This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

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An illuminating study of the American struggle to comprehend the meaning and practicalities of death in the face of the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War.

During the war, approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. An equivalent proportion of today’s population would be six million. This Republic of Suffering explores the impact of this enormous death toll from every angle: material, political, intellectual, and spiritual. The eminent historian Drew Gilpin Faust ...

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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

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An illuminating study of the American struggle to comprehend the meaning and practicalities of death in the face of the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War.

During the war, approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. An equivalent proportion of today’s population would be six million. This Republic of Suffering explores the impact of this enormous death toll from every angle: material, political, intellectual, and spiritual. The eminent historian Drew Gilpin Faust delineates the ways death changed not only individual lives but the life of the nation and its understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. She describes how survivors mourned and how a deeply religious culture struggled to reconcile the slaughter with its belief in a benevolent God, pondered who should die and under what circumstances, and reconceived its understanding of life after death.

Faust details the logistical challenges involved when thousands were left dead, many with their identities unknown, on the fields of places like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. She chronicles the efforts to identify, reclaim, preserve, and bury battlefield dead, the resulting rise of undertaking as a profession, the first widespread use of embalming, the gradual emergence of military graves registration procedures, the development of a federal system of national cemeteries for Union dead, and the creation of private cemeteries in the South that contributed to the cult of the Lost Cause. She shows, too, how the war victimized civilians through violence that extended beyond battlefields—from disease, displacement, hardships, shortages, emotional wounds, and conflicts connected to the disintegration of slavery.

Throughout, the voices of soldiers and their families, of statesmen, generals, preachers, poets, surgeons, and nurses, of northerners and southerners, slaveholders and freedpeople, of the most exalted and the most humble are brought together to give us a vivid understanding of the Civil War’s most fundamental and widely shared reality.

Were he alive today, This Republic of Suffering would compel Walt Whitman to abandon his certainty that the “real war will never get in the books.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering

“Extraordinary . . . profoundly moving.” —Geoffrey C. Ward, The New York Times Book Review

“It’s a shattering history of the war, focusing exclusively on death and dying–how Americans prepared for death, imagined it, risked it, endured it and worked to understand it.” —Jon Wiener, LA Times Book Review

“Faust is particularly qualified to identify and explain the complex social and political implications of the changing nature of death as America’s internecine conflict attained its full dimensions.” —Ian Garrick Mason, San Francisco Chronicle

“Faust excels in explaining the era’s violent rhetoric and what went on in people’s heads.” —David Waldstreicher, The Boston Globe

This Republic of Suffering is one of those groundbreaking histories in which a crucial piece of the past, previously overlooked or misunderstood, suddenly clicks into focus.” —Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

“Faust is a first-rate scholar who yanks aside the usual veil of history to look narrowly at life's intimate level for new perspectives from the past. She focuses on ordinary lives under extreme duress, which makes for compelling reading.” —Don Oldenburg, USA Today

“The beauty and originality of Faust’s book is that it shows how thoroughly the work of mourning became the business of capitalism, merchandised throughout a society.” —Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

“Fascinating, innovative . . . Faust returns to the task of stripping from war any lingering romanticism, nobility or social purpose.” —Eric Foner, The Nation

“Eloquent and imaginative, Ms. Faust’s book takes a grim topic–how America coped with the massive death toll from the Civil War–and makes it fresh and exciting. . . . [A] widely and justly praised scholarly history.” —Adam Begley, New York Observer

“This Republic of Suffering is a harrowing but fascinating read.” —Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor

“If you read only one book on the Civil War this year, make it this one.” –Kevin M. Levin, American History

“Having always kept the war in her own scholarly sights, Faust offers a compelling reassertion of its basic importance in society and politics alike.” —Richard Wrightman Fox, Slate

“[An] astonishing new book.” —Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

“A moving work of social history, detailing how the Civil War changed perceptions and behaviors about death. . . . An illuminating study.” —Kirkus

“Penetrating . . . Faust exhumes a wealth of material . . . to flesh out her lucid account. The result is an insightful, often moving portrait of a people torn by grief.” —Publishers Weekly

“No other generation of Americans has encountered death on the scale of the Civil War generation. This Republic of Suffering is the first study of how people in both North and South coped with this uniquely devastating experience. How did they mourn the dead, honor their sacrifice, commemorate their memory, and help their families? Drew Gilpin Faust’s powerful and moving answers to these questions provide an important new dimension to our understanding of the Civil War.”
—James M. McPherson, author of This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War

