Blum on This Republic Of Suffering

Kelly Baker

Contributing editor Ed Blum reviewed Drew Faust's This Republic of Suffering for the Christian Century. In this insightful review, Blum lauds Faust's exploration of "death dealing" as well as the moral unpreparedness of soldiers, both North and South, to kill. However, Blum claims that Faust explores the emotions and hand-wringing of white Americans while playing less attention to the institution of slavery and its impact on visions of death (and life). Blum writes:

There is much to applaud in Faust's study, but there are a few elements that may disturb readers. Faust's work embodies a recent and troubling trend in new studies not only of the Civil War, but also of the civil rights era in the 20th century. Attention has shifted from the historical role and centrality of African Americans during these climactic moments to the feelings and experiences of whites. Although Faust focuses some attention on the meaning of death for enslaved and free blacks in the mid-19th century, that aspect of her work lacks the nuance of her reading of white responses.Examples of this trend include historian Harry Stout's "moral history" of the Civil War, Upon the Altar of the Nation (2006), a work equal to Faust's in innovation, brilliance and scope. Stout not only brackets the morality of slavery, he also downplays the ethical implications of interracial interaction in the fields of education and religion in the Civil War South.

As for the civil rights era, Matthew Lassiter's much-heralded The Silent Majority examines the rise of new conservatism in the 1960s Sunbelt. Throughout his narrative, moderate whites take center stage in the struggles against the protectors of racial segregation. The overfocus on whites leads Lassiter to patently misleading claims like: "The grassroots open-school movements led by middle-class white parents from the cities and suburbs defeated the massive resistance program of the region's political leadership." It was, of course, the African-American teachers and lawyers and the students who braved stone-throwing and death threats who did the most to defeat the archsegregationists—or at least their role was just as important as that of middle-class white suburbanites.

Perhaps it seemed to Faust that if she made slavery a central element of the Civil War, death would no longer fit as the dominant theme. Although slavery was a status of "social death," as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson pointed out many years ago, during the Civil War almost 4 million slaves became civically alive with emancipation. They achieved freedom through mobility (by walking away from plantations, often heading to Union lines) and through military service. According to pioneering African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois (in Black Reconstruction), for freed slaves the war was defined by new life, not suffering:

This was the coming of the Lord. This was the fulfillment of prophecy and legend. It was the Golden Dawn, after chains of a thousand years. It was everything miraculous and perfect and promising. For the first time in their life, they could travel; they could see; they could change the dead level of their labor; they could talk to friends and sit at sundown and in moonlight, listening and imparting wonder-tales. They could hunt in the swamps, and fish in the rivers. And above all, they could stand up and assert themselves. They need not fear the patrol; they need not even cringe before a white face, and touch their hats.

It is the failure to see life amid death that most detracts from This Republic of Suffering. Any quick look at the imagery and rhetoric of the Civil War shows an obsession with life and newness. In 1860, the Republican Party was imagined as a newborn baby of American liberty; in November 1863, in his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln claimed that the war brought a "new birth of freedom." After the Confederate surrender one African-American minister proclaimed in Washington, D.C., on the Fourth of July, "We come to the National Capital—our Capital—with new hopes, new prospects, new joys, in view of the future and past of the people." Even white supremacists have crafted the war as one of new life. America's first major motion picture, Birth of a Nation (1915), is the story of how the Ku Klux Klan remade the United States during and after the Civil War.