“This Republic of Suffering,” by Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

The “Preface” to Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering begins with a pointed sentence:  “Mortality defines the human condition.”  True in any and all circumstances, including driving to work in the morning or returning home in the evening.

Driving our cars, however, is unlike Confederate and Union soldiers gathered at Antietam on September 17, 1862; hours later the combined tally was 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing.  For both sides the work was the work of death.  Battle was slaughter, suffering and devastation, and for those tens of thousands involved theirs was to anticipate their own mortality.

Faust thus makes the argument in this majestic work that between 1861 and 1865 Americans undertook a kind of work “that history has not adequately understood or recognized.” The work left, however, involved dead bodies and piles of limbs lying near the surgeon’s table.  Also, for the first time, civilians found themselves transfixed by the new art of photography. It was as if Matthew Brady had “‘brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets.'”

Thus this new prominence of bodies depicting the immense destruction raised the question of what to do with the remains while considering the persons who once inhabited those remains.  Should one in the interest of expediency shovel the remains into pits “‘in bunches, just like dead chickens'”?

To the point then:  Faust’s history is about the work of death in the Civil War and into the decades following, an entire republic of suffering.

For what reason?

Faust makes the argument that early in the Civil War the “distinction between men and animals tended to disappear.” The disregard was dehumanizing for both the living and the dead.  She asks us to imagine soldiers about to enter into battle preparing themselves for death, dramatically, laying down their life.  But the rule of exercising a “holy death,” including dying declarations, was complicated by the traditional distinctions between the dying, the dead, and their kin.  Belief in God and salvation was part of the assumptions shared by both the living and the dying, but the worry would be a spiritual death.

What then should be done with the body, assuming the dead have rights?  The answer is complicated, again, by the amount of carnage and the physical and emotional impact on the survivors.  Bodies require disposal, but the lesson of Shiloh defied both administrative logistical capacity and imagination.

Why pay attention to corpses?

It’s a striking indication of civilization and refinement, first of all, and thus a need to manifest tenderness and care toward the dead.  A human body is something much more than a manifestation of matter; the religious belief is that the body will be raised again.  Decent burial, therefore, as well as rituals fitting the dead.

As Faust further notes, Civil War soldiers worried deeply about their “remains” and owned a “horror” of being thrown into an unknown and neglected place.  It became in time, however, a rueful matter that records of the dead and their burial places were not carefully kept.  After a battle, everything was hurriedly arranged, a fact to which numerous photographs testify.  A haphazard burial was simply one of the exigencies of total war, and it was not uncommon for the dead to remain unburied for a week or more after a battle.  Sometimes one could smell the stench of a thousand or more unburied blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas “protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.” Faust writes that New Yorker Ephraim Brown, who had proudly captured a rebel flag during the Battle of Antietam, was ordered a few days later to return to the site of his triumph to bury the Confederate dead.  His valor rewarded with this “grisly obligation”; his detail found 264 bodies along a stretch of about fifty-five yards.   One squad of Union soldiers faced with such a task simply threw fifty-eight Confederate soldiers down a farmer’s well.

That was aftermath; the prelude was the actual killing.  Faust writes that such killing “required the more significant departure from soldiers’ understanding of themselves as human beings and, in mid-nineteenth century America, as Christians.” How, then, to surmount the Sixth Commandment?

Sermons, both North and South, invoked the “just war” doctrine which argued that “killing” was not merely tolerated but required in God’s service.  Warfare was thus not at variance with the spirit and duties of Christianity.  Soldiers should therefore regard themselves as exempt from the commandment when considering the war’s justness.

The consequence?

The squandering of lives and a mounting death toll, which led to vengeance.  Faust writes that “[o]nce the constraints of conscience and custom loosened, some soldiers, especially in the heat of combat, could seem almost possessed by the urge to kill.” It sometimes even seemed like play, soldiers firing their weapons, re-loading, firing again, laughing at the fun.

Inhibitions were also loosened with newer weapons as technology advanced.  Gone were the old smoothbore muskets; by the end of the war infantry both North and South were equipped with breechloading rifles that enabled soldiers to reload and fire at a pace of two or more shots per minute and at ranges of over 600 yards. Those most in peril were the U.S. Colored Troops.