“During the Civil War, death reached into the world of the living in ways unknown to Americans before or since. Drew Gilpin Faust follows the carnage in all its aspects, on and off the battlefield. Timely, poignant, and profound, This Republic of Suffering does the real work of history, taking us beyond the statistics until we see the faces of the fallen and understand what it was to live amid such loss and pain.”
—Tony Horowitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

“Drew Gilpin Faust has used her analytical and descriptive gifts to explore how men and women of the Civil War generation came to terms with the conflict’s staggering human toll. Everyone who reads this book will come away with a far better understanding of why the war profoundly affected those who lived through it.”
—Gary W. Gallagher, author of The Confederate War

“Drew Faust’s brilliant new book, This Republic of Suffering, builds profoundly from the opening discussion of the Christian ideal of the good death to the last harrowing chapters on the exhumation, partial identification, reburial and counting of the Union dead. In the end one can only conclude, as the author does, that the meaning of the Civil War lies in death itself: in its scale, relentlessness, and enduring cultural effects. This is a powerful and moving book about our nation’s defining historical encounter with the universal human experience of death.”
—Stephanie McCurry, author of Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the political culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country

“Whitman was wrong; the real war did get into the books. This is a wise, informed, troubling book. This Republic of Suffering demolishes sentimentalism for the Civil War in a masterpiece of research, realism, and originality.”
—David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Stephen Budiansky
The American Civil War was the first "war of peoples," and as Drew Gilpin Faust vividly demonstrates, the unprecedented carnage of this first modern war overwhelmed society's traditional ways of dealing with death. The customs, religion, rhetoric, logistics—even statistical methods—of mid-19th century America were unequal to slaughter on such a scale. How American society attempted to come to terms with death that broke all the rules about dying, and how the nation ultimately did—and did not—face up to this new reality of war are Faust's haunting and powerful themes. If nothing else, this finely written book is a powerful corrective to all the romantic claptrap that still envelops a war that took as many American lives, 620,000, as all other wars from the Revolution to Korea combined.
—The Washington Post
Geoffrey C. Ward
Drew Gilpin Faust's extraordinary new book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War …is too richly detailed and covers too much ground to be summarized easily. She overlooks nothing—from the unsettling enthusiasm some men showed for killing to the near-universal struggle for an answer to the question posed by the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier: "How does God have the heart to allow it?"
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Renowned historian and new president of Harvard University Faust grapples with the meaning of death in the Civil War as no scholar has done before. The reality of death defined the Civil War for most Americans more than the promise of freedom, she says. Death touched many aspects of life then, including assurances that loved ones died "the good death," with faith that would bring them to God's embrace, new ideas of heaven as a place of reunion, campaigns to recover bodies for burial, new methods of embalming, means of statistically tracking numbers of deaths, and the creation of cemeteries. Faust follows the bodies from battlefield to grave, backing up her claims with prodigious research. Beautifully written, honest, and penetrating, Faust's book about "the work of death" in fact brings death to life. Anyone wanting to understand the "real war" and its transcendent meaning must face the facts Faust arrays before us. Only then is it possible to know how the republic that suffered so much death gained the means of civic and even psychic renewal through remembrance. Essential.
—Randall M. Miller

Kirkus Reviews
A moving work of social history, detailing how the Civil War changed perceptions and behaviors about death. Harvard president and historian Faust (Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, 1996, etc.) begins with a recitation of some telling facts: The number of soldiers who died in the Civil War, about 620,000, equals those felled from the American Revolution to the Korean War; if it occurred today, proportionally, six million Americans would die. "Confederate men," she adds, "died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one of five white southern men of military age did not survive the Civil War." Faust demonstrates that the war brought about a small industrial revolution of remembrance involving statues, memorials and national cemeteries. The last were undertaken, so to speak, soon after the war's end, for throughout the South a stiff rainstorm would disinter the corpses of the fallen. As Faust recounts, at Shiloh "there were even reports of coffins floating like little boats down the Mississippi toward the sea." Embodying old notions of honor and duty, the war also brought the notion of the "good death" to the forefront, even as Americans on both sides, confronted with appalling casualties, began to doubt that their sacrifices had any meaning. They also became inured to the sight of corpse-covered fields, and some even delighted in them. There are war-lovers in every war, of course, but this revelation was new: As one Vermont private wrote, "The more we get used to being killed, the better we like it." Grief came privately, of course, but more profoundly in mass displays such as followed the deaths of Stonewall Jackson andAbraham Lincoln. An illuminating study, well deserving of a place alongside Michael Kammen's Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991).
The Barnes & Noble Review
Social history looks at how everyday people, rather than famous political or military leaders, coped with and influenced historical events. Civil War social historian Drew Gilpin Faust, recently installed as president of Harvard University, has written an eye-opening, thoroughly researched, and highly original account of how the Civil War generation dealt with the daily, horrific realities of death.

