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21 April 2010

Book Review: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
by Drew Gilpin Faust 


The preface was much more engaging than the book itself. Not that the book wasn't good; it was just chock full of footnoted facts. Kind of like a term paper; Faust would say something, then spend boring time proving it with too many footnoted examples. While scholarly, certainly, it disrupted the flow and the power.

I thought the best chapter was that entitled "Believing and Doubting," a chapter on how faith developed and changed in the wake of such a horrendous body count. I have always questioned why so many men went so willingly into hand-to-hand combat. Running towards destruction. Some quotable tidbits from this chapter help explain the mindset;

"Some historians have argued that, in fact, only the widespread existence of such beliefs [afterlife] made acceptance of the Civil War death tolls possible, and that religion thus in some sense enabled the slaughter."

"Death offered these devout men (soldiers with faith) a 'change' but not an ending; the celestial skies of Glory became more alluring than the bloody fields of Georgia or Virginia."

Also interesting was Faust's exploration on how the Civil War concepts of Christian after-life (which are still predominant today) came to be. It all started with the publication of a book called
Heaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg in 1758. This started a "movement away from a conception of heaven as forbiddingly ascetic, distant from earth and its materiality, and highly theocentric. Instead, a more modern notion of heaven began to emerge as a realm hardly separate or different - except in its perfection - from earth itself." The conversion of thought, the movement to "annex heaven as a more glorious suburb of the present life" started in the 18th century but was incomplete when the Civil War started. The Civil War solidified it because in the face of mass killing, Swedenborg's concept of heaven was comforting. And survivors, as well as soldiers not expecting to survive, clung to that comfort.

It was in this atmosphere that spiritualism began to flourish; mediums, ouija boards, messages from the world beyond. People were desperate for closure and reassurance. And this desperation shaped religion in America. And still shapes it into the 21st century.