One of the most arresting lectures I have ever heard at a historians’ convention was delivered four years ago by Drew Gilpin Faust at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Taking as her starting point Robert E. Lee’s possibly apocryphal remark, “It is well that war is so terrible–lest we should grow too fond of it,” Faust blamed historians for succumbing to war’s seductive power. By ascribing moral purposes and profound causes to what is really pointless slaughter, she insisted, historians obscure war’s horror. Exhibit A was the American Civil War. More than 60,000 books dealing in one way or another with that conflict have been published since it ended, she observed. That’s an average of more than one per day. If historians need war to add drama to their grand narratives, Faust suggested, then war, if it is to be more than pointless slaughter, very much needs historians.
Faust, of course, is best known today as the first woman president of Harvard University in its 371-year history. (She was inaugurated in October.) But before reaching this milestone, she established a reputation as a leading scholar of nineteenth-century Southern history. Indeed, one of her more recent books, Mothers of Invention (1996), accomplished something nearly impossible–coming up with a genuinely new explanation for Confederate defeat. Faust attributed it to the withdrawal of support by women on the Southern home front, who abandoned the fight because of the damage the war was inflicting on their families and on traditional gender relations. Now, with This Republic of Suffering, a work by turns fascinating, innovative and obsessively morbid, Faust returns to the task of stripping from war any lingering romanticism, nobility or social purpose.
Faust begins by reminding us of the Civil War’s appalling harvest of death. In a nation of 31 million people, 620,000 died as members of the Union or Confederate armed forces, a total nearly equal to the deaths in all other American wars combined, and the equivalent of 6 million in terms of today’s population. This figure does not include the thousands of civilians who became collateral victims of battles or who perished in disease-ridden camps for runaway slaves or in internecine conflict between Unionist and Confederate families that raged in parts of the South. The slaughter of the young could not be assimilated into the cultural ideal that Faust calls the Good Death–the passing at home of a man or woman of advanced age, surrounded by family members and imparting last words of religious and social wisdom.
Of course, untimely death was hardly unknown in mid-nineteenth-century America, given the primitive state of medicine. During the course of his life, for example, Abraham Lincoln lost a baby brother and two sons to disease and saw his sister die in childbirth. But the scale of loss in the Civil War dwarfed anything in the American experience. And unlike today, when the government carefully shields images of the war dead from public view, the new art of photography, in the words of one newspaper, “brought the bodies and laid them in our dooryards.” Drawing on a wide range of sources, including sermons, memoirs, newspapers, poetry and soldiers’ letters, Faust probes how Americans tried to cope with mass death and how the experience affected everything from business practices to religious attitudes, literary culture and the organization of the state.
In some ways, Faust points out, death was good for business. Transportation companies, North and South, made tidy profits bringing the remains of soldiers home for burial. Embalmers operated near the battlefields, preserving bodies and then demanding payment from grieving families. Entrepreneurs promised, for a fee, to locate information about missing loved ones. A burgeoning market developed in mourning attire made from various fabrics with names unrecognizable today: bareges, challies, balzerines. There were elaborate rules, for the upper classes at least, about how to remain part of fashionable society while in mourning. Faust even takes note of the extensive sales of the “planchette,” a kind of Ouija board that supposedly enabled the living to communicate with the dead.