Book Review: This Republic Of Suffering

This Republic Of Suffering:  Death And The American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust

This is an interesting book, and one that comes from the president of Harvard University and a long time and well-regarded professor of history.  At its core, this is a book that reflects upon the mortality of the Civil War and how that influenced the thinking and behavior of Civil War soldiers and civilians as they coped with death and suffering on a massive scale [1].  Yet although this book is insightful and an interesting read, it is missing something profoundly, and that is a full ability to empathize with and relate to the worldview of the people at the time.  At no point in this book are you unaware that the author does not share the faith of the people at the time.  This is a “post-Christian” book and that just sits poorly with this reader.  Even if the author tries to be fair to the way the people of the time thought, this album has a sense of irony and distance that sits poorly with the book’s grim and determined focus on death and suffering.  Overall, the tone of the book and its content are too clashing to make this book a truly excellent one.

In terms of its contents, this book has a bit over 250 pages of content that is divided by the author into such subjects as dying, killing, burying, naming, realizing, believing and doubting, accounting, numbering, and surviving.  This is a book that takes a high level view of the subjects at hand, starting with various themes that it wants to cover and then finding worthwhile examples from the immense writing of the time.  And let us make no mistake, the author does a great job at finding evidence of the importance of an odd mixture of nationalism, Victorian Christianity, the rise of evolution and industrialization, and even Roman Catholicism with the art of dying.  If you are looking for a top-down examination of death and suffering in the Civil War that explores the tension between death on a massive scale and the struggle to maintain humanity, this book certainly provides a lot of thought-provoking insight.  As a data scientist by profession, the author’s comments on the specious exactitude of statistics of dead and wounded being based on bad data with vague memory supplying the hard data is certainly on point–this is a book that has a great deal of contemporary relevance concerning the struggle between death and suffering as statistic and as individually felt.

If I seem to harp on the importance of relating to the worldview of the people of the Civil War, there is a good reason for that.  When I was reading this book, and reading the way that the author pointed out that the massive death of the time caused a lot of people to question their faith in God, a rather dark insight came to my mind that the author seemed unaware of.  Both the North and South were complicit in slavery and to some extent profited off of it.  Yet the Civil War seemed to spur reflection by neither side–Abraham Lincoln himself came to a deeper expression of faith in divine providence and God’s judgment, but few others did.  If the author seems to praise Ambrose Bierce and others for grim insight, the author fails to recognize the lack of insight of the people of the time.  The massive death of the Civil War did not mean that God had failed–it meant that people had failed, and that there was a chance to repent and turn to God, an opportunity that was largely missed.  Understanding and grasping the meaning of death without having the proper worldview to give meaning to life is a futile task, though.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: This Republic Of Suffering

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Cancer, Faith, And Unexpected Joy | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Patriot Pirates | Edge Induced Cohesion

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