While the soldiers of the American Civil War are long dead, they were preoccupied with their deaths long before we were.
While researching for her last book, Harvard University President and historian Drew Gilpin Faust noticed a startling lack of scholarly work on the theme of death in the Civil War, she said at a talk here on Wednesday. The resulting book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” gives a historical account of 0ne of the most bloody periods in American history, but its central themes of disillusionment, post-traumatic stress and bereavement are still relevant today, she told a packed Luce Hall.
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Faust also has a personal connection to war: Through her late father, who was a U.S. Army captain, she learned how a war can impact an individual for a lifetime.
“Being a soldier in World War II was probably the most important experience of my father’s life,” Faust said. “I never had a conversation with him to fully understand. That’s why I decided to learn more on my own.”
Faust, whose book was named a finalist earlier this month for the 2008 National Book Award in nonfiction, said she tried to discuss not only practical questions surrounding death, such as what survivors did with the bodies of casualties, but also more abstract ideas such as how people’s religious perceptions changed amid the carnage. In addition to using primary documents and newspaper articles, Faust relied on personal narratives from everyday people living during the Civil War to provide first-hand perspectives, she said.
Faust and the Yale historian David Blight, who joined Faust for a discussion, agreed that researchers and social historians are increasingly focusing on personal narratives from normal people instead of from politicians and prominent writers.
“Can [uninvolved] writers ever really represent what war is like?” Blight asked the audience. “Can the World War I trenches in France really be captured by words?”
Faust argued that the topic of death is always relevant, regardless of the particular war under discussion. The expressions of authority, patriotism and disillusionment contained in her book are still applicable to today’s conflicts, she said.
“When we make a choice for war, we need to really understand that choice,” Faust said, referring to the Iraq War. “Otherwise, it’s too easy to go to war.”
But she added that public outrage against the Civil War was much more muted in part because of contemporary Christian anticipation of the afterlife, which made it easier to accept death. In addition, most families weren’t aware of whether or not their loved ones were dead because the two governments did not feel the obligation to notify families of their losses, she said.
Faust has served as the president of Harvard since July 2007. She is the author of six books —including “Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War,” for which she won the Francis Parkman Prize in 1997 —and visited Yale in May to receive an honorary degree at Commencement.
Attendees were glad she returned. Six students interviewed after the talk said they appreciated Faust’s frank discussion of the war in Iraq.
“I liked the connection in modern context,” Tess Lerner-Byars ’11 said. “We’re not usually cognizant of the effects of the Iraq War because we’re not directly affected.”
Sarah Brownlee ’11, who was in Blight’s class last year with Lerner-Byars, agreed.
“I liked the political undertones of her book,” Brownlee said. “It reminded me that history is always relevant, and that nothing is ever just set in stone.”
Her reading list is, however.
“I’m going to buy the book as soon as I find spare time,” she said.