The Current Republic of Suffering

Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust, COVID-19

Murray Browne is a writer living near Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of Down & Outbound: A Mass Transit Satire (2016) and The Book Shopper: A Life in Review (2009). Links to his books and blogs can be found at murray-browne.com. 

As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpasses the half a million mark, comparisons to the those who died during the American Civil War are sure to follow. Over 625,000 Union and Confederate soldiers perished in the war along with an estimated 50,000 civilians, approximately 2% of the country’s population at the time.

Rereading Drew Gilpin Faust’s often cited and highly regarded book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), has a new degree of relevance as we begin year two of the Pandemic. Her book is not about specific battles, strategies, or personalities (she assumes you already know about this), but rather about how the unprecedented casualties in the Civil War directly affected the entire country and how it shaped our current views of death. The breadth of Faust’s scholarship is overwhelming as she discusses the logistical and emotional nightmares of identifying and burying the dead, and reconciling the staggering losses.

Because so many died on distant battlefields and hospitals, she writes that the fallen and their loved ones would not have the comforts of what was known as The Good Death (ars moriendi). No family member could attend to a dying son, husband or brother and any corresponding religious ceremony was severely truncated or non-existent.  This sounds strikingly familiar given that those who die in hospitals from COVID-19 are often unable to be joined by family members in their final hours and traditional funerals have been curtailed because their potentiality as super-spreader events.

Another chilling similarity between the Civil War and today’s mortality numbers is the role that public health (or the absence of it) has played. Currently, ongoing debates about Americans’ willingness to wear masks and be vaccinated while adhering to social distancing recommendations has factored into these grim statistics. In the Civil War for every soldier that died on the battlefield, two died in camp, mostly from the lack of sanitary conditions. Outbreaks of typhus, smallpox, dysentery, and malaria were but a few of the lethal epidemics that spread through camps and nearby communities throughout the war. Moreover, writes Faust, battlefield surgeons often did not wash hands between patients, and with the lack of the “understanding of antisepsis, physicians routinely spread infection with unclean instruments and dressings.” Thus, in both eras, ignorance translates into death.

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