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Classic title for Memorial Day 2010: This Republic of Suffering

The horror of the Civil War revolutionized the treatment of US war casualties.

This Republic of Suffering:
Death and the American Civil War
By Drew Gilpin Faust
Alfred A. Knopf
346 pp., $27.95

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Jan. 29, 2008.] "Your son, Corporal Frank H. Irwin, was wounded near Fort Fisher, Virginia, March the 25, 1865.... He died the first of May.... He was so good and well behaved.... I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must have been good."

It's not one of Walt Whitman's better known pieces of writing but it may have been among his most heartfelt. During the US Civil War, the poet was a tireless visitor to Washington, D.C., hospitals, not only ministering to wounded and dying soldiers but also writing hundreds of letters to their families. Often the only good news he could offer was that their loved one had died honorably and not entirely unnoticed.

Sadly – horrifically – these families were among the fortunate. At least they knew. Thousands of others, on both sides of the war, watched brothers, sons, husbands, and neighbors march off and then waited for news that never came.

Decades later some were still waiting.

I sometimes thought while reading historian Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War that she should simply have called her book "Misery." "We all have our dead – we all have our Graves," intoned a Confederate Episcopal bishop in a 1862 sermon. But even by contemporary standards it's hard to grasp the carnage of the US Civil War.

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