Among the Graves

Thomas Laqueur

  • The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction by Mark Neely
    Harvard, 277 pp, £20.95, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02658 2
  • This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
    Knopf, 346 pp, $27.95, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 375 40404 7

Stonewall Jackson, the deeply neurotic but irresistibly romantic, swashbuckling Confederate commander, thought that the great and swift destruction of life and property seen in the American Civil War was the essence of war generally. But this war was not swift. It was long and gruelling: 425 men, on average, died every day for 1458 days. And like the First World War, the Civil War got bloodier and more destructive as it ground inconclusively on. Five of its six costliest battles, with casualties in the tens of thousands on each side, took place after April 1863, roughly the war’s midpoint. It ended, as the Second World War ended, in an epic struggle for the enemy’s capital. A century and a half later one can still see the miles of ramparts at Petersburg and Richmond; the crater blasted by Union miners in an attempt to breach Confederate defences is still there. Casualties of this final battle were more than 60,000.

Jackson was right about the destructiveness. Whole libraries have been written about the new weapons of the Civil War: rifled artillery; the mini-ball that impacted human flesh like a dum-dum bullet; the breech-loading rifle. This weaponry confronted soldiers as they marched in thin lines across open fields or in dense, often burning woods. Three and a half million men were under arms: virtually the entire military-age population of the South and a good proportion of the North as well. Very large armies – sometimes 100,000 to a side – fought scores of deadly pitched battles and hundreds of smaller ones in which casualty rates were routinely 20-25 per cent: 620,000 men died; cities were bombed and burned to the ground; prisoners by the thousand starved to death or were shot in cold blood. The economy of the South was ruined. ‘The American Civil War,’ Drew Faust writes in This Republic of Suffering, ‘produced carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time.’ This would seem fairly uncontroversial.

Mark Neely disagrees. It was neither ‘total war’ nor ‘the first of the world’s modern wars’ nor a ‘warfare of terror’, as others have claimed. Lincoln may have sanctioned a ‘policy of “being terrible” on the enemy’, but no such policy was put into force. ‘How destructive,’ Neely asks rhetorically, did ‘the protagonists in the Civil War want to be or dare to be, under the assumptions of that genteel and sentimental age?’ ‘Not very,’ is the answer. In The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction, Neely contends that this was a war governed by ‘Victorian or chivalric and traditional restraints’. The United States is an exception among nations even when it comes to death: ‘lucky . . . in its history’ because even its ‘bloodiest war pales in comparison to European and other wars fought elsewhere in the world’.

Casualty statistics, Neely says, have been inflated and misinterpreted. Notorious examples of brutality and destructiveness – the wholesale burning of farmsteads in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman’s March to the Sea and the firebombing of Atlanta; irregular and guerrilla warfare in Missouri and elsewhere – turn out, on closer examination, to be more limited and modulated than they at first appear. The real over-the-top violence on the North American continent was elsewhere: in the wars against the Plains Indians; in the 1846-48 war with Mexico; and in the so-called 1865 ‘Black Decree’ of the Emperor Maximilian, supported by France, in his desperate battle against the republican Liberals of Mexico.

A ‘key assumption of the age’, as Neely puts it, ‘was that “race” mattered’; ‘racial beliefs’ were a ‘major determinant’ of behaviour in the era of the Civil War. We therefore need to recalibrate our assessment of the violence between white protagonists so as to open our eyes to the far darker realities of ethnic division. And furthermore – though he doesn’t quite say as much – he seems to think that by putting the Civil War in its proper place on the scale of destruction we can also recalibrate its place in American history. He doubts that, in Faust’s words, ‘death created the modern American union’; that ‘suffering would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship and nationhood’; that it would be on the basis of sacrifice and its memorialistion that the nation would be reunited. In his view, the elegiac mode that has dominated Americans’ view of the war is dangerously obfuscatory. Of course, Neely and Faust could both be right, but in that case the nation has been built on a disjunction between history and memory rather than on a common response to death on a very large scale.

Solid quantitative evidence for the number of men serving and dying in the Civil War is hard to come by. The 19th-century US War Office records are incomplete, the Confederacy kept no central records and individual state archives are patchy. All the estimates that we have are based on postwar reconstruction of the records and on decades of subsequent research. One of the things that made the Civil War ‘modern’ is that people cared. It was, as Faust argues, one of the great and novel tasks of the living to find, number and name the dead as accurately as possible in an age when individual soldiers had no officially issued identification papers. (‘Dog tags’ and their equivalents were first issued to Western armies only in World War One.) The records generated by this effort are monumental and unprecedented in what they tell us about individual soldiers, but they are not definitive.

