Harvard University President Faust has penned a highly readable and fascinating account of the changes in American attitudes and culture following America’s Civil War (1861-65.) As we celebrate Memorial Day this week, how many of us realize that this holiday was originally started in the wake of the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” a day on which people would go to military cemeteries and decorate the graves of the war dead? By the 20th century, with more war dead in our growing military and civilian cemeteries, the holiday had become Memorial Day, and today serves as a time in which to honor not only our military dead, but to adorn the graves of our family members and friends as well.
The American Civil War spawned carnage on an unprecedented level in the four years it lasted. Over 600,000 soldiers died in the conflict — approximately 2% of the population. Today, this would represent a death toll of 6 million Americans…an almost unimaginable number. Faust’s book takes a closer look at how this war changed the way we think about death, and especially how we treat and honor our war dead. Before the Civil War there was no system of military cemeteries, and no plan for the government to take responsibility for the remains of those that fell on the battlefield. There was no way to identify soldiers or to reliably notify family members of their loss. The Civil War and its enormous toll created far more than a political crisis, it created a moral, religious and existential crisis for the nation as well, and the aftermath is deeply explored in this book.
Beautifully written, meaningful and insightful, this title is for anyone interested in cultural history, the Civil War, or the American story.
This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust can be found in our non-fiction collection.