Literature Annotations


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


On-Line Text and Audio
Genre History (346 pp.)
KeywordsAfrican-American Experience, Catastrophe, Death and Dying, Epidemics, Family Relationships, Grief, Human Worth, Mourning, Power Relations, Public Health, Racism, Religion, Society, Suffering, War and Medicine
Summary Testifying to its author's "fascination with death" (324), this scholarly and abundantly illustrated work focuses on the history of the American idea of the Good Death as this concept took shape during the Civil War. Frederic Law Olmstead used the phrase "republic of suffering" to describe the many wounded and dying soldiers being treated at Union hospital ships on the Virginia Peninsula. Faust argues that the task of dealing with more than half a million dead during the War motivated Americans in the North and South to discover cultural and physical measures of interpreting and coping with the suffering and loss that occurred in thousands of families.

The scale of this War was unprecedented due to rifles and railroads; however, Gilpin Faust reminds us that twice as many soldiers died of disease as died of wounds suffered in the conflict. The illnesses were epidemics of measles, mumps and smallpox, then diarrhea and dysentery, typhoid and malaria. Medical care was inadequate; consequently, soldiers and their families turned to spiritual consolation. The Good Death was identified as sacrificing your life for the cause; many  believed in the Christian idea of resurrection and the afterlife. Killing became work,  as African American soldiers fought for "God, race and country" (53), where  Southerners fought to preserve the status quo, including slavery.

Because of the War, public cemeteries and ceremonies, and government's identifying and counting the dead are now taken for granted. Because of the Civil War, bodies of the dead military are today brought back from foreign lands and honored with decent burial: "We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists" (271).
Commentary The work includes numerous stories of individual soldiers and their families, and  descriptions of battle tactics with an emphasis on Gettysburg. Contemporary  photographs illustrate human bodies rotting on battlefields. Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman receive special attention. The author does not forget to mention the estimated 1.5 million horses and mules killed in the War between the States.

Gilpin Faust has added this, her sixth book, to her achievement as a historian of the antebellum South and the Civil War. She takes an important, but grim topic and makes it immeasurably interesting and  moving.


PublisherRandom House/Vintage
Edition2008
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousThis book won the American History Book Prize of the New York Historical Societyand was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008.
Annotated by Mathiasen, Helle
Date of Entry 03/17/09