Thursday, June 11, 2009

This Republic of Suffering

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

This book got a ton of publicity last year. It was probably the most reviewed book of the year. And most of the reviews were pretty favorable. So I just had to get a copy and find out for myself. It had been sitting on my to-be-read pile for awhile and recently I had a break from other books so I picked it up. I did like the book. I'm not sure its as good as everyone raved about last year but it was good. The first few chapters were a bit slow but then it picked up.

It is really a nuts and bolts story about the process of death and suffering during the war. At that time there was great emphasis placed on how people died, or rather how they accepted their fate and acted in their final moments (days or hours) on earth. The war changes the process in many ways. The first is that men typically do not die surrounded by their family; they die in hospitals surrounded by strangers, on the battlefield with their comrades but seldom with family present. A second big change is that many men have no time to prepare for their death, to have the chance to act right in their final moments. Instead they are suddenly killed in the heat of battle. But people adapt. Hospital workers and comrades write letters for dying men to say the things to their family that they normally would say if they were dying in their midst. When this isn't possible they write to the family about how the deceased soldier lived his last days or hours, to assure them he was a good son/father/etc and in some respects this hints that if he had the chance to die the preferred way he would have said and done all the right things.

I especially liked the chapters that dealt with the later efforts to bury everyone in national cemeteries and not have graves scattered through the country. And then the counting of the dead and trying to identify all the dead. These sections hit home to me because I have a relative that was buried at the national cemetery in Marietta, Georgia, I have the grave number from the Roll of Honor, I've been there and found the new grave number, but no matter what I do I cannot find his grave. I've been there twice trying but cannot find him. Its at the point that I need to plan a visit there just to do that and call ahead so I know someone will be there to help.

I'm glad I finally read it, and I did enjoy it, but I don't think it was as great a book as the numerous reviews last year made it out to be.


Naim Peress said...

Books are like movies. If they're overhyped, they're not as great as they're made out. This sounds like a rather detailed subject. Is it an info dump or does the author focus on specific individuals?

Nick said...

There are quite a few quotes from soldiers, doctors, nurses and families of soldiers. As one would expect a large number of people were affected by death in the Civil War and wrote about it in letters home or in memoirs years later.

I did think it had a tremendous amount of information. Like you say it was over hyped, but it was still a good book that deals with a subject I'm not sure has ever been dealt with in this way. At least I'm not familiar with any book that covers the subject over such a broad spectrum and yet hits on a fair amount of details too.