[15] Faust, 224.

[16] Faust, 128.

[17] Faust, 117.

[18] Faust, 135; Faust does not offer an official designation for these groups, she notes them as simply, “a special graves registration unit” or “registration units,” without a formal title.

[19] Faust states that Emily Dickinson “has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations;” (Faust, 204).

[20] Faust, 198.

[21] Faust briefly mentions southern intellectuals James Henry Hammond and William Gilmore Simms, but does not quote from their writings. See Faust, 181.

[22] Faust, 170.

[23] Faust, 90.

[24] Faust, 90.

[25] Faust, 170.

[26] Faust, 170.

[27] Faust, 87-89, 107, 110-117.

[28] Faust, 255-256.

[29] Faust, 65.

[30] Edmund Whitman, quoted by Faust, 229.

[31] Faust, 99; emphasis added by Jones.

[32] Faust, 101.

[33] Faust, 135.

[34] Faust states that “Without any appropriation or formal policy with which to implement this legislative action, the War Department established cemeteries as emergency circumstances demanded. . . . Three of these cemeteries, Chattanooga, Stones River and Knoxville, were created by Union generals;” see Faust, 99.

[35] Faust, 223; 235; 238.

[36] Faust completely ignores the establishment of national cemeteries in the Carolinas, as well as the Trans-Mississippi West theater of Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and modern-day Oklahoma.

[37] Faust, 228.

[38] Faust, 241.

[39] Faust, 135.

[40] Faust, 138.

[41] J. David Hacker, “A Census Based Count of Civil War Dead,” Civil War History, 57, no. 4 (December 2011): 307-348.

[42] The imbalance toward Faust’s northern focus may surprise readers, considering her recognition that “Confederate men died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one in five white southern men of military age did not survive the Civil War,” that “In the South . . . 18 percent of white males of military age perished in the war,” and that “In the North . . . the rate of death of men of military age was one-third that in the Confederacy,” (see Faust xi, 149 and 151 respectively). My use of the term “Yankee” is to again draw attention to the multitude of New England and New York voices employed in Faust’s narrative. Union soldiers and northern civilians from states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Iowa did not consider themselves “Yankees” and are not commonly quoted in Faust’s narrative. The Ohioan Ambrose Bierce and New Yorker Walt Whitman are the only major non-New England northern literary figures that Faust discusses within her book in any detail. Missourian Mark Twain is mentioned but one time.

[43] See Angela Esco Elder, Love and Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022).

[44] See John R. Neff, Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2005), and Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[45] Given Faust’s long catalog of scholarship exploring southern intellectual history, it is shocking that similar research is not deployed in This Republic of Suffering. The real source of confusion here is the book’s broad subtitle “Death and the American Civil War.” I would venture that President Faust’s editors at Knopf changed her initial subtitle to appeal to a larger market. Perhaps Dr. Faust began with a subtitle which openly declared that the book was mostly about New England reactions, reflection and reforms related to Civil War death.

Evan Jones

Evan C. Jones completed his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia. He is co-editor of Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863 (Louisiana State University Press, 2014).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.