© Tony Rinaldo.
Drew Gilpin Faust
This Republic of
Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Alfred A. Knopf
MC: When did you decide
to write This Republic of Suffering and why?
Did your reasons change as you worked on it?
I decided to write this book as I was
working on an earlier one: Mothers of Invention:
Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil
War. As I was doing the research for that book
and reading hundreds of Confederate women’s letters
and diaries, I was struck that as they wrote about the
war, they talked so much about death—the fear
of death, the reality of death, the aftermath of death
— of fathers, brothers and sons. As a historian
I had long approached the war with different questions
foremost in my mind: the preservation of the union,
the emancipation of the slaves, the military challenges
in securing victory. Yet as I listened to these women
I realized that for Americans of the 1860s, death was
at the heart of the experience in ways we of the twentieth
and twenty-first centuries had not fully acknowledged.
620,000 is the number most often cited as the total
of northern and southern military dead. That was 2%
of the population, which would be 6 million Americans
today. It seems unimaginable. I wrote this book because
I wanted to explore what the impact of such a death
toll was on American society — from its burial
and mourning customs to its most fundamental political
and religious values.
MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned
in the course of your research? Did it change the book
in any way?
The most surprising thing I learned
was something that I discovered early on, and it shaped
everything I did after that. I had been studying and
teaching Civil War history for more than a decade when
I began to focus my research on death. But I had not
realized that neither the northern nor southern army
had any formal process of notifying families of the
dead about the fate of their loved ones, and that, indeed,
soldiers did not even wear identification badges. Forty
percent of dead Yankees and a far higher proportion
of dead Confederates died unknown. It seemed to me astonishing
that less than a century and a half ago, our government
did not assume responsibility for the names and bodies
of the dead. I vividly remembered the strength of the
MIA movement after the Vietnam War, and I learned too
of the more than $100 million the federal government
continues to spend each year in the effort to find and
identify the approximately 88,000 individuals still
missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. We do
not question the obligation of the state to account
for and return — either dead or alive —
every soldier in its service. Remarkably, such assumptions
did not exist in 1861; perhaps even more remarkably,
just a few years later they did. The experience of Civil
War created a revolutionary transformation of assumptions
and values. Such dramatic and rapid change cannot but
be a matter of deep fascination for any historian, especially
when the change involves both public policy and the
most basic human sentiments.
MC: How did you decide on the structure for the book?
When I was organizing my research in order to begin
to write, I noticed how often Civil War Americans talked
about what they called “the work of death,”
meaning the duties of soldiers to fight, kill and die,
but also meaning battle’s consequences: its slaughter,
suffering and devastation. Death in war doesn’t
just happen; it requires action and agents. It is work
to kill; it is work to die, to know how to approach
life’s last moments; it is work to bury the dead,
to remember the dead, to explain death’s meaning.
My book is organized around that notion of work, around
the notion of death’s demands of us. All of the
chapter titles are gerunds: Dying, Killing, Burying,
Believing and Doubting and so on, with each chapter
representing a dimension of that work. I see the changing
work of death from era to era and from place to place
as a historical problem, and that was the issue at the
heart of the book.
MC: Are there books you held in your peripheral
vision as models while you worked?
There are many great books about war that served as
inspirations. Paul Fussell’s The Great War
and Modern Memory is a magnificent rendering of
how war can change assumptions and values. Jay Winter
disagrees with much of Fussell’s argument yet
his books were important influences on me as well. When
I first read Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg,
my reaction was “I wish I had written this book!”
These are nonfiction works of historical analysis, but
I also had very much in mind the traditions of war fiction
which have claimed for literature perhaps the most powerful
portrait of war and its effects on human consciousness.
From the Iliad to Tolstoy to Pat Barker to
Tim O’Brien and Bao Ninh, writers through the
ages have shaped how I think about war.
MC: How does your experience outside the literary
world of nonfiction inform your work as a non fiction
writer? How has it informed this particular book?
Many years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, which thankfully
is now completely cured. I found that when you are forced
to think about death, life comes into very sharp focus.
So death gives you a particular window on the world
around you. Nineteenth century Americans believed, and
this was part of their notion of a good death, that
you lived a better life if you were always thinking
that it would have an end. It sharpened your experience
of the world. Twentieth and twenty-first century Americans
try not to think about death. After my experience with
illness, I recognized something of the meaning of the
nineteenth century viewpoint, that thinking about death
can enrich your life, not detract from it. So in some
ways I moved toward a more nineteenth century view of
death than perhaps is common among my colleagues and
There is a recent poem about
death by Donald Hall, the last line of which declares
“it is fitting/ and delicious to lose everything.”
Hall recognizes that things aren’t eternal, and
that the fact you do not have them forever enhances
their value. That is the perspective that the nineteenth
century view of death can offer us, even in these very
MC: If you could choose one person to read This
Republic of Suffering, who would it be, and why
would you want that particular person to read it?
It would be my father, who died in 2000, to whom the
book is dedicated. He was a Captain in the Army in World
War II and was wounded in France and awarded the Purple
Heart and the Croix de Guerre. I have a photograph of
him standing on the steps of Notre Dame during the liberation
of Paris. I always felt that war had shaped him in ways
I never quite understood, that war had been the defining
experience of his life, that the rest of it was an afterthought.
But he never talked about the war much. If he had lived
to read this book, perhaps we could have had that conversation.
MC: What is one moment from the process of working
on this book that you’ll never forget?
One of the most memorable moments for
me as I worked on this book was coming across a letter
a soldier wrote to his father as he was dying. The manuscript
is stained with his blood. I felt such a powerful connection
with that soldier, James Montgomery, for there were
not just his words, but an actual part of him before
me as I sat in the library at the Museum of the Confederacy
in Richmond. I felt very directly connected him and
to the others of the more than 600,000 who died; it
made the century and a half between us seem for a moment
to disappear. And his words alone were powerful enough.
A Confederate private, wounded in 1864 at Spotsylvania,
Montgomery explained to his father “I write to
you because I know you would be delighted to read a
word from your dying son.” “Delighted”
seems such an odd word here until we remember that hundreds
of thousands of soldiers died without names, leaving
families who never knew their fates. Montgomery’s
father was in that sense one of the lucky ones.
MC: At this disturbed cultural and political
moment—reading is in crisis, the economy is in
crisis, our country is at war—how do you see the
role of the nonfiction writer? How do you see your work
on this book as an engagement with that role?
My book is very much focused on the experience of the
nineteenth century. I make some comparisons with the
present, but do so more with the end of illuminating
the nineteenth century than with suggesting specific
insights into our own time. Why did I do that? Why did
I stay so much in the past rather than trying to talk
explicitly about the meaning of death in more recent
wars or eras? Part of the reason derives from a more
general attitude I have about history, which is that
if we can learn to look at the world through someone
else’s eyes, if we can learn to travel across
time to live in their era and their skin, then inevitably
when we come back to our own lives, our lenses of vision
will have been changed. We will ask new and different
questions about how we live. I wanted to set the stage
for that transformation of vision, one that can unsettle
our assumptions, destabilize the taken-for-grantedness
of our lives. For me that is the most meaningful use
of history, for it provides a sense of changed possibilities.
Crist is reviews editor at The Believer, and
her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming
from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She holds an MFA from
Columbia University, and is currently an Olive B. O'Connor
Fellow at Colgate University.