Jul 12, 2014

Discussion of "This Republic of Suffering"

Eleven of us showed up Wednesday night, a relatively small showing, to discuss This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. This book won both the Bancroft Prize and the American History Book Prize in 2008. It deals with issues related to deaths of soldiers during the Civil War, especially what happened after their deaths. We received the warm hospitality from Elisenda Sola-Sole and the Kensington Row Bookshop to which we have become accustomed.

The Civil War was the first "industrial scale' war. Millions of men served in uniform. Weapons were more deadly as compared with those used in previous wars, and mass produced. Troops and supplies could be moved long distances via railroad, and communications could be transmitted by telegraph. Author Faust cites there being and estimated 620,000 deaths of soldiers in the war (the Washington Post on Wednesday stated that historians now put the number at 740,000); most of those who died did so of disease rather than in battle. Faust indicates that the people of the United States embarked on a new relationship with death as a result of this industrial slaughter.

We had an active discussion of the book, occasionally digressing from the main subject (as we so often do). Thus we talked about music related to war deaths, and the relative success of different generals, Civil War poetry, and Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary.

We noted that the Civil War was fought largely by volunteer armies; there were relatively few professional soldiers. The impact of battle and the soldiers life would have been different for a farm boy from Iowa or North Carolina than for a professional soldier, and the way a family might experience of the death of a volunteer would be different than the way a family might experience the death of a professional soldier -- different and more difficult.

We also note that in the Confederate army, the enlisted soldiers would have been of a lower class than the officers. (Less than one-third of Confederate whites owned any slaves, and only a small portion of that  third owned large plantations with many slaves.) Plantation owners who chose to serve in the Confederate army would have taken their arms, horses and slaves with them and become officers. Still we thought that southern troops generally supported their cultural institutions. Indeed, they would have supported the institution of slavery even not owning slaves, if only because the slaves and not the poor whites were at the bottom of the social structure.

We noted that mortality was much higher in the 19th century than it is today. While two percent of the population died as soldiers during the war, or an average of one-half of one percent per year, the prewar mortality was about 1.4 percent per year. People were more used to death than we are today, although the deaths of men of military age would even then have been relatively rare in normal years. During the war women would continue to die (often giving birth) as would children and old people. Thus the soldiers might have represented something over a quarter of the total deaths each year.

It was the Victorian age. Women were expected to grieve differently than men. Indeed, women were expected to wear deep mourning black for a year after the death of a husband, and a somber grey for another year after that; men were expected to be more stoic and to return to their work and normal duties relatively quickly.
The Good Death

We discussed author Faust's use of quotations from letters to their homes from soldiers, especially emphasizing the preparation for a "good death". Faust indicates that one of the aspects believed to make for a good death at the time was to die at home, surrounded by family and friends. That of course did not happen for the men who died in battle, in the field hospitals of their wounds, in camps of disease, or on the march. Faust describes efforts to provide surrogates to comfort the dying from comrades in arms, doctors and nurses; she also describes the efforts to write to relatives providing details of the death.

Faust seems to take these letters at face value. It was suggested that letters from young people home to their families may have systematic distortions of the writers actual feelings and perceptions of their surroundings. A member suggested that when he was a young man living far from home, he certainly crafted letters home with some care; another suggested that daughters don't tell their families everything. Similarly, letters from military superiors and comrades reporting a death to the deceased's family are likely to be empathetic to the distress that that family would expect to be feeling.

One member was rather eloquent describing the anguish of a mother whose son had died, wanting to know when and how it had happened, whether he had suffered, and where he was buried. For a great many of the Civil War dead, their burial place was not known to their families until after the war or indeed ever. For some, believing in the resurrection of the body, the interment of the body of a loved one had great importance.

It was noted that many Irish immigrants would have been recruited for the army as they got off the boat from Ireland. There was a custom at the time (and indeed that lasted much later) to hold an "American wake" for a young Irish man or woman departing for America in recognition that he/she would probably never see his/her family again, that they would not have had the benefit of his/her presence at the death of Irish family members, nor of those left behind at the death of the American relative. These Irish immigrant soldiers did not share the expectation of a death at home surrounded by loved ones that author Faust attributes to the citizen soldiers.