Neely is right that the modern estimate of 620,000 dead is a ‘hand-me-down’ and based on evidence that was collected, collated and analysed more than a century ago. Such numbers – six million for the Holocaust would be a 20th-century example – become enshrined and take on the sort of totemic significance that puts them beyond query. The man who did much of the pioneering work for the Civil War – Thomas Livermore – was himself a veteran of the war who went on to a career in law and business. He was not a professional historian or demographer. And his interest in the historical record was very different from ours: his aim was to show that the soldiers of the North and the South were equally courageous, steadfast and willing to die. Again, he and other military historians were not terribly interested in how many soldiers died from causes other than battle – disease, mishap and friendly fire, for example. The total number of deaths has had to be pieced together from widely scattered sources.

Neely admits that the big number – the 620,000 – is unlikely to go down much. So, if he is to make a quantitatively based case for the relative benignity of the Civil War he has to show that its magnitude exaggerates its meaning. To begin with, it is a ‘simple statistical fallacy’ – or worse – to report Northern and Southern losses together: ‘if they are meant as a measure of the intensity of fighting, destructiveness, mercilessness . . . then to combine the two is unfairly to have doubled the intensity, destructiveness, mercilessness’[Neeley’s italics]. The numbers killed on the Union side (360,000), he points out, ‘do not equal even’ the 407,000 Americans killed in World War Two, and the 260,000 Confederates are ‘but 64 per cent’ of that number.

This is true. But the historically and psychologically relevant point is that the United States in 1940 had six times as many people as the Union did in 1860 and almost 15 times as many as the Confederacy. Thus, proportional to population, the Union’s losses were more than five times as great as those of the United States in World War Two, and the Confederacy’s nine times greater. Confederate losses were considerably greater, proportionally, than Britain’s losses in World War One and even a little more than Germany’s. The Union’s losses, drawn from a far larger population than the Confederacy’s, were still proportionally more than Britain’s.

Neely suggests that we would also get a more realistic view of the war’s destructiveness if we subtracted from the total number of dead the number who died from disease. ‘The most important defining fact of Civil War mortality was that the war was fought before the discovery of the germ theory of disease,’ he proclaims. If we take this into account, Civil War losses don’t ‘begin to approach’ the magnitude of American casualties in World War Two.

Neither claim is quite right. Germ theory is irrelevant to the decline of death from disease in warfare: the theory changed nothing until the invention of antibiotics well into the 20th century. (Not until World War Two did more American soldiers die from wounds than from disease.) The ratio of disease to battle deaths declined far faster between the Crimean War, thirty years before Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus in 1882, and the Civil War than it did between the advent of germ theory and World War One thirty years later. Cleanliness is what mattered in all this. It is true that, in absolute numbers, battlefield casualties in the Civil War were fewer than in World War Two, but a Union soldier was more than three times as likely to die in battle as a US soldier in World War Two; a Confederate soldier even more likely.

The 225,000 Union and 194,000 Confederate soldiers who died from disease were just as dead as their comrades. They too left survivors bereft; they too filled graves, probably in disproportionate numbers because their bodies were more easily identified and recovered. More important, death from disease or exposure is not an act of God but a real consequence of the violence of war. It would be very odd to exclude those who died of cold and hunger in Napoleon’s or Hitler’s Russian campaigns if one were trying to quantify their human cost. In the Civil War, non-battle casualties were the result not only of poor camp hygiene but of the sheer demographic magnitude of a struggle that brought together hundreds of thousands of young men, from scattered and often isolated places, and exposed them to new pathogens, poor food, harsh weather and concentrated filth. Non-battle deaths are also a consequence of race and of racism. The 180,000 black men who fought for the Union were more likely than their white comrades to die from disease both during the war and after it. In 1900, 60 per cent of white soldiers who had been demobilised in 1865 were still alive; only 40 per cent of the blacks. And the statistics for black civilians are not cheerful either. Death rates in the camps for ‘contraband’, i.e. fugitive slaves, approached 25 per cent.

