Thursday, March 13, 2008

Book Review--This Republic of Suffering

Just completed "This Republic of Suffering, Death and the American Civil War", the new and well-reviewed book by the new President of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust. Briefly, she writes of how Americans, both North and South, grappled with the issues raised by the half million dead soldiers of the war. The issues ranged from trying to have the "good death", where the dying person affirms the state of his soul in the lap of his family; the trauma of violating the commandment against killing; the ways in which the dead were, or were not, buried; the problems of identifying the dead with names; the burden on the bereaved of "realizing" the death, as well as dealing with the unknown fate of so many thousands; the meaning of the war, if any--the impacts on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, Ambrose Bierce, and Emily Dickinson; accounting for the casualties and eventually memorializing them.

I enjoyed the book, which fit well with my past reading and interests. Faust writes clearly and with a minimum of academic jargon. I noticed a little, but that may be due more to my age than to her use of academese. What struck me? her description of the good death and the idea that Swedenborg (Henry James Sr. was an adherent) had changed the way Americans thought of the afterlife. By 1860 it had become much more real and physical, with family and friends around--even the possibility of communication from the beyond. Resurrection of the body had become more important, which was challenged by the mutilations and disintegration of the war. The idea that military cemeteries were new--the fallen weren't buried in a family plot amongst their ancestors but in geometric military order with their fellow soldiers (but not their foes and not those of another race).

As a bureaucrat I was particularly struck when she noted the absence of bureaucracies (to count soldiers, give them dog tags, track their fate, bury their bodies, notify the next of kin, care for cemeteries). The war caused some bureaucracies to be created, simply as a result of the mass of casualties (think of Clara Barton, Sanitary Commission, etc.). Of course, the Civil War has long been regarded as the first "modern" war, and much of the book carries that theme to subjects which we don't normally consider.

What would I criticize? Nothing much. I do think she missed one long-term result of the war--she has the data but doesn't draw out the implications: The North had the advantage of the established military bureaucracy, such as it was, when the war began. The South could re-create it. So far, so good. But at the end of the war, the North's efforts to account for the Union dead, to bury them properly, and honor them worked through the military and expanded its bureaucracy, while in the south the same emotional impulses had to be undertaken by private organizations, mostly women's groups. I'd suggest the effect was partially to increase the North's comfort with government and bureaucracy, while the South had no such experience. (She does note the Skocpol book which saw the need to provide pensions for the veterans, widows, and orphans as a major spur to developing the American welfare state.) So while the North experienced the government as something that could perform, the South experienced it as irrelevant to their concerns and as unfair (using customs duties they paid to set up cemeteries for Union war dead). That helps to account for the long-term difference in attitudes towards government between the sections.

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