The majority of the soldiers were members of Protestant denominations and Faust suggests that there were a number of factors contributing to a "good death": the person should be conscious of his fate, willing to accept it, shown signs of belief in God and in his own salvation, and leave messages for those who would in normal times have been at his side. Faust suggests that there was a convergence in these beliefs among all denominations, including Catholics and Jews.

One member expressed doubts. He suggested that Catholic soldiers would have believed a good death involved confession of his sins, absolution by a priest, the last sacrament administered by a priest, and burial in holy ground. We mentioned the "conditional absolution" given by Father Corby at Gettysburg to the Irish Brigade (the Catholic priest who later became head of Notre Dame University, who served the mostly Catholic Irish-American soldiers), but the member suggested that most of the Catholic soldiers who died on the battlefield would not have felt that their religious needs at death had been met.

A member mentioned that he understood that it was not uncommon for non-Catholics to ask for a priest to hear a general confession for absolution of sins, and that he had conversations with a retired priest who had himself heard such confessions.

A criticism of the book was that it probably did not do justice to the diversity of responses to death in the differing subcultures from which the soldiers and their families were drawn. Families living in the teaming slums of New York and Philadelphia may not have reacted in the same way as farm families in the north; southerners were deserting the Confederate army in large numbers toward the end of the war, in part because their families were in desperate need for their help at home; the death of such a soldier might have been catastrophic for his wife and children. Indians had been involved and it was noted that the largest mass hanging in American history was of Indians during the Civil War; how would Indian families respond to the death of an Indian soldier?

One of our members who could not attend the meeting had earlier emailed using our club list-serve that he felt the book did not do justice to the situation of these black troops, so hated by the southerners.  There were some 180,000 blacks who enlisted on the Union side starting in 1862.
  • We assumed that most of these were free before the war rather than freed slaves. These soldiers probably tended to fight for more personal and deeply felt reasons than did white soldiers. Would their families have reacted differently than white families to the death of a soldier family member?
  • As massacres at Fort Pillow and at Poison Springs, Arkansas indicated, black soldiers might well be executed rather than treated as prisoners after being captured during battle. They clearly did not have a "good death". How would family members of have responded to the death of a soldier shot after being captured?
  • Some of the black soldiers would have been escaped slaves, whose families remained in slavery or perhaps were in the "Contraband Camps" (camps set up for emancipated slaves who had sought Union protection); how would those families learn of the deaths of the beloved soldiers? How would they mourn them?
(Surprisingly perhaps, we did not discuss the book's chapter titled "Killing", perhaps because none of us had had experience of serving as a soldier in battle and thus had little basis to judge why soldiers killed in battle and how they felt about doing so. I assume that neither had author Drew Gilpin Faust.)

One member mentioned the extensive notes provided by author Faust, a professional historian. That led to a discussion of sources. Some members found the references to letters to be useful and informative. Another quoted that "the plural of anecdote is not data".  Statistical analysis of the mail from three million soldiers written over four years would be a huge effort, and apparently was not undertaken for this book. It was also noted that young people away from home do not always write the truth in letters to the home folk, and it is perhaps dangerous to take the content of these letters as factual. So too, writing about the death of someone to their family, one tends to be kind to the deceased rather than brutally honest.

The book is fundamentally about an aspect of American culture and its change during the Civil War, and notes to other authors' works that have considered these changes are quite appropriate. A scholarly analysis of cultural change should take into account what other scholars have written on the subject, and appropriate notes to sources would help many readers.

Union soldiers wounded during the July 29, 1862, Battle of Savage’s Station in Virginia lie outside a field hospital near the battlefield.

Failures During the War

From today's vantage point, we percieve that the death rate was too high during the war. Far too many people died of disease, in part because of poor hygiene in the military camps. It was noted in our discussion that the situation was so bad that soldiers camped around Washington, Richmond and other cities polluted water supplies for the civilian population causing civilian disease outbreaks. A member mentioned that Willie Lincoln in Washington and Willie Sherman (the son of William Tecumseh Sherman) in Vicksburg both died of typhoid during such outbreaks.

Wounded soldiers might lie on a field of battle for a day or more before receiving medical attention for lack of ambulances and for lack of periods of ceased fire to enable their recovery. A wounded soldier who reached a field hospital they might wait days until an overworked surgeon could provide service; often the only available treatment was amputation; sometimes the doctor would have amputated many patients limbs without cleaning his instruments nor his hands.