By 19th-century standards, and even by the far more demanding standards of the 20th, 620,000 dead puts the Civil War in the world’s top ten, but I suspect that none of the statistical evidence really matters to Neely, whose real commitment is to a cultural claim: the Civil War was basically civilised. Some of his disclaimers – the war didn’t ‘exist in some unfathomably violent category by itself’; it was neither a ‘total war’ nor the first ‘of the world’s modern wars’; the country did not go over the ‘precipice of destructiveness’ in August and September 1863 – border on the metaphysical. How many dead would there have to be to reach a Kantian arithmetical sublime? How total does a war have to be to qualify as total? And how violent does something have to be to count as belonging to an ‘unfathomably violent category by itself’? All of which is to say that insofar as the sorts of question Neely poses are not metaphysical they are comparative: ‘compared to what?’; ‘by what standard?’ They are worth asking only if the answer illuminates some more general historical claim. It is here that Neely misjudges the Civil War.

No modern war, not even the German war of annihilation against Russia, comes up to ancient standards. After their conquest of Melos, as Thucydides tells us, the Athenians executed all the men and sold all the women and children into slavery. Athens then repopulated the island with its own. The biblical Hebrews treated the various peoples of the land of Canaan that they conquered likewise. Neither side in the Civil War committed a crime remotely in the league of the murder by Russian troops of 8000 Polish officers and 14,000 other captives at Katyn Forest in 1940, or with the Japanese massacres in Nanking. Its estimated 50,000 civilian deaths pale by comparison to the tens of millions of the Second World War. Lincoln did not proclaim a ‘war of extermination’ against the South in the way that Hitler did against Bolshevik Russia. But this does not mean that ‘no one wanted a merciless or pitiless struggle’ in the 19th century or that contemporaries didn’t think that that is precisely what the Civil War was.

‘Civilised warfare’ – arguably an oxymoron – is not what contemporaries saw. Ruskin thought that the war was fought by the Union for imperial domination of the South: ‘the most insolent and tyrannical, and the worst conducted, in all history’. Union senators did call for a ‘war of extermination’ against the South and Lincoln swore retaliation in kind for the murder of captured black soldiers. The Confederate president Jefferson Davis hoped that the siege of Charleston would be lifted so that the city would ‘never be polluted by the footsteps of a lustful, relentless, inhuman foe’. Rufus Kinsley, a common soldier, exulted in his diary that the ‘South is being burned with fire, and drowned in blood’, because it was ‘tied to the hideous monster – Slavery’.

Neely would claim that such contemporaries exaggerated. And he is right in a sense. Ulysses Grant’s General Order in 1863 – the first modern jus in bello, as opposed to jus ad bellum – understood the South not as an apocalyptically threatening internal enemy against whom exemplary violence could and should be exercised, but as a foreign belligerent. Even though, from the Union perspective, the conflict was a war of rebellion it treated the South as if it were a state. The Confederacy was not in the same category as the German peasants whose slaughter Luther famously encouraged; the Confederacy was not in the same category as the Vendée, where General Turreau’s troops burned hundreds of villages and killed, in cold blood, hundreds of thousands of people to purge France of counter-revolution and priestcraft.

In fact, it was crucial to the political purposes of both sides, especially the South, that this be regarded as a war between the armies of two states: the ‘war between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America’, as Southerners preferred to call it. Much of it was thus an ordinary war as understood in a tradition that goes back to the rules that were part of the ‘Swedish Discipline’ of the Thirty Years’ War whose point was to produce regulations that would discipline an army in relation to its enemy but, more important, in relation to non-combatants. Generals and the states that engage them by and large need soldiers to stay focused on the instrumental destruction of their military adversary. No war, understood as ‘politics by other means’, is ‘over the precipice’, a ‘merciless or pitiless struggle’, as Neely puts it.

It was a more innocent age when a Virginian wrote that Sheridan, the Unionist general, was perpetrating ‘a holocaust that was devastating to the people’ of the Shenandoah Valley. But the conditions that produced a breakdown of the rules of war were roughly the same then as now: the perception by an army that the local civilian population was dangerous and hostile; impatience and weariness; an especially sharp ideological divide. In the Civil War, some or all of these conditions held in Kansas and southern Missouri, in eastern Tennessee, in the mountains of Georgia and Arkansas and, of course, in the Shenandoah Valley, which Neely uses as one of his case studies. William Hyndman, an officer of a Pennsylvania regiment who had been kindly disposed towards the local population, ended up calling Mosby’s cavalry raiders whom civilians there protected ‘fetid decomposed humanity . . . the very scum of the foul wave of treason’. Another of Sheridan’s officers, frustrated by the Union’s inability to control irregular forces, maintained that ‘everything must be destroyed . . . all considerations of mercy and humanity must bow before the inexorable demands of self-preservation.’ Civilised warfare obtained except when it didn’t.

