Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This book addresses all aspects of death from the vantage point of the U.S. War Between the States, a massive orgy of carnage that took place on U.S. soil between 1861 and 1865.
The causes of the war are not the focus here, nor are the long-term results. While the author speculates on how the War changed our national view of death and war itself, her primary focus is the direct impact of death on soldiers, their families and communities, and the institutions of the day including organized religion, spiritualism, fashion (!), undertaking, veterans’ care, medicine, and literature.
The author’s focus ranges from the particular (e.g., family members haunting battlefields to locate and retrieve the corpses of loved ones) to the general (e.g., how such massive horror was viewed and to some extent justified by the organized religions of the time).
The author quotes liberally from personal letters and contemporary newspaper accounts. Some stories are clearly heartbreaking, as in the desperate attempts by some volunteers to communicate circumstances of battlefield deaths to family members in search of closure. Some details are shocking, as in the treatment of by some Southerners of post-war Northern attempts to organize and create dignified grave sites before Spring plowing on former battlefields would forever disrupt human remains.
Hovering over all is the massive scale of death and destruction visited by the War. Post-battle piles of corpses, amputated limbs, and the stench of decaying humans and animals still appall us but in those days were new to agrarian economies familiar only with community militias that were being introduced to rapid developments in previously unavailable weapons and technologies.
I do know one thing: after reading this book I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch a Civil War battle re-enactment with any sort of detached amusement or, heaven forbid, nostalgia.
Review copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald, Alexandria, Virginia.
I have also published this review on Goodreads here: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars