I've waited months to read Drew Gilpin Faust's "This Republic of Suffering", and now that I'm done, wish I'd read it immediately. This book has been nominated for a few major awards and the accolades were well-deserved. I want to add my two cents to the legion of reviews that followed this book's release last year.
Writing history takes courage. The act of recording events and providing analysis may sometimes require a researcher to cover material they find sad, abhorrent, embarrassing, inexcusable. The true scholar has the fortitude to minimize their personal concerns and emotions and provide a clear and unabashed view of the subject in question.
Most of those who first studied and analyzed the American Civil War unfortunately did not have this intrinsic strength and insight. People like Early, Gordon, Pendleton et al instead let their own interests, grievances, and shame influence their writing, with the inevitable result being the mythology of the Lost Cause.
The next wave of historians who wrote books that would carry into generations of students that followed, men like Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and Douglas Southall Freeman, lacked the skill and vision to present the war in its full, gruesome reality. Instead, leaders were glorified and charges were immortalized, intentions were obscured and fables were propagated. The illustration of an entire nation's suffering was a secondary priority.
Now, there is a new tide in the historical analysis of the Civil War and historians of recent years are finally showing the acumen and stoutheartedness that considering such a destructive and horrible thing as war requires. Dr. Faust and "This Republic of Suffering" are at the forefront of this effort. Her truly unique analysis of death in the Civil War helps fan away the obfuscating haze of romanticism and mythology that still surrounds our understanding of the Civil Warand shows just how horrible, painful, and all-encompassing the slaughter was.
There is no nobility here, no heroic charges praised in painting and re-enactment. This is a comprehensive look at how those who lost a loved one, those who faced death, and those who dealt it handled these enormous burdens. This is the first time this subject has been treated so comprehensively (only took 140-something years) and for that fact alone, this book is important.
In addition to its unique subject matter, this is just damn good historiography. From sourcing to writing, this book is how it is done.
More than anything else, "This Republic of Suffering" is just tremendously sad. Sad for the men who didn't want to die, sad for the families who could never find their son's body, sad for those who had to kill. Sad for those who would craft an entire mythology around the war so they could better cope with what they had wrought.
It is exactly this book's emotional slap in the face that makes it such an important work. This story is our story, how we killed each other, suffered, and grieved during a terrible time in our nation's history. Here, finally, is a book that focuses solely on just how painful this war was for our society.
Nothing is sugarcoated and there is no glamour. There is no brawling over who was a better leader, who was more religious, who was or wasn't inept, any of the goofiness that so many post-war writers and subsequent historians brewed up to help us escape from the fact that fully 6% of our nation's population was dead. It is because those who first sat down to write the war's story, and the Freemans, Footes, and Cattons who followed them with thick tomes of bloviating and myth didn't have the onions to include this gritty subject matter. By abdicating this responsibility, these "historians" have left our society to deal with a tremendous amount of misunderstanding.
It is because there are historians like Faust with the courage to write the war's hard reality and folks who buy, read, and discuss "This Republic of Suffering" that we will continue to find a truer understanding and memory of the Civil War, and, hopefully, a better conception of who we are as an undivided society.