Monday, May 11, 2009

A Prayer for the Dying

Maybe a bit on the morbid side, but sounds like a fascinating study of the Civil War just the same:

Faust shows [in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War] how American institutions adapted to the staggering burden of this new kind of war and wholesale death with a blend of can-do humanitarianism, pragmatic improvisation, mawkish sentimentality, political cant, commercial hucksterism and downright fraud. Freelance embalmers flocked to battlefields in the aftermath of the fighting. "Bodies taken from Antietam Battle Field and delivered to Cars or Express Office at short notice and low rates," read the business card of one entrepreneur. "Bodies Embalmed by us NEVER TURN BLACK! But retain their natural color and appearance," boasted another. In 1863, a Washington undertaker was imprisoned on charges of making a practice of recovering and embalming dead soldiers without permission and then extorting payment from families that wanted the bodies returned.

Faust convincingly demonstrates that the trauma of the Civil War revolutionized the American military's approach to caring for the dead and notifying families. After the war, a massive and superbly organized effort by the War Department to recover, identify and rebury Union dead in newly established national cemeteries was an act of atonement for the nation's failings during the war itself.


  1. Gintaras, I started this last winter and, yes, it is fascinating and, yes, it is morbid.

    Unlike Blight's book that also deals with death during the Civil War, I had a very hard time with this one and finally put it aside. Too gruesome. Maybe if I finish it in the summer, when life isn't so dark anyway, it might be a better idea.

    It's had amazing reviews, so I'm sure it's worth sticking with it.

  2. A short reading and excerpt from the book here:

  3. Re "how American institutions adapted to the staggering burden of this new kind of war and wholesale death"

    I'm staggering from reading early parts of "Team of Rivals"--overwhelmed by the number/rate of deaths of women! DCan't help wondering if the Civil War raised the rate of male deaths to that of female deaths?

    On a related note, no wonder the men turned to each other for intimate relationships--more chance of them lasting a while?

  4. New York, it is amazing to read about someone like Chase who lost what... three wives? And most of his children? It is hard to imagine the amount of suffering that families went through during that period.

    On the other side, I've always wondered about the cost of war on women, since they are the survivors. When I was looking at the effects of the war on western exploration, I didn't find all that much written about women. Maybe I need to go back and take a closer look at Faust's book -- although it is a tough read. I don't recommend it for the dark days of winter.

    Interesting thought about why men might bond early in life to avoid this kind of grief. I'm really interested in Robert's thoughts about the Rotundo book once he gets to it.

    Speaking of books, glad you found one, New York. It's a good one, isn't it!