Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 7 2008 12:29 PM

National Life After Death

Civil War carnage and the quest for American identity.

Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

The devastating death figures for the American Civil War are well-known. On the two sides, at least 620,000 soldiers died from diseases and wounds; that is equivalent to 2 percent of the entire population. Two percent of Americans today equals 6 million people. Southerners perished disproportionately: In the Confederacy, at least 18 percent of white males of military age died between 1861 and 1865, three times the rate at which Northern white men died. "The young [white] men of South Carolina were annihilated," the state's governor told Northern minister Henry Ward Beecher in April 1865. In many places in the state, he said, there were no white men left between the ages of 20 and 50.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University since 2007 and for decades a leading historian of the American South, provides plenty of numbers that are less well-known. Thirty thousand Northerners and 26,000 Southerners died in prisoner-of-war camps—almost 10 percent of all Civil War fatalities. As many as 50,000 civilians perished from war-related causes. And the dead, civilian as well as military, were black as well as white. About 35,000 of the 180,000 black soldiers who served the Union lost their lives, for the most part to disease. "Contraband camps" set up by the Union Army for African-Americans fleeing slavery (especially for women, children, and the elderly) experienced mortality rates up to 25 percent. 

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Most stunning of all: About half of the soldiers who died during the war—over 40 percent of the Yankees and a majority of Confederates—died as "unknown soldiers."  These were often "men thrown by the hundreds into burial trenches; soldiers stripped of every identifying object before being abandoned on the field; bloated corpses hurried into hastily dug graves; nameless victims of dysentery or typhoid interred beside military hospitals; men blown to pieces by artillery shells; bodies hidden by woods or ravines, left to the depredations of hogs or wolves or time." The two armies' record-keeping—and even their interest in identifying individuals no longer capable of fighting—lagged far behind their firepower. Americans reeled at the number of deaths, but also at the threat sudden wartime death posed to individual identity. They were sickened by the prospect that young men might "die like dogs," as one woman volunteer put it, without the communal recognition of a marked grave symbolizing their departure for an eternal life with God.

The assault on identity, and the quest to recover it, is the fascinating theme Faust tackles as she digs into the archives for evidence of Americans' experiences of death, including their own postwar efforts to unearth and rebury their soldiers. As a historian who came of age in the 1970s—the era of a "new social history" placing women, laborers, and minorities center stage—she naturally highlights differences of gender, class, and race, along with region, but she also sees more at work in the postwar memorializing that consumed so much American energy. Faust astutely argues that in spite of their many differences, Northerners and Southerners, male and female, black and white, experienced a deep cultural unity through their common rituals and beliefs concerning death. This common culture of death did not prevent regional animosities—in effect, dueling nationalisms—from persisting after Appomattox. And glaring inequalities persisted, even as Southern women found a new public role in the reburial endeavor. The memory of the 35,000 dead black Union soldiers faded all too quickly from Northern white consciousness. At the end of the century, it was Northern and Southern whites who had joined hands in hailing their fallen ancestors, thereby creating a new overarching American nationalism.

Nineteenth-century death practices could hardly have been more radically disrupted than they were in the 1860s. Americans expected dying family members to expire at home, not in hospitals, and certainly not in other states. Adapting as best they could to the general yearning for final sentiments, comrades and nurses on the battlefield and in camps and hospitals promised to relay last words to dying men's families. If a soldier died without a terminal act of reflection, friends might even try to infer his final state of mind from his facial expression, letting the body speak for the soul. Embalmers trooping through the battlefields with newly effective chemical solutions offered to preserve the "natural" facial expressions of the dead and to ship them back to families for ex-post-facto deathbed vigils. Slaves, too, played a role as preservers, risking their lives to minister to their masters' bodies, even when they were dead.