Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Classic Title for Memorial Day 2010: This Republic of Suffering

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Classic Title for Memorial Day 2010: This Republic of Suffering

Article excerpt

The horror of the Civil War revolutionized the treatment of US war casualties.

[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Jan. 29,

2008.] "Your son, Corporal Frank H. Irwin, was wounded near Fort

Fisher, Virginia, March the 25, 1865.... He died the first of May....

He was so good and well behaved.... I do not know his past life, but

I feel as if it must have been good."

It's not one of Walt Whitman's better known pieces of writing but it

may have been among his most heartfelt. During the US Civil War, the

poet was a tireless visitor to Washington, D.C., hospitals, not only

ministering to wounded and dying soldiers but also writing hundreds

of letters to their families. Often the only good news he could offer

was that their loved one had died honorably and not entirely

unnoticed.

Sadly - horrifically - these families were among the fortunate.

At least they knew. Thousands of others, on both sides of the war,

watched brothers, sons, husbands, and neighbors march off and then

waited for news that never came.

Decades later some were still waiting.

I sometimes thought while reading historian Drew Gilpin Faust's This

Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War that she

should simply have called her book "Misery." "We all have our dead

- we all have our Graves," intoned a Confederate Episcopal bishop

in a 1862 sermon. But even by contemporary standards it's hard to

grasp the carnage of the US Civil War.

An estimated 620,000 soldiers died between 1861 and 1865 - 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. Add to that at least 50,000 civilian

deaths.

"This Republic of Suffering" is a harrowing but fascinating read.

Faust (who is the president of Harvard University) makes a convincing

case that since the heartbreak of the Civil War the US has never been

the same.

On an institutional level, the government was prompted to become a

caretaker and custodian of its citizens in a way that it never had

before. But more poignantly, Faust argues, the Civil War raised

questions about individual worth that we have yet to answer today.

In some ways, the peculiar horror of the Civil War was that it

introduced modern warfare to a nation utterly unprepared to

understand it. "How does God have the heart to allow it?" cried

Confederate soldier and poet Sidney Lanier. Modern weapons deployed

on small battlefields meant that "the Civil War placed more

inexperienced soldiers, with more firepower and with more individual

responsibility for the decision to kill, into more intimate,

face-to-face battle settings than perhaps any other war in history."

At the same time, photography brought the ugly reality of mass

killing right into the home. Civilians once able to envision war as

glorious had that luxury no more. …

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