This Republic of Suffering, by Drew Gilpin Faust

1283566This Republic of Suffering is a strange book, at once bloody and bloodless. It describes, in numbing detail, the lived experience of Americans with the carnage of the Civil War. As Faust makes clear, the scope of the carnage was sweeping:

The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The Civil War’s rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities.

Faust’s book takes two perspectives on this bloodshed. First, the book describes how Americans at the time saw death, and how that perception was reshaped by the realities of modern war. To give one example, Faust explains how the mid-19th-century ideal of “the Good Death” required the participation of close family in one’s last moments — a final communion that remote battlefields obviously made impossible. (According to Faust, letters and a social contract — even between enemies — to inform the family became the replacement.)

Second, This Republic of Suffering outlines how the brutal reality of mass death — in just one killing field, for example, lay “a thousand blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads” — forced political institutions to adopt new procedures for burial and identification of the dead, as well as vast governmental pension and healthcare systems for the survivors. “Execution of these newly recognized responsibilities,” Faust argues, “would prove an important vehicle for the expansion of federal power that characterized the transformed postwar nation.”

These are compelling points, and Faust backs them up with a wealth of research and reasonably clear writing. But despite the pathos of the subject matter, there’s just no music to this book.

Faust is an academic historian (also the president of Harvard), and the clunkiness of academic writing pervades This Republic of Suffering. The internal structure of the book — the research outline that I assume Faust used — is disconcertingly transparent: every chapter announces its thesis at the outset; and every paragraph begins with a summary of the evidence to follow. (Indeed, the book scans reasonably well if you just read the first sentence of every paragraph.) Moreover, the stitching language that academics use to transition between and organize disparate areas of research is incredibly obvious. That stitching language is more than just stylistically unattractive; it also highlights the underlying superficiality of Faust’s arguments. Rather than building on her points, Faust instead moves between them — a subtle distinction that, for me, distinguishes outstanding academic work from one that merely amalgamates a concededly impressive amount of research.

One other thing bothered me. Americans have long seen the Civil War as exceptional. In many ways it is — but not when it comes to the dead. Faust notes, for instance, that

More than 2 percent of the nation’s inhabitants were dead as a direct result of the war—the approximate equivalent of the population in 1860 of the state of Maine, more than the entire population of Arkansas or Connecticut, twice the population of Vermont, more than the whole male population of Georgia or Alabama.

That’s bad. But the world had already seen worse. The Taiping Rebellion, which occurred at roughly the same time, claimed twenty to thirty million deaths. And centuries earlier the Thirty Years’ War had essentially depopulated vast swathes of Europe

So great was the devastation brought about by the war that estimates put the reduction of population in the German states at about 25% to 40%. Some regions were affected much more than others. For example, Württemberg lost three-quarters of its population during the war. In the territory of Brandenburg, the losses had amounted to half, while in some areas an estimated two-thirds of the population died. The male population of the German states was reduced by almost half. The population of the Czech lands declined by a third due to war, disease, famine and the expulsion of Protestant Czechs.

This isn’t meant to diminish the awfulness of the American Civil War, or its cataclysmic effects on American life, culture, and politics. Nor did I really expect that Faust, in this slim volume, would touch on or even recognize all of the other killing that has long been a hallmark of human civilization. But reading Faust’s painstaking, even exhausting, analysis of the human costs of the Civil War made me uncomfortably aware of how every problem she highlighted was probably exacerbated in other, more brutal conflicts. America suffered grievous wounds in the fight to end slavery, but at least we got something beautiful at the end of it. Other peoples, in other places, and from other times, were far less fortunate.