While soldiers sometimes tied identification notes to their clothing, often the bodies of dead soldiers could not be identified. Indeed, when a defeated army left a battlefield often its dead were dumped in mass graves or simply left to rot in the open.

Rosters of soldiers killed and wounded were required, but apparently often neglected. Officers seeking to recover from battle and reorganize their troops, perhaps retreating, apparently had little time nor interest in accurate record keeping. Moreover, late in the war it may have been difficult to find out if specific soldiers had been killed, had been captured, had been wounded and taken to receive medical treatment (and perhaps sent home disabled or died) or simply deserted.

A letter might be written to a dead soldier's family by the officer under whom the soldier had served, or by a fellow soldier, or by someone in the hospital in which he had died, but their was no formal system for the government to notify next of kin. There was even less possibility of notification of family for someone missing in action.

While the bodies of a few notables were shipped home, the best most soldiers could hope for was a rapid burial in a makeshift coffin and poorly marked grave. Southerners were especially viscous toward Union soldiers, and most so toward black Union soldiers. One Union soldier's remains were found with a pitchfork stabbed through its back. Many soldiers were buried in mass graves. Other bodies were simply left where they had fallen.

In the south, it was often the former slaves who created cemeteries for the Union dead and tended them. While the government in Washington treated the Confederate dead as traitors, denying them military honors comparable to those of its Union soldiers for decades after the war, the Confederate anger was still more extreme.

Institutional Development

An important aspect of the book is its discussion of institutional change. There was a medical corps at the beginning of the war, and field hospitals were established at battlefields (albeit inadequate to the needs), but there was no ambulance service. The book describes how the father of a dead soldier made it his mission in life to convince the army to establish its ambulance service; he was successful in that endeavor.

At the outbreak of the war there was no formal governmental systems for identifying the dead, notifying their families, nor providing "decent" graves. There were no national graveyards. Death registries, notifications, and national cemeteries were all institutionalized by the government as a result of the Civil War.

The book also describes Americans reacting to the war by creating non-governmental organizations such as the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission in the north and women's groups who organized cemeteries for the dead soldiers in the South. Clara Barton in 1865 created an office for correspondence with the families of missing men, helping to fulfill the need for information about loved ones who did not return from the war. Clara Barton at the beginning of the war collected bandages, food and clothing from Ladies' Aid societies for the troops, and eventually worked to clean field hospitals, apply dressings to wounds, and serve food to wounded soldiers, having gotten military permission to fill an unmet need.

The private sector also played its role commercializing aspects of death, for example selling coffins (including sealed ones for shipping bodies home). Embalming for such shipments was sufficiently common that it fostered embalming becoming common among the civilian population. Mathew Brady's company photographed battlefields and exhibited the images. Reporters telegraphed news from the front, and newspapers printed lists of the local dead.

Final Comments

One member saw this book as opening a number of new fields for historical research. Did different subcultures in America respond to the wholesale deaths of soldiers in the Civil War differently, and if so how and why? Indeed, the book barely begins the academic analysis of the ways in which the Civil War experience changed American culture's treatment of death.

We found it hard to empathize with the feelings of our ancestors as described in this book. Some of the mourning customs seem strange and artificial. So too do some of their religious beliefs. We could not understand their apparent callousness with regard to the bodies of dead soldiers nor fully relate to the ways that grief was expressed by their families.

The discussion was initiated calling upon one member who we knew in advance liked the book. Her opinion was shared by some other members who were present. Several members had not read it, perhaps due to the summer doldrums or the dark topic. At least one member found many problems with the book. Thus there did not seem to be consensus.

Vicksburg National Military Cemetery

1 comment:

  1. There has been a huge improvement in the treatment of dead soldiers by the U.S. military since the Civil War. For example, DNA identification now brings the probability of a dead soldier not being identified to zero. Those dying in Afghanistan and Iraq were returned to the USA for burial in no more than 72 hours. There is now an app for smart phones that enables one to very quickly identify a grave site in Arlington National Cemetary, locate it, and get real time guidance to the site. (There are now more than 400,000 graves there.)