Whether what actually happened in the Valley or in other places was, by some abstract standard, merciless, pitiless and uncivilised seems a moot point. Contemporaries certainly thought that they were witnessing extraordinary violence. Sheridan’s boast that he had left a 45 square-mile swath so barren ‘that a crow flying over would have to carry his own rations’ was probably not so far off the mark: 1200 barns and 71 flour mills burned, 15,000 pigs, 12,000 sheep, 10,918 heads of cattle, 3772 horses, 545 mules and 250 calves along with more than 500,000 bushels of grain were taken from the civilian population.

Political exigencies drive modern wars, the Civil War included, to ever-higher levels of violence against civilian lives and property as well as against armed belligerents. Civility is held ransom to success. The intensity of Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaigns was not only a response to Grant’s frustration at earlier Confederate victories and the success of hit-and-run attacks, but to the looming election. President Lincoln needed victories if he was to prevail in November 1864. He needed to convince the public that the will of the South was being broken. Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas was meant to break the psychological will of the South by destroying the civilian infrastructure and to show Northern voters that victory was nigh.

By the gold standard of brutality the Civil War avoided ‘the precipice of destructiveness’, although not by much: 13,000 men died in Camp Sumter near Andersonville, Georgia, one of the largest Confederate prison camps. The mortality rate in what is now a lovely 26-acre National Historic Site was almost 30 per cent. Confederate prisoners in the Elmira, New York camp and others fared scarcely better: low in comparison with the 58 per cent death rate for Russian prisoners in World War Two, but about the same as the death rate of Allied POWs in Japanese camps. There is a straight line from the infamous and much-printed Civil War photograph of a skeletal human, starved to the limits of life, taken in Andersonville all the way to the pictures from Biafra or Bosnia. A modern icon of suffering had its origins in Georgia.

The reason Neely attempts so fine a calibration of Civil War destruction is to make the case that race is what definitively pushes war over the precipice. This is a tricky argument because race itself is so slippery a concept. No one denies, in general, the importance of racism in the treatment of indigenous people during the European and American imperial project of the 19th and 20th centuries. But race tends not to be relevant in the specific situations that Neely addresses.

Race had very little to do with the nature of the Mexican-American War, for example, at least in the ways Neely suggests. There were assaults on civilian lives and property by ill-disciplined soldiers in a distant land, but to many Mexicans, as Brian DeLay has recently shown, the US army promised protection from great bands of Comanche raiders against whom the Mexican government had failed to protect them for decades. The war itself was bloodier and more frustrating than the United States expected but it was racist only with a twist that has nothing to do with Neely’s claim. Washington went to war with Mexico not because its people were Latins but because President Polk saw in the disputed lands of Texas, the casus belli, a new slave state.

And what about the Indian Wars, with which Neely compares the Civil War? There is no question that four centuries of warfare against native Americans were ethnocidal and that the Civil War was not. But race is at best only a factor in explaining the ferocity of these wars. Cultural opacity mattered a great deal more. Indigenous styles of warfare – scalping the dead and shooting from a hidden position, for example – seemed barbaric and cowardly to Europeans, who responded with barbarities of their own. (The use of snipers was commonplace but morally suspect in the Civil War.) Such views of Indian military practice certainly fed prejudice but they also put the Indian Wars in the larger context of violence between armies and what appeared to these armies as irregular forces.

Military objectives mattered a great deal. Sheridan burned barns, destroyed mills and stole livestock across much of the Shenandoah Valley because this was the way to destroy the infrastructure of settled agriculture and thereby deprive the enemy of food and fodder. Robert Livingston in the wars against the Plains Indians had the same idea. He set ablaze the grasslands south of the Platte River in order to destroy the material support of his semi-nomadic enemy; he was using a tactic employed by Native Americans themselves. The difference in number of square miles of land burned had little to do with race and a great deal to do with settled agriculture v. hunting and grazing.

