In A 'Republic of Suffering', Death's Unifying Effect In This Republic Of Suffering, historian Drew Gilpin Faust reveals that the rate of death during the American Civil war was six times that of World War II — a fact which created a shared sense of suffering that helped the nation reunite after the war was over.
NPR logo

In A 'Republic of Suffering', Death's Unifying Effect

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In A 'Republic of Suffering', Death's Unifying Effect

In A 'Republic of Suffering', Death's Unifying Effect

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Fresh Air. I am Terry Gross. The United States embarked on a new relationship with death during the Civil War, right to my guest Drew Gilpin Faust. Her book, "This Republic of Suffering," is one of the five books nominated for the 2008 National Book Award for non-fiction. The National Book Award winners will be announced in November 19th.

"This Republic of Suffering" is about how the carnage of the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, assaulted conceptions of how life should end and challenge fundamental assumptions about life's value and meaning. Faust has written several other books about the Civil War, including "Mothers of Invention." She was inaugurated as president of Harvard University last year and is the first woman to hold that position. She's also a professor of history at Harvard. Drew Gilpin Faust, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's start with just a description of the magnitude of death during the Civil War.

Dr. DREW GILPIN FAUST (President, Harvard University; Author, "This Republic of Suffering"): The magnitude of death included 620,000 estimated military dead and uncounted numbers of civilian dead. And to understand what that means, I think we have to consider it in terms of the size of the population as a whole and think about the rate of death in order to be able to understand what such numbers might mean in the context of our own time. And 620,000 military dead was the equivalent of about two percent of the American population at that time. In today's terms, that would mean six million dead.

So, as we contemplate what kind of impact that might have on our own society, I think we can get some sense of what this level of death might have mean to Americans of the mid 19th century. Another way to think about it is to consider that as many soldiers died in the American Civil war as died in all American wars from the American Revolution through the first years of Vietnam. So, it was a war with a much higher cost of lives than any war we had engaged in up through the mid 20th century, the total of deaths.

GROSS: Now, you write that the massive numbers of dead and the gruesome ways in which the deaths occurred violated the prevailing assumptions about life's proper end, about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Dr. FAUST: I think part of this impact came from the fact that this war occurred in the middle of a Victorian era, in which notions about death were very much centered around the home and having an individual die in the midst of the bosom family, often on a death bed surrounded by individuals who would hear last words and be able to assess the future state of the dying person based on how the death occurred. And so many Americans, of course, in war died away from home, away from family, in circumstances on battle fields where such a death toll hadn't been anticipated, and therefore, there wasn't adequate provision for burial, for identifying the dead, for taking care of the remains of the dead.

GROSS: There was this idealized sense of what a good death would be, and that included some of the things you described, dying near family. What else?

Dr. FAUST: Well, this was an overwhelmingly Christian and, in fact, Protestant nation. And notions of the good death, the art of dying, had come down through Christian tradition over a number of decades and centuries, and this included the notion that the way one died had a predictive aspect to it, that you could tell whether someone was likely to go to heaven, was likely to be in a state in which he or she could be reunited with kin in a future life, in which an individual could die easily or hard depending on whether or not they were likely to be saved. And so, scrutinizing the death and being present to hear important last words that would end their life's narrative, all of that came to take on great importance and to be expected as a way of ending a life.

The other part of this, of course, was the notion of decent burial, a grave that could be identified, could be visited, could be marked, and a way in which the dead person could be remembered and in some sense remain in the bosom of the family, even though that person had departed. And of course, a soldier who was lost on a battle field, his grave unknown, could not be recognized and remembered in that way as well.

GROSS: And a soldier whose body was mutilated in war couldn't be dying the good death either.

Dr. FAUST: I think that the firepower of the Civil War, the numbers of bodies that were left to rot, the numbers of amputations in the Civil War, all of this created threats to the understanding of the human being as an integral soul, as a body and soul that could be united. I think one of the most striking aspects of the way Civil War death occurred is that it really challenged individual's understanding of what it meant to be human and what separated humans from animals.

You find often in Civil War Americans writing about death that they talk about bodies being treated like hogs or being treated like dead chickens and just thrown into pits. And so this anxiety about whether a human being was in fact different from an animal, based on how these bodies were being treated, was very troubling, very disturbing.

GROSS: You write that soldiers tried to construct a good death even in a chaos of war. What were some of the ways that they did that?

Dr. FAUST: Well, I think many soldiers tried to create situations in which the elements of the good death could be replicated. One of the striking things that I found reading soldier's letters and descriptions of battle fields after battles was the numbers of soldiers who surrounded themselves with photographs of their families as they were dying. So, instead of having the family around the death bed, instead they would array photographs around themselves, almost to replicate the notion that their family was present and that they could look into the eyes of their family as they were dying.

They also often expressed last words or last wishes in ways that they asked to have transmitted to their family members. And soldiers who survived were quite assiduous in sending to family member's information about the nature of the death of a comrade. So, these letters were very important link between home and battlefield that was meant to overcome that separation that we had introduced.

GROSS: My guest is Drew Gilpin Faust, the author of "This Republic of Suffering: Death in the American Civil War." It's nominated for a National Book Award for non-fiction. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

We're talking about how the death toll of this Civil War affected American culture, religion, and burial practices. My guest, the historian Drew Gilpin Faust, is the author of "This Republic of Suffering: Death in the American Civil War." It's nominated for National Book Award for non-fiction.

Now, you write that soldiers who survived battles had to then bury the dead, and there were so many dead to be buried. There were new kinds of burial practices that were developed because of the mass level of death in the Civil War?

Dr. FAUST: I think it's hard for us to imagine the lack of systematic organization in the military in regard to death. And partly, it was because the level of death was so unanticipated. But there were no regular burial details. There were no graves registration services. For much of the war, there were not regular ambulance services in either army, although the Union army, by about 1864, improved that situation somewhat.

But this meant that usually, after battle, there was just chaos, and there were so many bodies and no organized attempt or plan to take care of them. So, after battles, there was always an active improvisation to get the dead buried. It often took a considerable period of time. There are letters from individuals visiting battlefields as long as 10 days after the actual battle saying that the dead still lay strewn about.

There are many descriptions of overwhelming stench, is the word that is often used, emanating from Gettysburg or Antedem and poisoning the air from miles around. So, this horror of not simply the number of deaths and the impact of those deaths, but simply the bodies and the difficulty of figuring out what to do with them was very present in the minds and lives of Civil War Americans.

So, what do we mean by new ways of dealing with the dead? Some of these were the kinds of dehumanizing practices that so threatened and scared Americans as they found themselves forced to throw bodies into mass pits without names, without identity. Most soldiers who died on the battlefield were buried without coffins. Probably half the cases of Civil War dead were not identified. And so, there was no way to let loved ones know, and there were no regularized processes in either Northern or Southern Army for notifying next of kin. This began to trouble soldiers and other - and families and officials enormously. And so, we can see in the course of the war the evolution of efforts to try to overcome the dehumanization and anonymity of these burial practices.

GROSS: I was really surprised to read in your book that, during the Civil War, the military did not have the responsibility of informing the next of kin of a soldier who had died, and they didn't have the responsibility of recording the names of soldiers who died. That was changed as a result of a few people who did a lot of work to change it, one of whom as Edmund B. Whitman, the chief quartermaster of the military division of Tennessee.

Dr. FAUST: Edmund Whitman had been a quartermaster, and the quartermaster corps was the unit of the military that was assigned responsibility for burial. And so he began to explore, at the behest of his superiors, through the areas of the western theater, just looking for Union graves and soldiers who were buried in every byway and road and on former battlefields in that area. And he found two things.

One was that there were graves everywhere. He described the South as a great charnel house of the dead because he found graves in copses of woods, by railroad tracks, under apple trees, in people's farmyards, behind churches, behind settlements of freed slaves - just all over the South he kept finding group and even individual graves. So he felt there was a substantial opportunity here to honor dead who would otherwise be lost.

The second thing he found was that these graves were often being desecrated by white Southerners who were angry about their defeat and felt that they could express some of that rage and frustration about the loss of war by doing their spring plowing as usual, even though the field was filled with union graves, by harming the graves in other ways. And so Whitman made the point to his superiors that, if action wasn't taken to protect these graves, that these soldiers would not just be ignored, they would be dishonored and desecrated.

So over a period of months, as he began his very systematic assessment of the locations of graves, he kept making the case that all these graves should be removed to the national cemeteries. Over the course of the years, between the fall of 1865 and then through and towards in the spring of 1866, up until 1871, Edmund Whitman kept traveling through the western part of the south to identify graves and he, at last, was supported by the federal government in his commitment to relocate as many as he could find into a system of national cemeteries.

