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.
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When I was growing up in Virginia, the Civil War was presented to me as glorious with dramatic courage and military honor. Later, I realized how death was central to the reality. It was at the core of women's lives. It's what they talked about most.Skip to next paragraph
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Q: How did writing this book change your own perception of the war?
A: As a kid, I was growing up in an era of celebration of the Civil War centennial, with a lot of "Lost Cause" emphasis on the Confederacy.
I used to play Civil War soldiers with my brothers as a child, and my older brother always insisted that he got to be Lee, and I got be Grant. I never knew that Grant won until quite some time had passed.
As I became older, I began to recognize what the war was fought about.
I also grew up in the era of civil rights. My perspective was one that led me to feel proud that I'd gotten to be Grant.
Q: How did people of that time get through the pain and agony of loss?
A: That was in my mind every minute. Some people didn't cope.
There's a story of a young man from South Carolina named Oliver Middleton. He goes off to war at age 18, he's killed, and his father, a very wealthy man, scours the battlefield to find out what happened. The parents are grief-stricken, and his mother dies within a year. She just dissolved and disintegrated.
I'm also struck by how many soldiers write about what they were seeing. Henry Taylor from Wisconsin writes to his parents saying, "I don't know what to say, my mind is all jumbled up. I can't explain it, I can't talk about it."
I see what we might regard today as post-traumatic stress.
Another factor is the powerful role of religion in enabling people to cope. Thomas Hampton of Georgia, who dies in the absolute last month of the war, writes to this wife, two years before, that he'd already gotten to Heaven. He writes about a better place. It's as if he's living parallel lives, one in his religion that allows him to survive the fighting.
There's a Biblical verse that says "as thy days, so shall thy strength be." This is a sense that you won't be called upon to do more than you're able. God will get you the strength to put you through what is in front of you.
Q: What sort of emotional scars would linger?
A: There's a quotation from [author] William Deal Howell, talking about President James Garfield. His experience in the war made him lose a sense of the sacredness of life that never returned to him. It came from seeing dead men whom other men had killed, seeing human beings killing one another. This level of destruction and inhumanity affected him in ways that lasted his whole life.
Q: What does the documentary add to the book?
A: The film can capture of the dimensions of the experience. The letters that are so familiar, but having an actor read those words with the visual accompaniment of the film is very powerful.
One letter to a soldier's parents says: "I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son." The letter is shown on the film and read by an actor. The camera can focus in on these words, each of which is so forceful about what it communicates. It can also focus on the bloodstains on the letter and have the words articulated at the same time.
It has people in tears who watched this movie.
Q: What else touched people about the film?
A: Just the human experience of coping with death and what it means to confront death and what it means to do the work of death, preparing for it, contemplating it, understanding it, and mourning. This happens to all of us.
I've had many people reach out to me who have said they've used the book in bereavement groups and in hospices. It's about war but also a larger problem: We're all going to die. How do we relate to that?
The other response has been from soldiers about what it's like to die in war, what sacrifice for one's country means, what one's country owes in return.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
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