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Beggaring All Description

A book by Harvard's new president looks at the pall of death that was the Civil War.

By 2.5.08

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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
By Drew Gilpin Faust
(Knopf, 346 pages, $27.95)

"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," writes Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University and holder of its Lincoln Professorship in History, in the preface of her new book.

The preface's title, "The Work of Death," was a familiar phrase in the Civil War era. It meant "the duties of soldiers to fight, kill, and die, but at the same time invoking battle's consequences: its slaughter, suffering, and devastation." The aptly-named Faust details this work of death during and after the Civil War.

Neither side in the war expected, could even conceive, of how many casualties of war there would be. Both sides expected a short conflict. Both were terribly wrong. Both believed God was on their side and their soldiers strove to die a Good Death, one in which they looked forward serenely to the life hereafter, in the ars moriendi (art of death) of the Christian tradition.

For some soldiers, dying was easier than killing. Man of letters Orestes Brownson, who lost two sons to the war, "observed in 1862, that [killing] demanded 'the harder courage.'" Though killing in war was theologically justifiable, because it was not considered murder, many soldiers still agonized over it because of their predominantly Christian beliefs.

Christian tradition also informed people how to treat the dead, but this was of necessity sometimes ignored. Often there was no time for proper burials, so men were buried en masse in pits or trenches. Comrades often wrote down facts about men and where their burial locations if they had time, but time was short in war and many were buried anonymously.

Even if one knew the names of the slain, many people back home (not far away) often had trouble, in the terminology of the time, "realizing" the deaths of their beloveds, which for them meant "to render it real in their own minds." This was so partly because of the lack of reliable information during the war and the lack of specific knowledge about the how the beloved had died. Had he died a Good Death? That's what relatives wanted to know.

BY THE WAR'S end the very meaning of a Good Death had been called into question by many overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of those killed and the way they were ignobly killed at long range with new, more deadly technology. This doubt was eloquently and powerfully expressed by four literary figures who wrote contemporaneously with and about the war: Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.

What these writers expressed in their work, ordinary soldiers could not, beyond saying they could not. "John Casler of the Stonewall Brigade struggled for words to tell his parents about his first experience of combat: 'I have not the power to describe the scene. It beggars all description,'" writes Faust.

That quote illustrates one strength of the book -- its extensive use of passages from letters and diaries of those who lived, on and off the battlefields, during the Civil War. Susannah Hampton wrote to a Hospital Directory in Philadelphia two months after Gettysburg,

will you please to inform me at your earliest convenience whether my son Joseph H. Hampton a member of company A 72 regiment N. Y. State vols Excelsior is alive or dead if alive and wounded please be so kind as to state what his wounds are and where he lies and if cared for and if Dead Oh pray let me know it and relieve my anxiety...I have heard all kinds of rumors about him and his miseries until they have left me in a state bordering on phrensy.

The postwar attempt to account for and bury all the Union dead, including the establishment of national military cemeteries, changed the nation. Faust explains that just executing America's obligations "to the dead and their mourners required a vast expansion of the federal budget and bureaucracy and a reconceptualization of the government's role."

In This Republic of Suffering (the phrase is Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead's) the author reminds us of the terrible uniqueness of the Civil War. If she at times seems incredulous at the fervor of the religious faith of our Civil War ancestors (while assuming that her readers are not believers in an afterlife), at least she respects their views of their own lives and many, many deaths.

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