Race really did make a difference in one important way – the treatment of black Union soldiers by their Confederate captors – but Neely makes nothing of this. Faust does, in her chapter on what killing meant in the Civil War. Black men fought because, as W.E.B. DuBois concisely put it, ‘only murder makes men.’ War, for them, was redemptive: ‘just retribution due to flagrant and persistent transgression’, in the words of Frederick Douglass. They subscribed to the republican ideal that fighting – not just killing – made more than men: it made citizens. The South understood these stakes: it was impossible, as one Confederate newspaper put it, to accord Negro soldiers the rights of prisoners of war ‘without a destruction of the social system for which we contend’. Black men in arms became an adversary who ‘negates one’s way of life’, as Carl Schmitt would have said, and they were treated as such. The infamous Fort Pillow massacre of 1864, when Southern troops killed almost two hundred black soldiers after they had surrendered, was only the most notorious of many such incidents of murder and mutilation. One can glimpse in Faust’s account the origins of the regime of terror that faced blacks in the South after the end of Reconstruction. Lucy Bradford Mitchell, the eldest sister of Jefferson Davis, wrote in her memoir that the period when freemen voted and held power was ‘far more horrible than the four years of war’; ‘language fails’ her to ‘depict the horrors’.

Whether the violence of the war itself was beyond ‘the limits of destruction’ can, then, be debated. That it was massively destructive is beyond dispute. It began a new era in the public history of death. ‘Americans,’ as Faust shows in her beautifully researched and beautifully written book, ‘had to identify – find, invent, create – the means and mechanisms to manage more than half a million dead: their deaths, their bodies, their loss.’

This Republic of Suffering – the words are Frederick Law Olmsted’s, the man who designed Central Park and some of the country’s major cemeteries – begins with the pain and sorrow of individuals and keeps returning to the intimate content or quality of these feelings. But the most original and novel parts of the book have to do with the ways in which private feelings came to have public consequences, and the ways the public sphere reflects back onto the psyche. Suffering was the midwife of a new res publica: the ways people dealt with death on so ugly and massive a scale transformed society, culture, politics and thought in late 19th-century America. The big claim of Faust’s book is that the ‘work of death’ was ‘Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking’.

The chronological centre of the book is the war itself and its immediate penumbra, when the 620,000 dead were laid to rest. She begins with dying and killing but spends most of her time on what survivors did with the dead, physically and administratively (burying, naming, accounting for and numbering them), and spiritually and psychologically (coming to terms with loss and understanding it within the religious and secular culture of the day).

Perhaps there’s nowhere else to start, because dying is the essence of war and because it is the point of origin of the republic of suffering. But dying is the most intractable of subjects and it is not one that allows Faust to develop her main theme as strongly as it emerges later. Soldiers’ and survivors’ ideas about death must have had something to do, as she says, with overcoming ‘the physical devastation of battle’; soldiers’ deathbed letters from the front must have shaped mourning back home. Having a model of a ‘good death’ may well have made it possible for some soldiers to die more at peace than might otherwise have been the case. It is also possible that years of carnage might have weakened the power of faith to soften the terror of dying. But in fact we have very little historically specific evidence about how, and whether, the ‘art of dying’ worked to bring comfort in the Civil War or at any other time. Thus Faust falls back on metaphysical generalisations about the ultimate ‘riddle of death’, of which, in Melville’s words, the slain ‘sole solvers are’. This explains neither how nor why the work of death became so resonant in post-Civil War America.

Killing is almost as intractable a subject. One feels that it must have transformed men although, again, we do not know enough about the history of the psychological cost of battle for survivors, or about the relative importance of the fear of being killed and horror at seeing what one had wrought, to assess its specific Civil War meanings. ‘Windage’, the psychological strain from the near-misses of explosions, is the closest we get to the First World War idea of shell shock or our modern PTSD. We know even less – perhaps because we do not want to know – about the thrill of killing. What makes killing important for Faust’s larger argument, however, is not its psychological impact, about which she can say little that is useful, but its political meaning. To kill was the right of a free man just as to die for one’s country was the duty and right of a citizen. Killing was at the heart of the political theology of the war: ‘every drop of blood drawn with the lash’, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, would be paid for ‘by another drawn with the sword’. Southerners died and killed for a ‘sacred cause’. These sorts of claim, widely disseminated, connected the business of war with the history of the ‘republic of suffering’.

By the third chapter Faust is solidly into the work of the dead or, more accurately, of others on their behalf: burying. There might seem to be little that can be new about the importance of putting bodies into the ground. Decent burial and its opposite, desecration of the fallen, have been part of the Western repertoire of battle death since the Iliad; Lincoln’s great speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery was, as Garry Wills has persuasively argued, a reprise of Pericles’ funeral oration, and, like it, was intended as an occasion for the refounding of a polity on the bodies of those who had given their lives for it. The Civil War was not the first war in which survivors sought news of their dead. One thinks of Turner’s great Waterloo painting, in which the central figure is a woman who shines her lantern on a great mass of moonlit human and animal flesh looking for a loved one. But at Waterloo, as Tennyson wrote, these bodies and thousands like them would have been ‘shovelled into the ground and so forgotten’.