The war was supposed to be over quickly: "No one expected what the Civil War was to become," Faust writes. "Neither side could have imagined the magnitude and length of the conflict that unfolded, nor the death tolls that proved its terrible cost." Over 600,000 Americans would die during the war, far more than any other conflict in American history. These dead weren't just statistics, Faust notes. "The blow that killed a soldier on the field...also sent waves of misery and desolation into a world of relatives and friends, who themselves became war's casualties."

Faust's narrative is a profound examination of how soldiers and families coped with death. She describes the Christian roots of what Civil War–era Americans called "the Good Death." The Good Death implied dying at home with family, and this Victorian concept helped ease the spiritual wounds of the living by assuring them that "the deceased had been conscious of his fate, had demonstrated willingness to accept it, had shown signs of belief in God and in his own salvation, and had left messages" for his loved ones. Needless to say, the carnage of far-off battles did much to undermine the Christian concept of the Good Death.

Yet the bereaved families wanted evidence of their deceased's salvation. Faust shows how, after dead soldiers piled up after battles, overworked medical staffs and volunteers (including poet Walt Whitman) tried to write letters of condolence assuring families that their loved ones had died as Christians and patriots. Faust makes it clear that this work was not only overwhelming, but often impossible.

A Civil War battlefield was a nightmare of death and confusion. Neither army was prepared to deal with the mammoth job of identifying and burying so many dead, and soldiers often lay "dead or dying for hours or even days until an engagement was decided," says Faust. Regarding the bloody battlefield at Shiloh, Union general Ulysses Grant rendered this harrowing observation: "[I]t would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground."

Hundreds of thousands of Civil War dead were never identified, let alone given a Christian burial, so that "more than 40 percent of deceased Yankees and a far greater proportion of Confederates perished without names," and were interred as "unknown soldiers." The bereft families of these unidentified dead lived in constant uncertainty, harassing military and government authorities about the status of their lost loved ones.

For soldiers, the omnipresence of death numbed them. Faust shows that many soldiers even enjoyed killing, whether to avenge fallen comrades or for the perverse pleasure of it. Faust quotes a Texas officer saying, "Oh this is fun to lie here and shoot them down" and a Union officer discussing the "joy of battle." For African-American Union soldiers, the war was especially dangerous, since Confederate troops refused to take them prisoner and executed them instead.

Burial was a massive problem. "[C]offins were out of the question," writes Faust, who describes the common practice of burying the dead in massive pits. Only the officers were granted a "decent" burial, creating resentment among the ranks. One Confederate soldier put it bluntly: officers "get a monument, you get a hole in the ground and no coffin." Faust describes a whole, ghoulish industry that helped families, for a steep price, find their dead loved ones and transport their bodies back home.

The cultural impact of this harvest of death is more difficult to define, but Faust does it skillfully. She describes the elaborate Victorian process of mourning and how it dictated behavior and fashion for millions of women. Faust even shows how two deaths, that of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and President Abraham Lincoln, became emblematic of all the deaths over the course of the Civil War.

These legions of dead created a spiritual crisis, forcing Christian believers to ask basic questions about God and justice, redemption and loss. Religion promised life after death and a reunion with loved ones in the heavenly hereafter, the author explains, but many believers sought reassurance through spiritualists who (for a fee) would contact the dead in the spirit world. Faust wonderfully demonstrates how the nation's spiritual yearning, its sense of loss, was reflected in its literature -- most famously, perhaps, in the diverse works of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville.

Some took a more jaundiced view: Ambrose Bierce, the journalist and satirist who'd been a Civil War soldier in the thick of several brutal battles, rejected the conventional Christianization of death: "It was not picturesque, it had no tender and solemn side -- [death is] a dismal thing, hideous in all its manifestations and suggestions."