Killing is of course battle’s fundamental purpose.  In the Civil War most combatants were like one another regardless of ideological differences.  Racial difference, however, eroded common identity and, Faust submits, made killing easier for soldiers.

Following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, black men were deployed as Union soldiers.  Confederates were angered and, in May 1963, the Confederacy passed a law demanding that black Union soldiers captured while in battle be tried in “civil” court as slave insurrectionists, a capital offense with a capital sentence of death.  The law further allowed Confederates full and ample retaliation against black troops regarded as “‘so many devils.'”

Fort Pillow was just a bit north of Memphis on the Mississippi River.  In April of 1864, Nathan Bedford Forrest moved on Fort Pillow, garrisoned with about 600 men, roughly 400 of whom were black Union soldiers.  The commander of the fort, General James R. Chalmers, surrendered the fort, but there was some confusion.  Survivors claim that black Union troops had surrendered, most of them throwing down their weapons, but Forrest’s men shot or bayoneted indiscriminately.  It’s been described as an orgy of death, and if the numbers are accurate, only twenty black Union soldiers survived.

In Arkansas, Faust writes, a similar episode took place at Poison Springs.  A Confederate officer described the bodies of black soldiers as “‘scalped . . . nearly all stripped.'”  A local newspaper “defended the Confederate actions as entirely consistent with the larger purposes of the war:  ‘We cannot treat Negroes  . . . as prisoners of war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend.'”

Such news in turn prompted cries for vengeance from black Union soldiers.  Faust makes the proper argument that killing and dying owned a much more special meaning for black Union soldiers.  In combat, they could become the agent rather than the victim of violence.  Killing was their instrument of liberation, an “act of personal empowerment and the vehicle [to bring the Emancipation Proclamation into being].  To kill and to be, as soldiers permitted to kill was ironically to claim a human right.”

One suspects there are few books about the Civil War this poignant.  The statistics are overwhelming, but facts become mordant when Faust notes that “more than 40% of deceased Yankees and a far greater proportion of Confederates . . . perished without names.”  She quotes Walt Whitman to the effect that those without names were identified “by the significant word UNKNOWN.”

The monumental work both during and after the war, both for the dead and for those waiting at home, largely fell on civilian volunteers, who assumed the role of graves registration service.  The daily routine of relief and consolation was exhausting as it would be for anyone informing a widow about the heartrending specificity of war’s cost.  Stories became legendary of soldiers scribbling their names on bits of paper and pinning them to their uniforms before battles they expected to be bloody.

Faust’s history owns a different intimacy when it discussed family members who desired that bodies be shipped back home.   How then to retrieve and honor the dead?

Two express companies, she writes, ran a booming business, but shipping bodies in wooded coffins proved “unpalatable”; metal caskets became available and were warranted as “air tight.”  Thus, no fear of odor escaping; the corpse rested on ice.

Even that, however, could not halt decomposition; Faust writes that just prior to the war, significant achievements had been made in “embalming.”  We’re asked to imagine, then, lines of soldiers making their way to the front while along the roadsides and fields, hospitals and embalming stations are all within easy eyesight.    One Thomas Holmes, likely the most well-known practitioner of the art, embalmed more than four thousand soldiers at one hundred dollars each.  To advertise their craft, or their “art,” they exhibited preserved bodies, mostly the unknown who had been collected from the battlefield and embalmed.

What was the usual cost? Private soldiers—a five dollar bill.  For a colonel, a hundred and general two hundred.  One embalmer who insisted that captains pay a major’s price argued that such windfalls don’t come every day.  “‘There won’t be another such killing for a century.'” Ruefully, Faust writes, making “a killing seemed to be in every sense the work at hand.”

Visitors to Civil War cemeteries should understand that once a more deliberate accounting system was developed it was next to impossible to assess the cost of the war.  Once the reburial processes had begun, the clusters of tombstones were so arranged not to resemble family tombstones in churchyards, “nor garden cemeteries.” Visitors will note instead the ordered row after row of humble identical markers, hundreds of thousands of men, known and unknown.  One by one, the markers account for death’s impact in a manner that almost geometrically imposes a sense of order on what tends to escape the boundaries of the imagination.  The cemeteries are just so understated as to defy statistical fixation.

One might call it the “republic of the dead,” but, as a simple token of respect, interesting but ironic proof that all men are created equal.

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