The Civil War is the start of a new regime, many elements of which Europe would embrace and elaborate in its 1914-18 orgy of death. The modern history of embalming begins in the United States with efforts to preserve bodies for return home: railways made getting them back feasible and a great infrastructure of undertakers and agents for shipping companies grew up to manage the whole business. But, more important, bodies that were quickly buried were not forgotten. Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, where the fallen of the Virginia Peninsula Campaign were buried, for example, was transformed into ‘an imagined community’ of the dead that gave meaning and purpose to survivors and to the nation they had hoped to found. At Gettysburg, and in the other national cemeteries that followed on the sites of other great battles, dead soldiers were mobilised for the public good. And, at a more intimate level, print culture brought the grave into the home. Reproductions of a painting that depicted the burial, by suitably mournful slaves and grieving women, of a young Confederate lieutenant, William Latané, who had died behind enemy lines, were commonplace in the sitting rooms of the South.

We are so accustomed to the rows upon rows of mostly identified bodies in military cemeteries, and to the poignancy of an ‘unknown’ soldier who serves as a synecdoche for those whose names and bodies are forever disjoined, that we forget that the overwhelming majority of men who died in war between, roughly speaking, Marathon in 490 BCE and 1861 are buried anonymously. In the American Civil War all this changed. Naming became exigent with a suddenness rare in cultural history.

Men bought belt buckles and badges with their names inscribed; they pinned their names to their coats and carried pictures and letters into battle to give their bodies a history. The United States Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission, both founded for other purposes, devoted vast energy and time to helping relatives locate their kin in the Union army, alive or dead. There were no such systematic efforts in the South, but a variety of local relief organisations, philanthropic individuals and public-spirited newspapers served to gather and disseminate information. Technology helped: the telegraph and the post hastened communication. Faust gives readers a wonderful sense of how the vast network that linked the battlefield and the home front actually worked. John Bowne of the Washington bureau of the Sanitary Commission, busy with trying to match survivors with bodies at Gettysburg, took on the case of a domestic servant who wrote saying that she thought that she might be not a widow but an abandoned wife and asked for help in finding her husband, dead or alive. He thought she had been ‘hard dealt by’ and started to work. A week after her letter she appeared at his office to say that she had had a letter from her husband with some money and a daguerreotype. ‘So Biddy is all right,’ ends the file.

Faust considers the anthropology of death under the general rubric of ‘realising’, a contemporary term meaning roughly ‘coming to terms with the reality of death’. It is a capacious category. In the first place, death came home to civilians as victims or as killers: thirty slaves hanged by their masters near Natchez because they were purportedly planning a rebellion to take advantage of the war’s disorder; 11 black men lynched and scores more killed in the New York riots of 1863, protesting against a draft lottery that would send men to die for the newly articulated cause of emancipation; hundreds of white men and boys murdered in their homes during the raid on Lawrence, Kansas; the Baptist preacher murdered in his house by secessionists in East Tennessee because he sympathised with the Union; the dead of disease and malnutrition. Especially in the Southern and Border States the war was not far off and ‘realising’ became akin to living.

But civilians also suffered an endless torrent of grief at the loss of great men and of hundreds of thousands of more ordinary ones. The mourning for the martyred Lincoln, Christ-like in his sacrifice, along the 1700-mile railroad journey his body went on from Washington to Springfield, Illinois was massive even by the high standards of 19th-century public funerals. Mourning for Stonewall Jackson assumed cultic proportions that still resonate today. In sermons, in poems (Walt Whitman is the most important of the hundreds of writers who made death their subject), in objects, in rituals and in diaries, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people went through the process of accepting that someone they had loved was dead.

Suffering is a state not only of the body but also of the soul; it is born of pain and of meaning. It depends on, and may well change, beliefs about fundamental matters of life and death. Faust wants to make two, seemingly contradictory points in this regard. On the one hand, she argues that doubt heightened suffering. Death on so large a scale, so intensely inscribed in the practices and daily lives of contemporaries, unsettled ‘traditional systems of belief’ and, more specifically, beliefs about the meaning of death itself. The carnage of the Civil War, she thinks, ‘transformed the mid-19th century’s growing sense of religious doubt into a crisis of belief that propelled many Americans to redefine or even reject their faith in a benevolent and responsive deity’, to question the ‘human ability to know and to understand’. In other words, Faust argues that the Civil War was a major precipitant of the purported late 19th-century crisis of faith that made death – and life – harder to bear.