It wasn't until after the war that the federal government committed itself to locating and giving a "proper" burial to all Union dead. The system of national cemeteries was created, and the massive reburial program began. Faust explains that the Confederate dead were ignored by the federal government, triggering much resentment then (and now). "In the South," she writes, "care for the Confederate dead...became a grassroots undertaking that mobilized the white south in ways that extended well beyond the immediate purposes of bereavement and commemoration." Remembering the Confederate dead would become a gesture of "southern resistance to northern domination" during Reconstruction and long after.

And so the peculiar power of the Civil War's casualties came in their massive influence on millions of families and on the nation's future. The sacrifice, in Faust's view, helped create an "elevated destiny" for a nation just emerging into its role on the world stage -- one that would survive even the cataclysm of the 1860s and be in a sense reborn as a global force. As Lincoln said just before his own death, the national sin of slavery could only be purged in the blood of its brave youth. That horrific bloodletting would scar this nation's psyche for generations to come. --Chuck Leddy

Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle who writes frequently about American history. He reviews books regularly for The Boston Globe, as well as Civil War Times and American History magazines. He is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375404047
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/8/2008
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University, where she also holds the Lincoln Professorship in History. Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 2001 to 2007, she came to Harvard after twenty-five years on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of five previous books, including Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and the Avery Craven Prize. She and her husband live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Preface: The work of death

Mortality defines the human condition. “We all have our dead–we all have our Graves,” a Confederate Episcopal bishop observed in an 1862 sermon. Every era, he explained, must confront “like miseries”; every age must search for “like consolation.” Yet death has its discontinuities as well. Men and women approach death in ways shaped by history, by culture, by conditions that vary over time and across space. Even though “we all have our dead,” and even though we all die, we do so differently from generation to generation and from place to place.[1]

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States embarked on a new relationship with death, entering into a civil war that proved bloodier than any other conflict in American history, a war that would presage the slaughter of World War I’s Western Front and the global carnage of the twentieth century. The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The Civil War’s rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities. As the new southern nation struggled for survival against a wealthier and more populous enemy, its death toll reflected the disproportionate strains on its human capital. 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.[2]

But these military statistics tell only a part of the story. The war killed civilians as well, as battles raged across farm and field, as encampments of troops spread epidemic disease, as guerrillas ensnared women and even children in violence and reprisals, as draft rioters targeted innocent citizens, as shortages of food in parts of the South brought starvation. No one sought to document these deaths systematically, and no one has devised a method of undertaking a retrospective count. The distinguished Civil War historian James McPherson has estimated that there were fifty thousand civilian deaths during the war, and he has concluded that the overall mortality rate for the South exceeded that of any country in World War I and that of all but the region between the Rhine and the Volga in World War II. The American Civil War produced carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time.[3]

The impact and meaning of the war’s death toll went beyond the sheer numbers who died. Death’s significance for the Civil War generation arose as well from its violation of prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end–about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances. Death was hardly unfamiliar to mid-nineteenth-century Americans. By the beginning of the 1860s the rate of death in the United States had begun to decline, although dramatic improvements in longevity would not appear until late in the century. Americans of the immediate prewar era continued to be more closely acquainted with death than are their twenty-first century counterparts. But the patterns to which they were accustomed were in significant ways different from those the war would introduce. The Civil War represented a dramatic shift in both incidence and experience. Mid-nineteenth-century Americans endured a high rate of infant mortality but expected that most individuals who reached young adulthood would survive at least into middle age. The war took young, healthy men and rapidly, often instantly, destroyed them with disease or injury. This marked a sharp and alarming departure from existing preconceptions about who should die. As Francis W. Palfrey wrote in an 1864 memorial for Union soldier Henry L. Abbott, “the blow seems heaviest when it strikes down those who are in the morning of life.” A soldier was five times more likely to die than he would have been if he had not entered the army. As a chaplain explained to his Connecticut regiment in the middle of the war, “neither he nor they had ever lived and faced death in such a time, with its peculiar conditions and necessities.” Civil War soldiers and civilians alike distinguished what many referred to as “ordinary death,” as it had occurred in prewar years, from the manner and frequency of death in Civil War battlefields, hospitals, and camps, and from the war’s interruptions of civilian lives.[4]

