Our readers respond to Drew Gilpin Faust’s article “This Republic of Suffering” in the February 2008 issue.
Thank you for a wonderful, diverse magazine. I would like to commend your interview with Drew Gilpin Faust and her insightful article, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”
While reading the interview, however, I was greatly disturbed with a comment she made in reply to a question on whether it was easier for a modern soldier to kill than it was for a Civil War soldier, stating that “popular culture may indeed have broken down certain inhibitions about killing.”
As a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, on my second deployment to Iraq, and with numerous deployments to earlier conflicts, I can definitely tell you that whether in modern times or in the Civil War, killing is no easier. As a soldier, no matter what era or country you serve, there is a certain amount of desensitization instilled in each recruit as part of their training. This does not supersede the individual moral and spiritual beliefs that every person is brought up with. Soldiers throughout history have been plagued with remorse and guilt over the suffering and death they have brought to others while performing their duty. Modern weaponry has made it easier to engage an opponent, but the act of pressing a button or pulling a trigger still has the same effect on an individual performing that act.
For Want of Soap
The article “This Republic of Suffering” by Drew Gilpin Faust in the February issue was extremely moving. I was particularly intrigued to discover that about 400,000 men died of disease and not battle wounds. Germ theory was not yet widely known, and military surgeons rarely washed their hands between cases, meaning the slightest wound could very well lead to death.
The case of Union Maj. Gen. Charles Ferguson Smith, commander of the Union army that was moving toward Corinth, Miss., shortly before the 1862 Battle of Shiloh, is one example of a simple injury that resulted in death. Smith scraped his shin while jumping into a rowboat on the Tennessee River. The resulting infection killed him on April 25.
Hungarian physician Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was a rare believer in hospital hygiene in the mid-19th century. Semmelweis, who died in 1865, insisted that his surgeons wash their hands between treating patients. Semmelweis’ contemporary, Dr. Joseph Lister (1827-1912), a professor at Scotland’s Glasgow University, earned the sobriquet “Father of Antiseptic Surgery” for similar efforts.
American doctors, however, clearly knew little, if anything, about Semmelweis and Lister. Had their theories been widely understood at the time, many wartime deaths might well have been prevented.
Jay Federman, M.D.
Dix Hills, N.Y.
The problem of poor medical hygiene continued long after the war. On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot in the back by an enraged assassin, Charles Guiteau, in a Washington train station. The president’s doctors were unable to find the bullet lodged near Garfield’s spine and probed his wound with their unsterilized fingers, resulting in infection. Blood poisoning and bronchial pneumonia led to Garfield’s death on September 19.
Death to the Death Mask Myth!
Your otherwise excellent item on death masks on P. 15 of the April 2008 issue was marred by an all-too-common error: the perpetuation of the stubborn myth that Abraham Lincoln was the subject of postmortem portraiture. He did allow two life masks to be created, one in 1860 by Leonard Wells Volk in Chicago, the other in 1865 by Clark Mills at the White House. But no sculptor cast his features after death— certainly not after an assassin’s bullet crashed through his brain and shattered his eye socket.
The confusion has arisen, I suspect, because the 1865 mask looks so sad and peaceful. As Lincoln’s own private secretary admitted, the likeness seemed to reflect “a peace that passeth understanding” and evinced little of the animation of the living man. Lincoln was indeed exhausted and haggard by the time he posed in 1865—but not too tired to insist that the process be less painful than the one he had endured in 1860, when the mask got stuck on his face! I was perplexed that instead of mistakenly proposing that the haggard, aged 1865 portrait was his death mask you showed the 1860 piece, which showed Lincoln beardless, years from his final days. Be assured he was very much alive when he sat for that one; when he finally yanked it off, his eyes filled with tears. He remembered the process as “any thing but agree able.” Few corpses complain so much.
New York, N.Y.
Thanks for correcting us, Harold. Several readers also caught the mistake.
Read About Reconstruction
The books Apostles of Disunion by Charles B. Dew and The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky should be on the required reading list of every Southern state. If Tom Irby, a letter writer in your April 2008 issue, had read them, he might have taken a different slant on the nation’s Reconstruction era.
Charles Dew’s book is about the prewar efforts of the commissioners sent from each state that had seceded to those that had not yet seceded, to convince those states to break away from the Union as well. The commissioners’ arguments were based on racial issues, not states’ rights.
In addition to exploring other issues, Budiansky’s book tells how murder and intimidation hampered Reconstruction efforts of those who were trying to help African Americans in the South.
Robert K. Wilson
Bloody Shirt Author Responds
I appreciated Joseph Pierro’s review of my book The Bloody Shirt in the April 2008 issue. I would like to correct one small but important point: The Reconstruction governments in the Southern states were not “installed by the Federal Army,” nor were their officials “agents of Federal power.” They were freely elected by the people of the Southern states through universal manhood suffrage—the last time that would happen again in the South until the Voting Rights Act re-enfranchised African Americans in the 1960s.
More to See in Fredericksburg
Eric Mink’s interesting field guide in the February 2008 issue (“Sites to See in Fredericksburg”) could also have included the latest Civil War monument to be erected in Fredericksburg: the Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment Memorial, a three-ton boulder with an affixed descriptive plaque. The memorial, at the NPS River Crossing Point (intersection of Hawke and Water [Sophia] Streets), was dedicated on August 31, 2003, to commemorate the makeshift amphibious assault across the Rappahannock River undertaken by the 7th Michigan and other Federal regiments on December 11, 1862—two days before the battle.
Ann Arbor, Mich.
A Good Woman
I enjoyed Peter Carmichael’s interview with Matt Gallman about Gallman’s biography of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (April 2008). Mr. Gallman responded well to the question about why Civil War enthusiasts—as well as readers in general—should be interested in the many different contributions made by women throughout the war. I am eager to read Mr. Gallman’s America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson.
South Bend, Ind.
Congressman James E. Clyburn (DS.C.) was incorrectly identified as James E. Clayton in the February 2008 issue (“Civil War Today,” P. 12).
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.