At the same time, America remained a country of believers. Far more people attended church than voted, she points out; soldiers on both sides were, I suspect, the most theologically sophisticated of any army since Cromwell’s; both North and South thought that God favoured them. Faust also shows that the belief among survivors that they would see their fallen loved ones again in heaven – a far more pleasant familial place than in earlier times – remained widespread. An increasing number believed that they would see their dead kin again as spirits returning to earth at the same time as they expected to see them in heaven. (Popular theology was, and is, wildly syncretistic and heterodox.) In any case, belief in a benign deity and in a higher purpose was strong and comforting.

Faust offers some evidence on the doubt side of the ledger. Melville thought there had been an ‘upheaval affecting the basis of things’. Ambrose Bierce, a widely read journalist who had seen battle, wrote despairingly that ‘the golden goal’ of death was not heaven but ‘found to be a hole’, that the telos of life was in the mud. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr thought that his experiences were ‘incommunicable’ and professed a sense of irony and a loss of ‘belief in beliefs’, as Louis Menand would put it.

So where does that leave Faust’s hypothesis that the Civil War transformed religious doubt into a crisis of belief? We could look for more evidence. One might point out that in some respects little has changed: in 2008, 84 per cent of American Protestants still believe in heaven, and that this heaven is now roughly what it seemed to be then. In the pages of the Roanoke Times, a newspaper from the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, scores of people who died within the space of two weeks last summer were said to have gone ‘to be with the Lord’, where they were ‘reunited with mother and sister’.

The important point, however, is that doubt and belief in the face of death are structurally, and not historically, conjoined. This is not to say that belief and doubt have no history: but it is a history that follows deep and irregular rhythms that resist the contingencies of a single war.

The same cannot be said for the work of the dead and the obligations of the living towards them after the war. Here change is decisive. Faust opens her chapter on ‘accounting’ with a remark by Edmund Whitman, a former army quartermaster who became responsible for setting up the National Cemetery System, itself a wholly new enterprise: ‘Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment’ – he was speaking of the discovery, ingathering, reburial and commemoration of soldiers’ bodies – ‘the world has never witnessed.’ He was right. And the consecration of the dead in the South, not by a political nation but by civil society, and particularly by its women, is, if anything, still more unprecedented. Again, not since ancient Athens and never on remotely this scale, has the community of the dead been so engaged with the affairs of the living. National and Confederate cemeteries, as Faust shows, ‘created the Civil War Dead as a category’, separate from the living, powerful, visible, silent, demanding. Still today they have a hold on the imagination of Americans. Civil War re-enactors spend hours among the graves, as if some ghost will reveal to them the realities of battle.

Faust expertly tells the story of how this was done, how bodies were found, and in some cases hidden: Southerners destroyed the graves of Northern ‘invaders’ and tried to keep their new locations secret from those sent to find them; freed slaves both helped locate hastily buried corpses and reinterred them with dignity; Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, set up a service to help tens of thousands of survivors find graves and bodies. Enormous, painstaking labour went into identifying corpses awaiting reburial. The government did much of this for the Union dead by establishing and peopling a system of national cemeteries, but in the South it fell largely, if not exclusively, to the Daughters of the Confederacy and other women’s organisations, whose work in some places continues to this day. Confederate bodies were retrieved from Gettysburg and reburied in Charleston; they were gathered from other battlefields and buried in special sections of national cemeteries; they were collected from where they fell in far-flung skirmishes and brought together in older municipal and new, specially built cemeteries. Five thousand people were at the dedication of one of these in Winchester, Virginia, where 2494 bodies collected from within 15 miles of this small town were reburied.

The extent to which these new communities of the dead helped to create a single republic of suffering can be debated: it can also be argued that they reinscribed deep divisions. Faust herself writes about the ways in which Confederate cemeteries and commemorations – as well as the destruction of Union graves – kept alive the memory of a failed cause. And conversely for the other side: the American Memorial Day is said to have had its beginning when freemen decorated the graves of Union soldiers who had died as prisoners in Charleston. The Confederate dead were left invisible for decades at Gettysburg and even today are not very prominent at one of the nation’s most sacred sites.