In the Civil War the United States, North and South, reaped what many participants described as a “harvest of death.” By the midpoint of the conflict, it seemed that in the South, “nearly every household mourns some loved one lost.” Loss became commonplace; death was no longer encountered individually; death’s threat, its proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences. As a Confederate soldier observed, death “reigned with universal sway,” ruling homes and lives, demanding attention and response. The Civil War matters to us today because it ended slavery and helped to define the meanings of freedom, citizenship, and equality. It established a newly centralized nation-state and launched it on a trajectory of economic expansion and world influence. But for those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death. At war’s end this shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite. Even in our own time this fundamentally elegiac understanding of the Civil War retains a powerful hold.[5]

Death transformed the American nation as well as the hundreds of thousands of individuals directly affected by loss. The war created a veritable “republic of suffering,” in the words that Frederick Law Olmsted chose to describe the wounded and dying arriving at Union hospital ships on the Virginia Peninsula. Sacrifice and the state became inextricably intertwined. Citizen soldiers snatched from the midst of life generated obligations for a nation defining its purposes and polity through military struggle. A war about union, citizenship, freedom, and human dignity required that the government attend to the needs of those who had died in its service. Execution of these newly recognized responsibilities would prove an important vehicle for the expansion of federal power that characterized the transformed postwar nation. The establishment of national cemeteries and the emergence of the Civil War pension system to care for both the dead and their survivors yielded programs of a scale and reach unimaginable before the war. Death created the modern American union–not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.[6]

Civil War Americans often wrote about what they called “the work of death,” meaning the duties of soldiers to fight, kill, and die, but at the same time invoking battle’s consequences: its slaughter, suffering, and devastation. “Work” in this usage incorporated both effort and impact–and the important connection between the two. Death in war does not simply happen; it requires action and agents. It must, first of all, be inflicted; and several million soldiers of the 1860s dedicated themselves to that purpose. But death also usually requires participation and response; it must be experienced and handled. It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments. Of all living things, only humans consciously anticipate death; the consequent need to choose how to behave in its face–to worry about how to die–distinguishes us from other animals. The need to manage death is the particular lot of humanity.[7]

It is work to deal with the dead as well, to remove them in the literal sense of disposing of their bodies, and it is also work to remove them in a more figurative sense. The bereaved struggle to separate themselves from the dead through ritual and mourning. Families and communities must repair the rent in the domestic and social fabric, and societies, nations, and cultures must work to understand and explain unfathomable loss.

This is a book about the work of death in the American CivilWar. It seeks to describe how between 1861 and 1865–and into the decades that followed–Americans undertook a kind of work that history has not adequately understood or recognized. Human beings are rarely simply passive victims of death. They are actors even if they are the diers; they prepare for death, imagine it, risk it, endure it, seek to understand it. And if they are survivors, they must assume new identities established by their persistence in face of others’ annihilation. The presence and fear of death touched Civil War Americans’ most fundamental sense of who they were, for in its threat of termination and transformation, death inevitably inspired self-scrutiny and self-definition. Beginning with individuals’ confrontation with dying and killing, the book explores how those experiences transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering. Some of the changes death brought were social, as wives turned into widows, children into orphans; some were political, as African American soldiers hoped to win citizenship and equality through their willingness both to die and to kill; some were philosophical and spiritual, as the carnage compelled Americans to seek meaning and explanation for war’s destruction.

Every death involved “the great change” captured in the language and discourse of nineteenth-century Christianity, the shift from this life to whatever might come next. A subject of age-old concern for believers and nonbelievers alike, the existence and nature of an afterlife took on new urgency both for soldiers anxious about their own deaths and for bereaved kin speculating on the fate of the departed. And even if spirits and souls proved indeed immortal, there still remained the vexing question of bodies. The traditional notion that corporeal resurrection and restoration would accompany the Day of Judgment seemed increasingly implausible to many Americans who had seen the maiming and disfigurement inflicted by this war. Witnesses at field hospitals almost invariably commented with horror on the piles of limbs lying near the surgeon’s table, dissociated from the bodies to which they had belonged, transformed into objects of revulsion instead of essential parts of people. These arms and legs seemed as unidentifiable–and unrestorable–as the tens of thousands of missing men who had been separated from their names. The integral relationship between the body and the human self it housed was as shattered as the wounded men.[8]

