This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is not just another history book describing the conflict we know today as the Civil War. Author and educator Drew Gilpin Faust, current president of Harvard University, used her analytical and storytelling skills to reveal what, up until now, was a silent message about how the divided nation dealt with the death of so many of its people.
Conservative estimates are in the range of 620,000 fatalities during the four years of war which could not have been foreseen by even the most astute of learned people. Most of the residents of both the North and South thought the war would be over in weeks or perhaps months. They envisioned a noble battle, which would be all but bloodless. In reality, the country lost more soldiers in the Civil War than all the conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the Gulf War.
What was to happen to all these casualties? How were they treated by those who survived and what effects did their deaths have on those who saw the end of the battles and of the war itself? The modern-day cemetery movement began during the Civil War. Gettysburg is just one famous reminder of this fact.
The Civil War also transformed the way the nation prepared for the deaths of its soldiers in future wars. There would be every effort to identify and to inter the bodies as quickly as possible. Faust followed the carnage of the war in all its aspects. Profound yet clear in writing style, she has done a service to the recorded history of this seminal period in America’s past. She proved Walt Whitman wrong. The real war did get into the history books, at least in this one.