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Grief and the US Civil War: a conversation with Drew Gilpin Faust

Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust's book 'This Republic of Suffering' has been adapted into a PBS film which will air Sept. 19.

By Randy Dotinga / September 17, 2012

Writer Drew Gilpin Faust (r.) had her book 'This Republic of Suffering' adapted into a PBS film directed by Ric Burns (l.).

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP


The Civil War unleashed a tide of grief and mourning that remains unimaginable today when American wars are fought by the few.

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On Tuesday evening, Sept. 19, PBS's "American Experience" documentary series will try to help us understand the toll – which for some would last well into the 20th century – by airing a new film titled "Death and the Civil War." It is based on the 2008 book "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" by historian Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University.

In a review for The Christian Science Monitor, Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe called the book "a harrowing but fascinating read" that "makes a convincing case that since the heartbreak of the Civil War the US has never been the same."

I talked to Faust last week about the Civil War's legacy of immense grief and mourning, the ways the war changed perceptions of American citizenship and government, and the evolution of her own beliefs as a child of the South. 

Q: How did the death toll of the Civil War – an estimated 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians and perhaps even more, according to a new estimate – change us as a nation?

A: We learned about our obligations to the dead. If we are to understand ourselves as a nation made up of citizens, and if we ask people to fight in defense of that democracy, there are obligations owed to them.

Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries, no processes for identifying the dead in the battle. There weren't any dog tags, and there was no next-of-kin notification.

You didn't necessarily even hear what the fate of your loved ones had been. It was up to their comrades to write and inform you.

Those kinds of practices were transformed by the recognition of what the country owes to the citizen in the way of an honorable death and the responsibility for the remains and for the kin of those who have died in war.

Q: How was the government itself transformed by its new responsibility to take care of soldiers who lived and those who died?

A: It had never had so much work as was represented by the bureaucracy necessary to rebury the dead, with more than 300,000 Union soldiers relocated and buried in national cemeteries.

That was an enormous logistical undertaking. And the pension system that was set up to take care of the relatives required a level of engagement in the lives of citizens and bureaucracy that didn't exist. Before, the government was very small.

Q: What did the loss of these lives mean to the nation's understanding of itself?

A: The war is captured in the Gettysburg Address: these honored dead died that a nation might live. The nation itself becomes the product of the sacrifice. There is a sense of the obligation of the nation to the principles for which the war was fought.

This was a war about citizenship, about equality, about emancipation, and the values that define us.

Q: How did it change people's views of death itself?

A: Human beings were confronted with death in what they called particular circumstance and necessities: Young people were dying in ways that wouldn't have happened outside of war.

A lot of individuals found themselves asking questions. What does death mean? What is heaven like? Do I really believe in a benevolent God if He allows these things to occur? What does it mean to be a human being and confront this level of inhumanity?
Q: When I think of this era, the modern violin tune "Ashokan Farewell," popularized by the landmark Ken Burns "Civil War" documentary series, comes to mind. It's so tremendously sad and mournful. Does the music ring true to that era?

A: The mournfulness you describe is very much at the heart of so many individuals.


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