Bodies were in important ways the measure of the war–of its achievements and its impact; and indeed, bodies became highly visible in Civil War America. Commanders compared their own and enemy casualties as evidence of military success or failure. Soldiers struggled for the words to describe mangled corpses strewn across battlefields; families contemplated the significance of newspaper lists of wounds: “slightly, in the shoulder,” “severely, in the groin,” “mortally, in the breast.” They nursed the dying and buried their remains. Letters and reports from the front rendered the physicality of injuries and death all but unavoidable. For the first time civilians directly confronted the reality of battlefield death rendered by the new art of photography. They found themselves transfixed by the paradoxically lifelike renderings of the slain of Antietam that Mathew Brady exhibited in his studio on Broadway. If Brady “has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it,” wrote the New York Times.[9]

This new prominence of bodies overwhelmingly depicted their destruction and deformation, inevitably raising the question of how they related to the persons who had once inhabited them. In the aftermath of battle survivors often shoveled corpses into pits as they would dispose of animals–“in bunches, just like dead chickens,” one observer noted–dehumanizing both the living and the dead through their disregard. In Civil War death the distinction between men and animals threatened to disappear, just as it was simultaneously eroding in the doctrines of nineteenth-century science.[10]

The Civil War confronted Americans with an enormous task, one quite different from saving or dividing the nation, ending or maintaining slavery, or winning the military conflict–the demands we customarily understand to have been made of the Civil War generation. Americans North and South would be compelled to confront–and resist–the war’s assault on their conceptions of how life should end, an assault that challenged their most fundamental assumptions about life’s value and meaning. As they faced horrors that forced them to question their ability to cope, their commitment to the war, even their faith in a righteous God, soldiers and civilians alike struggled to retain their most cherished beliefs, to make them work in the dramatically altered world that war had introduced. Americans had to identify–find, invent, create–the means and mechanisms to manage more than half a million dead: their deaths, their bodies, their loss. How they accomplished this task reshaped their individual lives–and deaths–at the same time that it redefined their nation and their culture. The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.


[1] [Stephen Elliott], Obsequies of the Reverend Edward E. Ford, D.D., and Sermon by the Bishop of the Diocese . . . (Augusta, Ga.: Augusta Chronicle and Sentinel, 1863), p. 8.
[2] James David Hacker, “The Human Cost of War: White Population in the United States, 1850—1880,” Ph.D. diss. (University of Minnesota, 1999), pp. 1, 14. Hacker believes that Civil War death totals may be seriously understated because of inadequate estimates of the number of Confederate deaths from disease. Civil War casualty and mortality statistics are problematic overall, and the incompleteness of Confederate records makes them especially unreliable. See Chapter 8 of this book. Maris A. Vinovskis concludes that about 6 percent of northern white males between ages thirteen and forty-five died in the war, whereas 18 percent of white men of similar age in the South perished. But because of much higher levels of military mobilization in the white South, mortality rates for southern soldiers were twice, not three times, as great as those for northern soldiers. James McPherson cites these soldiers’ death rates as 31 percent for Confederate soldiers, 16 percent for Union soldiers. Gary Gallagher believes Vinovskis’s overall death rate for the South is too low; he estimates that closer to one in four rather than one in five white southern men of military age died in the conflict. I have cited the more conservative total. See Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?” in Maris A. Vinovskis, ed., Toward a Social History of the American Civil War: Exploratory Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 3—7; James M. McPherson, personal communication to author, December 27, 2006; Gary Gallagher, personal communication to author, December 16, 2006.
[3] James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 3, 177, n. 56.
[4] [Francis W. Palfrey], In Memoriam: H.L.A. (Boston: Printed for private distribution, 1864), p. 5; Richard Shryock, “A Medical Perspective on the Civil War,” American Quarterly 14 (Summer 1962): 164; H. Clay Trumbull, War Memories of an Army Chaplain (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1898), p. 67. Vital statistics for this period are very scarce, and the most complete cover only Massachusetts. I am grateful to historical demographer Gretchen Condran of Temple University for discussing these matters with me. See U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Part I (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975), pp. 62—63. On the “untimely death of an adult child” as “particularly painful” in mid-nineteenth-century England, see Patricia Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 39.
[5] One notable appearance of the image of a harvest of death is in the title given Timothy O’Sullivan’s photograph of a field of bodies at Gettysburg in Alexander Gardner, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1866; rpt. New York: Dover, 1959), plate 36; Kate Stone, Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861—1868, ed. John Q. Anderson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1955), p. 264; C. W. Greene to John McLees, August 15, 1862, McLees Family Papers, SCL.
[6] [Frederick Law Olmsted], Hospital Transports: A Memoir of the Embarkation of the Sick and Wounded from the Peninsula of Virginia in the Summer of 1862 (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1863), p. 115.
[7] The general literature on death is immense and rich. A few key texts not cited elsewhere in this volume include Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997); Thomas Lynch, Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000); Sandra Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006); Paul Monette, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988); Paul Monette, Last Watch of the Night (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994); Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963); Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994); Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, eds., Death and the Regeneration of Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
[8] Mrs. Carson to R. F. Taylor, September 14, 1864, Carson Family Papers, SCL. On changing notions of the self, see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), and Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe Since the Seventeenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[9] New York Times, October 20, 1862. See William A. Frassanito, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978); Franny Nudelman, John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence and the Culture of War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 103—31; and Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill & Wang, 1989). Even as we acknowledge the impact of Civil War photography, it is important to recognize how few Americans would actually have seen Brady’s or other photographs of the dead. Newspapers and periodicals could not yet reproduce photographs but could publish only engravings derived from them, like the many Harper’s Weekly illustrations included in this book.
[10] Maude Morrow Brown Manuscript, z/0907.000/S, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Miss.; on nineteenth-century science and the changed meaning of death, see Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface: The Work of Death

1. Dying: “To Lay Down My Life”

2. Killing: “The Harder Courage”

3. Burying: “New Lessons Caring for the Dead”

4. Naming: “The Significant Word UNKNOWN”

5. Realizing: Civilians and the Work of Mourning

6. Believing and Doubting: “What Means this Carnage?”

7. Accounting: “Our Obligations to the Dead”

8. Numbering: “How Many? How Many?”

Epilogue: Surviving


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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 45 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2008

    Interesting, informative and very readable

    A newspaper review of this book made me sure I wanted to read it. I certainly wasn't disappointed. A textbook it isn't 'I was afraid it was going to read like one!' That is why it is so very readable. Each chapter covers a different part of how our country and our citizens acted, reacted and changed as they faced the terrible carnage of the Civil War. The chapters are illustrated not with statistics but with the words of those who lived during that time. The book is not a book about a war it is a book of how the war affected people -- the living, the dying, the dead, civilians and citizenry alike. I am recommending it to members of the genealogical society to which I belong. I would hope that the somewhat gloomy title of this book would not cause anyone to avoid reading it.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Well-written and plenty of information

    Dr. Faust has provided a book with a different perspective on the Civil War - not just battles, numbers, and letters home about the carnage, it details how the huge death toll of the Civil War actually altered how the American consciousness processed death, burial, and memorialization. Many of the procedures we take for granted to identify and bury our soldiers originated in practices developed during and after the Civil War, in particular the National Cemeteries system (Faust also makes the point that the Union dead were honored by Congress with the system, leaving Confederate dead to honored solely by private societies - a sticking point for decades and centuries). Fausts use of soldiers' and families' letters to detail the process of identification and burial humanizes a number of the dead men, many of whom weren't famous but ordinary. A particularly heart-wrenching section of the book details Walt Whitman's visits to soldiers in hospital, attempting to bring comfort and friendship to dying men. Several battlefield photographs included in the book are not for the queasy but are well-placed to illustrate how gruesome and arduous a task it was to give the war dead proper identification and burial. The style of the book is academic but very easy to read and I very much recommend Dr. Faust's work in this this book.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2008


    I am reading this book now and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning about the Civil War. This book sheds light on the toll that the Civil War took on our country and our people.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 27, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Good and Insightful Read

    I agree with other reviewers that the book is a bit repetitive, but I do think that it flows nicely and transitions well from chapter to chapter.

    The work is very informative and I enjoyed reading the information filled with tons of quotes and primary sources. Having walked several civil war battlefields in the last year, the book really brought home the magnitude of the suffering that the war brought on and how soldier and civilian alike attempted to cope with the devastation. I found myself thinking about the wars we are in today and relating some of the stories to present time.

