Did They Die in Vain?

Book cover
This Republic of Sufferingby By Drew Gilpin FaustKnopf. 368p $27.95

The dramatic question in the headline above was asked by—among many others—the Rev. John L. Girardeau, a Presbyterian theologian, at a ceremony honoring the Confederate dead from Gettysburg being re-interred in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, in 1871. The question was meant rhetorically, of course (and defiantly, for if the South had been defeated on the battlefield, Southerners were still fighting on, as some still are today, politically and otherwise). But no patriotic orator, on either side, would ever dream of giving anything like a negative answer. Readers of Drew Faust’s powerful new study, however, are likely to be a lot less certain.

Now best known as the new president of Harvard University, Faust is a historian whose previous five books all deal with the Old South, a perspective that might well engender some skepticism about a “new birth of freedom” with a price tag of at least 620,000 lives. Our national mythology soars to dizzying heights of inspiration about fearful if necessary redemptive sacrifices; but what kind of redemption was it if nearly a century-and-a-half after Fort Sumter people are still wondering whether America is ready for a black man as president?


Faust’s approach could not be more simple and direct. She begins This Republic of Suffering by reminding us of the staggering casualties: a death rate six times higher, proportionately, than in World War II; 50,000 civilian deaths; one in five Southerners of military age killed; unspeakably bad medical care; twice as many deaths from disease as from combat, etc. She then thematically reviews the devastation through a series of grim gerunds: “Dying” (the overwhelming scale and monstrous new technology of the Civil War seemed to make the time-honored ars moriendi (obsolete), “Killing” (four years of fratricide created a lot of cognitive dissonance), “Naming” (almost half the dead, despite heroic efforts, were never identified by name), “Realizing” (the agony of bereaved civilians), “Believing and Doubting” (the challenge posed by the bloodbath to previously optimistic Christian churchgoers), “Accounting” (the postwar process of reclaiming and reburying the dead), “Numbering” (the decades-long struggle to get a statistical handle on casualties), and “Surviving” (a brief final reflection on what Frederick Douglass called “the sacred significance” of the war).

Along this corpse-littered road to closure—whose end we obviously have not reached—Faust stops to meditate on the ways that the war reshaped the culture out of which it grew, or exploded. First and foremost, death itself was changed. Traditional images of the Good Death—a single gray-haired elder dying at home in bed, at peace with the Lord and surrounded by loving kin—were erased by the en masse deaths in battles like Antietam (still the bloodiest day in American military history), of young men who were not just mowed down, but cut to pieces and sometimes completely annihilated without the least warning, hundreds of miles from home. Grieving wives, parents, siblings and children might not be informed until many days or weeks later—or not at all; and with no bodies (though undertakers soon developed a profitable business embalming and shipping home the remains of officers and other better-off victims of war), there could be no proper funerals or normal grieving.

If the death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam from a stroke, in his 20s, drove Tennyson into traumatic questioning of God, human life and history, the massacres of the Civil War inevitably confronted Americans with the same questions multiplied more than three million times (the number of combatants).

Since the Civil War was, by every conceivable standard, a tragedy, one might have expected popular consciousness to take on a more or less permanent tragic imprint from it. But, in one of the rare moments where Faust passes a damning judgment on her compatriots (another is the Southern atrocities against black Union soldiers), she notes that “the predominant response to the unexpected carnage was in fact a resolute sentimentality that verged at times on pathos. Songs abounded in which soldiers entreated their mothers to ‘come, Your Boy is dying,’ to ‘bless me…ere I die,’ or ‘kiss me once before I go,’ or ‘make me a child again just for tonight.’” The second biggest bestseller of the 19th century, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s saccharine The Gates Ajar (1868), which aimed at consoling war widows and other mourning women with visions of heaven as a sort of ultra-comfortable Victorian home “filled with books, pianos, and pictures.”

Some bitter or negative voices were heard, like that of Ambrose Bierce, who saw more action in the war than any other major American writer. But even the otherwise unbelieving Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—who had been badly wounded and almost died at Antietam—displayed the inveterate American need to affirm something in the face of apparent chaos, when he declared on Memorial Day 1895, “The faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” Something like The Charge of the Light Brigade, only worse, a fitting creed for the European Armageddons that were right around the corner.

Other, less ideological, transformations of the Civil War included the herculean labors of the government to establish national cemeteries for the 303,000 of the 360,000 Union dead who were not already in family plots. This proved to be the biggest federal intervention to date in the lives of its citizens and a sort of prelude to the welfare state. (The 258,000 Confederate dead had to be tended to with private funds.) Nursing care, military bureaucracy and statistics-gathering also underwent major transformations.

But, needless to say, it was the cataclysm of modern war itself, with its false promises of a quick end, its astronomical costs (Faust doesn’t mention the $8 billion [19th century] dollars spent waging the war, the $3.3 billion in veterans benefits, or the horrific devastation of southern lands and property), its fiendish new weapons and its cult of memory that most transformed the nation.

Another topic Faust barely mentions is the seemingly endless legacy of sectional hatred and racism left by the war. But she does not have to: her account is so brisk, pungent and arresting that such issues arise all by themselves, more forcefully than ever. This Republic of Suffering should be an instant classic of American studies, even as it raises the agonizing question that we rueful connoisseurs of later civil wars (Vietnam, Iraq, etc.) must go on asking ourselves: Was it worth it?










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