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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Drew Gilpin Faust
Knopf, 2008
368 pp., 29.95

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Lauren F. Winner

To Hell and Back

Why the Civil War was fought, and how it changed American death.

When I returned to Virginia after my sophomore year of college, I went back to my high school to pose a question to my beloved U.S. history teacher: how, I wanted to know, had I grown up thinking that the Civil War was fought over the tariff? It took exactly one week in a college history class—a week in which I read the South Carolina Declaration of Secession, which makes clear that it was not the tariff but rather the "increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery" that led to the creation of the Confederacy—to realize I had been led astray about the cause of the most important event in American history.

Apparently, I was not alone. At the outset of her terrific first book, Georgetown historian Chandra Manning recounts a conversation she recently had at a wedding. Sitting next to her was a history buff, and soon the conversation turned to the Civil War. The buff held forth, "insisting … that slavery had nothing to do with the conflict."

The straightforward argument of What This Cruel War Was Over is that soldiers themselves—far from being ignorant patriots or naïve dupes—knew that the war was about slavery. Confederate soldiers understood this from the first. In the wake of Fort Sumter, for example, a group of Louisiana men who were studying at the University of North Carolina gathered to declare their commitment to defending "that Institution at once our pride and the source of all our wealth and prosperity." Most Union soldiers recognized the centrality of slavery to the conflict only slightly later, somewhat before much of the northern public accepted emancipation as a war aim. Indeed, it was often Union soldiers' contact with white Confederates and black slaves that got them thinking about slavery. They heard from white civilians that the Confederacy had gone to war because Lincoln's election had threatened slavery, and their interactions with slaves persuaded previously indifferent Billy Yanks, many of whom had never met a black person before the war, of the necessity of emancipation. One soldier from Iowa witnessed a slaveowner trying to sell off a slave who was also his daughter, and declared, "By G-d I'll fight till hell freezes over and then I'll cut the ice and fight on." Of course, this didn't mean that Union soldiers ceased to be racists. Like their president, many a man in blue was able to hold together a strong commitment to ending slavery with a strong distaste for the idea of black equality.

Manning's book ought to silence anyone who still wants to talk about the tariff, but beyond that, Manning makes important smaller claims. She reminds us that many southern unionists opposed secession not because they were any less invested in slavery, but because they believed that their leaving the Union would more seriously imperil slavery than their staying. In particular, secession would guarantee that white Southerners would have no role in determining how northern states treated fugitive slaves. As Georgian Benjamin Hill put it in November 1860, "the only real ground of difference now is: some of us think we can get redress in the Union, and others think we cannot."

Manning suggests that her discussion of soldiers may help solve the logjam over "who ended slavery." One answer to that question is the slaves themselves: in escaping to freedom behind Union lines, slaves forced the U.S. government to decide whether it would return these slaves to their owners or recognize their freedom; thus the slaves pushed the question of emancipation onto the war agenda, even as Lincoln was writing (in 1862), "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it." The other answer is that Lincoln freed the slaves: he may have dragged his feet, but he did eventually sign the Emancipation Proclamation (and, of course, it was Lincoln's opposition to the expansion of slavery that prompted secession in the first place). Manning intriguingly argues that this debate has overlooked "the crucial link between slaves and policy makers"—yes, slaves forced emancipation onto the political agenda, but one way they did so was by "converting enlisted Union soldiers … into emancipation advocates who expected their views to influence the prosecution of the war."

As significant as these two points are, Manning's greatest contribution is her insistence on connecting military, political, and social history. Those connections are something historians often talk about but rarely attend to. We frankly don't need another history of the Battle of Bull Run that focuses solely on the minutiae of military maneuvering, and, great storyteller though he was, we don't need another Shelby Foote. We need more Chandra Mannings, historians who understand that the best military history—whether the subject be the Civil War or "Operation Iraqi Freedom"—is always the history of ideology, too.

Despite Manning's exhaustive research—she seems to have read, and made good use of, nearly every primary and secondary source plausibly connected to her topic—she neglects to grapple with, or even cite, Stephen Hahn's seminal 1983 study The Roots of Southern Populism. There, Hahn shows that yeomen fought a war for slavery because, even though they didn't own slaves themselves, the system of slavery safeguarded yeomen's "communal, prebourgeois" society, and in general protected yeomen from the hardships of capitalist social relations. Hahn's is a much more precise and persuasive argument than Manning's more generalized assertions that white Southern yeomen were drawn into the war because slavery "undergirded white Southerners' convictions of their own superior moral orthodoxy," helped yeomen feel manly, and was tied in with their "unobstructed pursuit of material prosperity." Still, such nitpicking aside, What This Cruel War Was Over establishes Manning as one of the most significant Civil War historians of the next generation.

The Civil War changed virtually every aspect of American society, from religion to gender roles. Drew Gilpin Faust, president of and Lincoln Professor of History at Harvard University, has devoted her new book to exploring how the war changed American death. In the Civil War, over 2 percent of the nation's population died—which, as Faust points out, was roughly equivalent to the entire state of Maine being killed, or twice the population of Vermont. The Victorian choreography of "the good death" was inadequate for dealing with the mind-boggling numbers, the stench, the mangled corpses of men too young to die. Americans had to overhaul their notions of what death could and should look like, and even what kind of God could be said to be present—or absent—during such death.

Many of the concrete changes in American dying that Faust documents involve the government's role in military death; indeed, it was the Civil War that created governmental responsibilities that we now take for granted, such as next-of-kin notification, which neither the Union nor the Confederacy viewed as their job in 1861. At the outset of the war, the Union had no organized method for burying, or even identifying, dead soldiers. That began to change with the 1862 passage of a law giving the president power to purchase land for a national cemetery for soldiers; cemeteries were established at Chattanooga, Stones River, Knoxville, Antietam, and, of course, Gettysburg.

In the years during and after the war, the government developed a more aggressive system for counting the war dead (the figures of Union soldiers killed were constantly revised until the 1880s, when the War Department settled on 360,222) and paying pensions and survivor's benefits. The erstwhile Confederacy didn't have a government anymore, and certainly didn't expect the Union to give money to Confederate war widows, so states stepped in. (I recall the day in 1986 when the North Carolina legislature, having made its final payment to the widow of a Confederate soldier, repealed the statute that provided Confederate widow pensions. The widow in question was Harriet Victoria Stallings, who had married Cyrus H. Stallings, of Company A, 70th Regiment North Carolina troops, in 1898. She lived to the ripe old age of 102. If only North Carolina had been as concerned for the welfare of the freed slaves and their descendants.)

These changes were tied to a larger change the Civil War wrought: the creation of a centralized and powerful nation-state out of what had been a more loosely connected confederation: "as the very term implies," writes Faust, "statistics emerged in close alliance with notions of an expanding state, with the assessment of its resources, strength, and responsibilities." So just as Manning's book is not merely an account of soldiering, This Republic of Suffering is not just a history of American death but, subtly, a history of American politics as well. In case anyone was in doubt, Harvard has an insightful and incisive scholar at her helm.

Lauren F. Winner holds a Ph.D. in American history from Columbia University, and is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School.

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