    I very much enjoyed it.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 27, 2012

    Very Detailed

    This was an interesting take on the Civil War. Written by a well educated Harvard President, the story of death and destruction and how the Civil War changes the way we conceive of War death and mourning is intriguing. A war that cost over 600,000 lives, all Americans continues to stir many books, but unlike those, this work of history hits everyone in the same spot -- their humanity.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 13, 2012

    Highly Engrossing; Fascinating Read

    This text is highly engrossing and perfect for the average reader. It provides a whole new outlook on the Civil War; that while the nation was divided, it was unified by its suffering.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I just plain didn't like it.

    This work was obviously written for the "intellectual" crowd. I understand that the author is the president of a very prestigious university, and this work would probably be well accepted by her peers, but for me, it was just plain boring.

    I consider myself to be extremely well-read. I have at least 20 books on my night stand at any given time. I have an IQ of 142, and the author used several words that I had never heard before. True, I expanded my vocabulary as a result, but that was not one of my objectives when I began to read this book.

    I am interested in Civil War history, and have only recently begun to really get into reading about it. However, this work added only a very minor amount to my knowledge of the topic. I had anticipated and hoped that it would have given me much more.

    In summary, I didn't like it, and would not recommend it to others.

    Dr. Mike Rice
    Johnstown, PA

    3 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2009

    The subject matter is interesting, but the book is very repetitious.

    This book is tough to read. The grisly facts of death on the battlefield are repeated endlessly. Certainly not bedtime reading. One learns quite a bit, but there is too much verbiage. The same points are made again and again. it is stretched out needlessly.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 22, 2012

    great read!

    The civil war changed everything. This documents in depth, several life altering changes made during this war by people who cared about people. Sadly there are too few people who extend themselves like these did. But much of what these few did has saved countless lives in conflicts around the world


    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2012

    never had a chance to listen....because

    there was a major problem w/B&S system accepting my credit card (even thought it took my $$$ initial purchase) and was unable to open this item......very sorry state of affairs at B&N....was told I was not the only one w/this problem!!!!!, I had my $$$ returned....never again will I purchase an MP3 book from them....end of story....

    1 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 7, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Probably better read than listened to (stars based on audiobook only)

    Bought this to listen to on a trip to Savannah. I was fascinated by the material and generally kept up with what was being discussed, but after disc four or five, I found myself tuning out the narrator. I barely made it through all the cds, and still haven't finished the epilogue. I really do want to revisit this, but will only do so when I can actually read it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Not as Interesting as I Expected

    I have always been fascinated by the civil war and all aspects revolving around it, humanity, politics, etc.

    I thought this book focusing on how the enormous death and suffering affected individuals, families, and collectively would bring a new perspective and an interesting read.

    There were a few insights into mid 1800's mainstream religious belief but not much on the true dymanics I mentioned above.

    I expected to be riveted, and emotionally bound by the book. Not so.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 13, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    One death, a tragedy: One million, a statistic

    All too often the casualty figures of a particular war assume an impersonal, sterile,and statistical element because of the shear magnitude of the numbers. Not many more so than the American Civil War. Because nearly all casualties were American ,fought on American soil, and was the first large scale modern industrial war, does this conflict have specific impact on us in the United States. Ms. Faust examines several aspects of the conflict relating to death on a more personal level than just the numbers of specific battles. She guides us through such topics as the embalming, burying, record keeping(or lack of), identifing of the dead as well as the suffering of the living surviving family members and the effect it had on survivors. Ms. Faust also touches on several subjects involving the development of the national cemetery system and record keeping, as well as the various womens memorial associations in the South. My only complaint is that, perhaps, Ms.Faust should have expanded several of her chapters which I felt were almost too brief and were worthy of-dare I say-individual books. Maybe in the future.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2008

    A reviewer

    'This Republic' reads like a textbook and falls far short of its dramatic title. The paragraph structure is elementary and the prose is full of un-essential dribble. It is baffling that the author, such a respectable figure, muffed this book up given the compelling nature of its subject. The chapters are broad and leave you feeling as unfocused as the author must have been while she was writing them. Thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly disappointing!

    1 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    Its alright if you are into history; or using for a book review.

    The chapters aren't very long so its quite mangable to read. If your a student in a history class this book would be good for a review. Its offers a different view during the war, what changes that soldiers and civilains went through and how these changes are still going on today.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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