This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Dames of Death is a reading group formed by three archaeology graduate students working with Dr. Lynne Goldstein who have gotten together to read books and articles on death that are slightly beyond the scope of our normal course readings. Each reading will have a tie to the material expression of death–we are mortuary archaeologists, afterall– but each reading will look at this topic through a different subject or theme. The goal is to broaden our understanding of regional and diachronic expressions of deathways in a four-field framework. Upon completion of each reading, we will get together to discuss our selection(s) and share what we’ve learned with the others. In some instances, like this week, we will each post a link to the others’ blogs (Katy’s and Sylvia’s). This week was reader’s choice within the general theme of “war” and I chose to read a highly acclaimed book by Drew Gilpin Faust on the U.S. Civil War.

Waiting for burial

More than 600,000 Americans died during the U. S. Civil War. For nineteenth century Americans, to die a good death meant dying with family and friends in attendance, dying with one’s affairs in order and dying with a clear conscience. For soldiers in the field, this version of a good death was impossible. Soldiers died in the field, among their brothers in arms and in hospitals surrounded by strangers. Nearly twice as many men died of disease than in combat. This meant for most soldiers, it was doctors, nurses, and sometimes even sympathetic strangers who stood proxy for friends and family. These voluntary historians recorded these last moments and sent letters offering comfort to the deceased’s family for to receive an account of his last moments through letters created the necessary link across time and space essential for salvation. The preceding example illustrates how Faust’s book, This Republic of Suffering, is not a typical Civil War history. The author uses letters and journals among other archived records to discuss how this war more than any other American war prompted changes in American conceptions of dying, burial, grief, accounting for the dead, memorialization and cemetery landscape organization during a period of unprecedented carnage. Americans had never experienced death at this scale and the American ways of viewing and managing death were forever changed by it.


As a mortuary archaeologist, when I think about the materiality of the Civil War, I instantly turn to tin type photos, uniforms, buttons and buckles, and ammunition and weaponry—the artifacts of war I might find in burials. This kind of thinking is too limited, grossly constrained by thinking of the mortuary landscape in terms of cemeteries alone. Mortuary landscapes include, as Faust deftly illustrates, battlefields, field hospitals and impromptu temporary gravesites. Additionally, conceptions of salvation may be found within the archive in the form of letters describing death. These letters do not simply represent historical accounts of medical procedures and the horrors and brutality of war. In these letters are last testaments and confessions showing the soldiers relationship with God, his hope for salvation, his relationship with his family and the importance of his good death that allowed mourning to begin and end according to societal norms.

Impromptu cemetery

Military cemeteries preclude gravestone form analysis often conducted in civilian cemeteries because “military cemeteries and their stones are standardized according to official protocol, which strays from the usual ebb and flow of culture change in nonmilitary grave yards (Mosse 1979; Rubin 1985; Mayo 1988 in Mallios and Caterno 2007: 53-54). Military uniformity is however a result of large scale funerary chaos experienced during the U. S. Civil War. As such, culture change can be viewed within the greater cultural framework, as Faust showed.

In sum, this book and its unique look at mortuary behavior, salvation, expressions of grief and subsequent spatial organization and material modifications of the mortuary landscape make it a worthwhile read for historians, archaeologists, and Americans interested this pivotal glimpse into how we mourn and memorialize the dead.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. 2008. This republic of suffering: death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Also cited

Mallios, Seth and David Caterino

2007    Transformations in San Diego County Gravestones and Cemeteries. Historical Archaeology. Vol. 41, No. 4 (2007), pp. 50-71.

Mayo, James

1988    War Memorials as Political Landscape: The American Experience and Beyond. Praeger, New York, NY.

Mosse, George

1979 National Cemeteries and National Revival: The Cult of the Fallen Soldiers in Germany. The Journal of Contemporary History 14(1): 1-20.

Rubin, Nissan

1985    Unofficial Memorial Rites in an Army Unit. Social Forces 63(3):795-809

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One Response to This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

  1. cowboypress says:

    It is a heartbreaking scar on the Republic, absolutely sickening in it’s cost and legacy.

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