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.

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

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

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.

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.

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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