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The historian Drew Gilpin Faust is the new President of Harvard University, and the first woman to hold that position.
She has just published “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”
Americans had never experienced anything like the losses suffered on the Civil War battlefields. North and South together lost 620,000 men. The equivalent today would be six million dead.
Faust’s subject is the little-understood impact of all that sacrifice.
“Death created the modern American union,” she writes, “not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments… The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking.” And, among other things, out of it was born the American funeral industry.
She describes how that work of death was done, much of the information gleaned from the letters of those who were forced to do it. Reviewer Geoffrey C Ward, in the New York Times Book Review, says she 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?’ ”
At Gettysburg, 7,000 corpses lay scattered across the countryside, with more than 3,000 dead horses and mules — six million pounds of human and animal flesh. Nearby townspeople carried bottles of peppermint oil to neutralize the smell.
At the beginning of the war, the Union Army had no burial details, no graves registration units, no means to notify next of kin, no provision for decent burial, no systematic way to identify or count the dead, no national cemeteries in which to bury them.
Undertakers and embalmers followed the armies. Corpses of officers were sent home in “METALLIC COFFINS… Warranted Airtight” (according to an advertisement); enlisted men were buried where they fell.
No one had been issued identification tags; one man carried an old envelope in his pocket so someone might notify his loved ones. Fathers and brothers, wives and mothers wandered battlefields in search of missing relatives. Private “agents” promised to search for missing men; they asked for a percentage of the widows’ pensions.
“The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny,” writes Faust, “one designed to ensure that lives had been sacrificed for appropriately lofty ends.”
Reviewer Geoffrey Ward calls Faust’s book of hard truth extraordinary.
It is of some concern to him, he says, that Harvard’s gain may rob us of a major historian.
sole source: Geoffrey C Ward’s review in the NY Times Book Review on 1/27/08. www.nytimes.com . Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” is published by AA Knopf and sells for $27.95.
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