But the dead did eventually, as Faust says, vouchsafe national reconciliation, if not in the period she writes about. It happened shortly afterwards. (The great cost of this reconciliation to black Americans is another matter.) In 1895, Confederate veterans in Chicago built a magnificent memorial over the bodies of at least 4243 men, whose names are listed in bronze; thousands of the unknown dead from the nearby prison camp were reinterred with much ceremony at Oak Woods Cemetery on the city’s South Side. By 1900 there were 128 Confederate dead reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington – the land had been Robert E. Lee’s plantation. In 1906 the federal government took responsibility for Confederate graves more generally, and eight years later Woodrow Wilson, the Virginia-born president, dedicated a large memorial in the new Confederate section at Arlington. Thousands of veterans from both sides attended the occasion: this, finally, was a single republic of suffering. Death, as Faust claims, had created the American union, however imperfect.

Her book ends where Neely’s begins: with numbering, with translating hundreds of ‘hell scenes’, as Whitman called them, into an arithmetical whole that came to constitute, along with bodies themselves, the Civil War dead. Statistics, like cemeteries, made the dead as a sort of corporate entity visible. The unprecedented effort to find out how many soldiers had died is evidence for just how much was posthumously demanded of them in late 19th-century America.

This Republic of Suffering is a spectacularly good book: one of the best accounts I know – Claudio Lomnitz’s Death and the Idea of Mexico would be my other choice – of how death and mourning, intimate by nature, came to play a great role in the public culture of a nation. We might, however, ask not just how – the question Faust answers – but also why so enormous and unprecedented a commemorative enterprise came into being. The sheer number of dead in the Civil War does not explain the collective nature of grieving and remembering. Losses in the Napoleonic Wars, a little more than a half-century earlier, were roughly comparable and produced nothing like a ‘republic of suffering’. Only in the Great War of 1914-18 did the war dead of Europe come to do the sorts of work Faust describes.

It would be tempting to say that the republic of suffering owed much to the republic of the living. But Faust’s book makes clear that this is not the case, at least not directly. Almost every aspect of her story – from dying to numbering – was a response to the demands of civil society, not of the state in any of its forms. Individual states and the federal government took over what had been begun by individuals and voluntary organisations. Even Lincoln’s great speech at Gettysburg claiming the honoured dead for a new national purpose was possible only because families had wanted to know where their loved ones were buried and made huge efforts to find and rebury them, because soldiers made sure their bodies could be identified, and so on. The state – as would be the case in Europe after World War One – appropriated the work of civil culture. Similarly, ‘democracy’, in the formal sense, is not the answer, in any case not directly. Those who mourned were generally not those who voted.

The general answer is what Faust calls the 19th-century ‘fixation’ with death. Jules Michelet, France’s great populist historian of the Revolution and a man of no particular religious interests, said that he was ‘too much in love with death’. The same might be said about Americans and would explain why they responded to the carnage of 1861-65 as they did.

How to account for a ‘love of death’ is a far larger question and is part of other stories as well: the intense new interest in domesticity, a neo-Romantic focus on individual identity. But the ‘republic of suffering’ does not owe much to new ‘attitudes’ to death, dying or the afterlife. There was very little that was new. It owes a great deal, though, to the novelty of the cultural infrastructure that made the death of individuals matter, that connected the lives and deaths of those on the battlefield to the lives of those at home, that made the demand for a good death, a remembered death, a celebrated death imaginable to ordinary people. The ‘republic of suffering’ is predicated on mass literacy, on a complex postal service, on advanced print technology, on photography, on the domestic novel and the magazine story. They made a democratic response to death possible.

By one estimate, an astonishing 180,000 letters passed through the hands of Civil War soldiers every single day. This means that on average any one of them might well have received word from a loved one once a week. It is inconceivable that with so intense a communications nexus men could simply be allowed to disappear as they had in earlier wars. Letters are also what made possible the thousands upon thousands of inquiries and responses that constituted the enterprise of identifying, accounting and numbering. They also constitute the well-preserved literary record on which Faust and all other Civil War historians base their accounts of how contemporaries felt about what they were enduring. Images of men and families proliferated in daguerreotypes; photographs and engravings of photographs brought the sights of the battlefield home. In short, the whole modern paraphernalia of memory was for the first time almost universally available in this war. At the same time, the domestic novel and short story, along with accounts in scores of denominational magazines and secular newspapers, made ordinary family life and ordinary family death their special subject. Not only saints and great sinners, not only important people, but ordinary men, women and children died noteworthy deaths.

The answer, then, to the question of why a republic of suffering emerged from the deaths of the Civil War, comes back, as questions about the history of death always do, to questions about life.