four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
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Death and the American Civil War

A-This Republic of Suffering-HistoryEvery American high school student has probably heard the statistics: more soldiers died in the Civil War than in all other U.S. wars combined, and more Americans died in one day at Antietam than have died in the entire Iraq War. Historian and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust focuses entirely on the causes and consequences of this unimaginable loss of life in her new book on the war and its aftermath. Exploring the impact of such great mortality on everything from religion and ideas of the afterlife to death rituals and the role of the state in citizens’ personal affairs, Faust crafts a narrative of the war perpendicular to the timeline on the wall of America’s history classrooms. In so doing, she renders intelligible many of the deep feelings about the war that Americans profess but can never quite explain.
Knopf. 368 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 037540404X

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Faust] overlooks nothing—from the unsettling enthusiasm some men showed for killing to the near-universal struggle for an answer to the question posed by the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier: ‘How does God have the heart to allow it?’" Geoffrey C. Ward

Providence Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The familiar—Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Ambrose Bierce—share the stage with the forgotten, whose voices Faust captured in her wide-ranging research. This Republic of Suffering is comprehensive, compassionate, and highly recommended." Mark Dunkelman

Rocky Mountain News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"So much has been written about the Civil War that it’s a surprise to find a subject that hasn’t been exhausted. This Republic of Suffering makes you think about the Civil War in a completely different way." Dan Danbom

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[Faust] makes a convincing case that since the heartbreak of the Civil War the US has never been the same. … But more poignantly, Faust argues, the Civil War raised questions about individual worth that we have yet to answer today." Marjorie Kehe

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"This is an important book, one a nation at war should be aware of. Faust demonstrates how so much death impacts religion, philosophy and the national character, and can alter a civilization." Clay Reynolds

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In This Republic of Suffering, [Faust] not only has illuminated a neglected aspect of the great conflict with signature erudition, insight and grace, but in the process she has put to rest Walt Whitman’s famous lament that the ‘real war will never get in the books.’" Michael J. Bonafeld

Critical Summary

Those who fret over the state of American universities will embrace this history by Drew Gilpin Faust. Academics appreciate how Faust explains so many social and cultural changes by recentering the story of the war on its massive toll in lives: the estimated 2 percent who died, or 620,000, would be equivalent to 6 million today. She also breaks new ground by reexamining the relationship of the war to modern institutions like the welfare state. Yet Faust constructs This Republic of Suffering in a way that will appeal to every reader—from the Civil War buff to the casual nonfiction reader. Some critics were a little queasy about the book’s level of detail, both in describing death and the lives of its victims. But as more than one reviewer pointed out, for a nation at war, such writing and such reading are a duty.