Monday, June 4, 2012

{review} this republic of suffering


Another soldier, asked by a doctor for his last words to send home, responded by requesting the doctor to provide them. "I do not know what to say. Well, tell them only just such a message as you would like to send if you were dying."
I read this book a long time ago, but it has stuck with me and I would really like to read it again one day. I almost didn't want to share it, I liked it so much. That isn't a great help for a blogger! I was attracted by a review in the LRB (a terrible source of temptation) and sought it out because, first of all, I'm interested in ways of memorializing both the living and the dead in the ancient world; second, I don't know nearly enough about the American Civil War (apart from Gone With The Wind). It seemed a good kill-two-birds choice. And it was: this is an excellent book and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is an academic book which is also accessible to the lay reader, and this is a rare combination in my opinion: many academic titles are branded in catchy ways to bump up sales, but prove, on exploration, as impenetrable as the Rosetta Stone to a non-specialist. 

This book charts the transition from the individual management of death to what might be termed the professionalization, even the industrialisation, of the management of war dead. Gilpin Faust (incidentally, the first woman president of Harvard) brings her subject to life by threading her historical narrative with extracts from letters and diaries and records of personal - often heartbreaking - experience from the battlefields. The core of the book concerns the ways in which both the military, the soldiers' families and the soldiers themselves dealt with the mammoth task of managing the Civil War's huge death tolls. 

Gilpin Faust explores how this necessity establishes, by trial and error almost, future management of mass war casualties - how the dead are identified (and how the living seek to mark themselves against future misidentification as a consequence); who buries the dead; how the graves are marked; record-keeping; transport of the dead (and innovations in the accoutrements required); repatriation of remains. How do the victors treat the remains of the vanquished? Can the establishment of national organisations to commemorate (and, sadly, just to find) the dead assist in healing the wounds of a country torn apart by civil war? What happens to the families, the widows, the children of soldiers presumed dead? 

The author makes use of a fascinating range of primary sources: diaries and letters as well as some chilling photographs, along with local and national archival sources. One thing I found terribly moving was the presence of members of the family at the scene of battles seeking their dead. One instance is that of Oliver Wendall Holmes Snr., seeking his son's body after the Battle of Antietam (23,000 casualties in one day). Holmes Jnr. had been shot and as he lay wounded he scrawled his name, rank and family on a scrap of paper. He survived and kept the little note, commenting, "I wrote the above when I was lying in a little house on the field of Antietam which was for a while within the enemy's lines, as I thought I might faint & so be unable to tell who I was." Walt Whitman was another visitor to the battlefield whose life (the "very centre, circumference, umbilicus") was changed by his experience in search of his brother George. 

Others were not so fortunate as the younger Holmes or George Whitman, and there are many profoundly moving stories in this book of parents who never gave up the search to find their sons' final resting places. There is a particularly well constructed section on condolence letters and the presentation of the 'Good Death' which "structured the imperatives of Christianity, military courage, and masculinity into a hierarchy of solace." 

Rating: wonderful. Hugely informative and moving. (I've given up numerical ratings)

2 comments:

  1. This sounds fantastic. I've been reading so much war stuff lately that I want to take a break, but I'll put it on my list for later.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It really is an excellent book - stays in the mind for a long time.

    ReplyDelete

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