It was nearly five years ago that I blogged about Drew Gilpin Faust’s then-new book “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” I recently bought a paperback reprint of it and have undertaken to read it again. My own feeling is that I benefit mightily by any second reading of any book, fiction or non-fiction. And I’m finding that this is again very true for me with “This Republic of Suffering.”
Yes, the subject is grim, but she packs this book full of things other than gruesome pictures of dead soldiers that so often come to mind when one thinks of the Civil War. In her preface she speaks of the goal of her book:
“This is a book about the work of death in the American Civil War…. Beginning with individual’s confrontation with dying and killing, the book explores how those experiences transformed society, culture, and politics in what became a broader republic of shared suffering. Some of the changes death brought were social, as wives turned into widows, children into orphans; some were political, as African American soldiers hoped to win citizenship and equality through their willingness both to die and to kill; some were philosophical and spiritual, as the carnage compelled Americans to seek meaning and explanation for war’s destruction….”
In her first chapter, entitled “Dying” Faust’s discusses the then-common idea of dying a “good death.” I had never heard of this idea before. She says, “The concept of the Good Death was central to mid-nineteenth-century America, as it had long been at the core of Christian practice. Dying was an art, and the tradition of ars moriendi had provided rules of conduct for the moribund and their attendants since at least the fifteenth century: how to give up one’s soul ‘gladlye and willfully”; how to meet the devil’s temptations of unbelief, despair, impatience, and worldly attachment;….”
Not being a devout practitioner of anything religious but admitting to many years inside a church, I was not willing to let “ars moriendi” go without a little more investigation. My, my, my….what interesting things I found. A peek at the online Encyclopedia of Death and Dying and at the section on ars moriendi make for fascinating reading …as well as a bit of chuckling over some of the drawings of demons trying to capture a dying man’s soul.
But I guess in simple terms, as nearly as I can understand all this (which I’ll admit is much beyond what my brain can process) it was important for family members to know the condition of their dying loved-one’s soul, that is, was he “right” with the Lord, which would, if he so confessed, give the family peace in knowing that they would meet him again in the hearafter. It became important during the Civil War to provide that assurance to family members. Often times it was so noted in a letter that was sent to notify family of the soldier’s death – a simple addendum that indicated the soldier’s deathbed words were something on the order of “I am ready” or “I have great peace.” Sometimes the words were delivered by returning soldiers. And in some cases there may not have been a religious statement but a patriotic one of serving their country honorably, and which was often assumed to carry equal weight in dying a “good death.”
This first chapter of the book alone was so fascinating that I found it hard to move on to the next chapter, which is “Killing.”
The author has a fat “notes” section at the back of the book, where she has listed the sources she used for researching each subject. In reading though these sources, you can be assured this book is not made up of conjectures. The amazing thing is that the whole book is so very interesting and so very readable.
One ought not to stay away from such a book just because it is about death.