book response: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust (2008)

I can't stay away from books on the American Civil War. Drew Gilpin Faust's book, This Republic of Suffering was available in the library's digital lending section and seemed worth a shot. At first, I didn't know if I could push on through this book. The extended discussion in the beginning about the Victorian concept of the good death got old. Her examples piled on top of themselves about so many soldiers trying to die in a way that could comfort their families with memories of their devotion in their last moments. But it got better as I persevered. The facts of the war are brutal. (Instead of page numbers, the Kindle gives locations.)
The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The Civil War’s rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities. Loc. 102-6
But this carnage was less about the battle and more about camp life.
Twice as many Civil War soldiers died of disease as of battle wounds. The war, Union surgeon general William A. Hammond later observed, was fought at the “end of the medical middle ages.” Neither the germ theory nor the nature and necessity of antisepsis was yet understood. Loc. 224-26
The carnage that did come from battle derived energy from racial hatred in the south.
Even black teamsters or servants working for the federals were at risk, and male slaves suspected of fleeing to join the Union army were more than fair game for Confederate rage. A Confederate major described an incident in which black civilians accompanying Union troops were slaughtered. “The battle-field was sickening…no orders, threats or commands could restrain the men from vengeance on the negroes, and they were piled in great heaps about the wagons, in the tangled brushwood, and upon the muddy and trampled road.” All too often, however, orders and commanders encouraged rather than restrained such atrocities. Private Harry Bird reported that Confederates after the Battle of the Crater in 1864 quieted wounded black soldiers begging for water “by a bayonet thrust.” Bird welcomed the subsequent order “to kill them all” it was a command “well and willingly…obeyed.” General Robert E. Lee, only a few hundred yards away, did nothing to intervene. Loc. 885-91
The especially repellent part to me is reading arguments from Confederacy defenders on places like Facebook in light of the recent Lincoln movie. They'll insist it wasn't about slavery. They'll insist on the Christian righteousness of this army, even Faust notes the waves of revival that swept through Confederate camps, but they seem to put out of mind any examples of such wickedness like this. Nor do they seem capable of seeing things from a black American's point of view, such as this contemporary account Faust provides.
Mary Livermore, Union nurse, described a wartime encounter with an African American woman she had known years before during Livermore’s service as a governess on a southern plantation. Aunt Aggy had waited through decades of cruelty to see “white folks’ blood…a-runnin’ on the ground like a riber.” But she had always had faith “it was a-comin. I allers ’spected to see white folks heaped up dead. An’ de Lor’, He’s keept His promise, an’ ’venged His people, jes’ as I knowed He would. I seed ’em dead on de field, Massa Linkum’s sojers an’ de Virginny sojers, all heaped togedder…Oh, de Lor’ He do jes’ right, if you only gib Him time enough to turn Hisself.” Loc. 1013-19
This woman was likely to have been raped by white masters, had her family separated from her by white masters, and deprived physically, emotionally, and intellectually by her white masters, who claimed God's approval on their behavior, and esteemed by some American Christians today. Read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I don't get it. Nor do I understand the lynching of children by southerners.
More commonly masters exacted retribution upon wives left behind by male slaves who had fled to join the Union army. Slaves suspected of helping the Yankees became particular targets of white southerners’ wrath. A young slave girl in Darlington, South Carolina, was hanged for yelling, “Bless the Lord the Yankees have come!” when Sherman’s troops arrived in town. Across the South slaves and masters battled over the future of the peculiar institution in a warfare, both overt and hidden, that yielded its own unacknowledged list of casualties. Loc. 2229-33
For all the wickedness of the liberal, big government, godless North, the South seemed always able to outdo them in the name of states rights and God's blessing.
In the course of the war 194,743 Union soldiers and 215,865 Confederates were held prisoner, and 30,218 northerners and 25,976 southerners died in captivity. Civil War prisons were indeed, as one inmate observed, “the closest existence to a hell on earth.” Loc. 2133-34
The math shows that a greater percentage of Northerners died in Southern hands that Southerners up North. Was this supposedly blissful Christian nation ignorant of the parable of Good Samaritan?

Faust does a great job referencing the artists who wrestled with comprehending the war in the 19th century; the painters, the illustrators, the poets, and the novelists. I enjoyed learning about a new-to-me Twain book, Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, about a killed soldier's entrance to heaven.
Stormfield was also startled to discover that the overwhelming proportion of American angels were in fact Indians, not white men, for Indians had been dying in the New World and accumulating in the American section of heaven for centuries.  Loc. 3093-95
The genocide of Native Americans is a crime North and South were guilty of together before the war and after. But that was a slaughter off-stage, so to speak, that didn't affect white households personally. The slaughter of the Civil War was unavoidable to all citizens in every state, and it messed up their theology.
Civil War carnage transformed the mid-nineteenth century’s growing sense of religious doubt into a crisis of belief that propelled many Americans to redefine or even reject their faith in a benevolent and responsive deity. Loc. 3324-25
Faust focuses on the personal crises of faith, but I wonder if it was also reflected in the problem after the war of grave desecration in the south. A Union quartermaster named Whitman was given the duty of finding and cataloging Union cemeteries in southern battle sites.
The experiences of the preceding months, he reported, had produced a “daily deepening in my own mind” of the importance of this federal obligation, as he had witnessed the “total neglect” or “wanton desecration” of Union graves by a southern population whose “hatred of the dead” seemed to exceed their earlier “abhorrence of the living.” Loc. 3601-4
Although there was less opportunity for Confederate corpses to be desecrated, as they only advanced to Gettysburg then back, they were nevertheless also treated poorly by some. Again, the standard is held higher by Confederate Christian apologists for the supposed apogee of Christendom in the south, yet it was they who could not refrain from plowing under graves, and destroying grave markers. The victors, however, felt no priority for the rebel dead, which meant no federal money went to gather those bodies and re-inter those soldiers. This was not how Lincoln would have treated them, but his assassin didn't know that he was killing the South's best ally after the war.
Southern civilians, largely women, mobilized private means to accomplish what federal resources would not. Their efforts to claim and honor the Confederate dead—and the organizations they spawned—became a means of keeping sectionalist identity and energy not just alive but strong. Loc. 3754-56 
The Union weakened itself by not treating the vanquished as those with at least human rights and worth some dignity. Vindictive and bitter southerners were more than willing to reciprocate.
A local Unionist had suggested burying Yankees and Confederates together in the national cemetery established at Marietta, but women of the area were horrified and insisted that the Confederate dead be “protected from a promiscuous mingling with the remains of their enemies.” Loc. 3844-46
Then Reconstruction started and was bungled and heavy handed then abandoned for political gain. However, as tragic as the war was, the end of slavery was a great victory. Our culture improved because of this war.

I'm grateful for Faust's efforts in this book.

There are still cycles of political foolishness today. Just as poor non-slave owning whites fought on behalf of the wealthy slave-owning few, even today, poor whites are rallying to protect the tax cuts of those who could care less for them and advocating the reduction of assistance to those who need it most. God save us.



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