He personally was involved in the relocation of over 100,000 Union bodies, and the program that evolved from his efforts in large part ended up reburying over 300,000 Union soldiers in 74 national cemeteries. So this was the real beginning of the national cemetery system. It also represented a program of a magnitude that had not before really been imagined as the responsibility of a federal government, that had been quite weak before the Civil War. This was not undertaken by the states. It was undertaken by the central government, and I think we can see in that an example of the new strength in the nation's state that emerged from the war and the kinds of responsibilities that it took on.

GROSS: So, I imagine from everything that you're saying about how the government and the military were unable to identify and name the dead during the Civil War that dog tags didn't exist yet?

Dr. FAUST: That's correct. There was no formal identification badge or process, and soldiers invented ways of counteracting that. In the war, they would sometimes pin pieces of paper with their names on it on themselves when they were going into a particularly difficult battle. Little tags, little identity badges were also for sale and were advertised widely in the North and South, and so some soldiers would buy those with their name and contact information on them. And then other soldiers just improvised by making sure there was always an envelope addressed to them somewhere on their person or writing their particulars about their address and next of kin in a diary or a Bible that they carried with them.

GROSS: You know, in writing about burials and reburials during the Civil War and its aftermath, you asked the question, why do living humans pay attention to corpses? And I thought, that's such an interesting question to ask. We just take it for granted that it's important to give corpses a proper burial. Why did you even pose the question?

Dr. FAUST: Well, if you think about efficiency or affecting those who were still alive to be affected, would you go around expending resources reburying the dead? I mean, if you have a purely instrumental view of social obligation or governmental obligation, would this be something you would think of? And, of course, we do, and, of course, this matters enormously to us. And I think Edmund Whitman explained it very well when he said that he was proud of the government spending so much energy and so many resources on what might be called, as he puts it, a sentiment.

In other words, this is a humanitarian age. This is an age that goes beyond the instrumental or the material. It recognizes the value of human life and the special nature of the body and the soul and their intertwined character. And so he sees it as a real affirmation of part of the humanity that many Americans feared the Civil War had dissipated.

GROSS: Now, you described how a lot of people used their religion to help comprehend the death and suffering that their loved ones experienced during the Civil War and to help give meaning to death, but at the same time, a lot of people found that the Civil War shook their very belief in religion. Can you talk about the Civil War as an increasing time of doubt?

Dr. FAUST: For me, it's summed up very eloquently in a statement by the southern poet, Sidney Lanier, who said, how could God allow this? I think many Americans felt that such horror was difficult to reconcile with the notion of a benevolent God.

At the end of the war, many southerners said to themselves, how could God have allowed our defeat? We thought we were God's chosen. If there is no victory for the South, if we're not God's chosen, how can I continue to believe in God? And so, those questions of reconciling suffering with the notion of a caring God was very difficult for many individuals.

One finds some of the most eminent writers of American history speculating on these questions in the context of Civil War. Herman Melville is one who writes a series of poems about the war that raised the question of, what is the nature of belief; how can there be belief? And Emily Dickinson, who, of course, found death her subject throughout her career of writing isolated in her father's house in Amherst, used the context and imagery of war as a way of exploring, very fully, the implications of death for the possibility of belief.

GROSS: I hope this isn't too personal to mention, but I know you've had breast and thyroid cancer and apparently are in the clear for all of that now. But did dealing with that contribute to your interest in thinking about death?

Dr. FAUST: I'm sure it did. I'm sure it did. I found that, when you are forced to think about death, life comes into a very sharp focus. So death gives you a particular window on the world around you. 19th century Americans believed, and this was part of the good death, that you lived a better life if you were always aware that it was going to have an end. It sharpened your experience of the world in which you were located.

20th and 21st century Americans try not to think about death. After I had my experiences with illness, I think I recognize something of the significance of the 19th century viewpoint - that thinking about death can enrich your life, not just detract from it. And so, in some way, I'm moved towards a more 19th century view of death than, perhaps, most common among my colleagues and friends in the 20th and 21st centuries.

There's a poem by Donald Hall, the last line of which is, it is fitting and proper that we should lose everything. And I think about that poem sometimes because the sense that things are not eternal, that you don't have them forever, enhances their value. I believe that's what he meant in that poem. I think that's the perspective that the 19th century attitude about death can offer to us, even in our own time.

GROSS: Well, Drew Gilpin Faust, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. FAUST: It's been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Drew Gilpin Faust is the president of Harvard University and the author of "This Republic Of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War." It's nominated for a National Book Award for nonfiction. The national book award winners will be announced November 19th. Our interview was recorded last January, when Faust's book was published. This is Fresh Air.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.