Wednesday, January 9, 2008
This Republic of Suffering
Okay. First, you absolutely must listen to today's episode of "Fresh Air" on NPR. Terry Gross interviewed Drew Gilpin Faust, whose book, "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War," was just released. I'm totally broke, but I bought it. Listen to the interview. It is fascinating. The Civil War left over 600,000 dead soldiers in its wake. It had a profound effect on this country, and changed the way death is perceived. Death on the battlefield, burial on the battlefield, the changing burial practices due to haste and anonymity, the families of dead soldiers and how they dealt with the death, not to mention, as stated above, the sheer number of the dead and its impact on our country.
Just as I am fascinated by cemeteries and have a deep respect for places of burial, I am equally as fascinated by the Civil War and its repercussions in the form of death. It was a devastating war that wiped out entire regiments, not to mention the entire male line of families, both north and south. Last year I reacquainted myself with the Ken Burns documentary, and was equally as moved then as I was in high school by the images of the dead strewn about like tiny weathered dolls in a field, as if roughly played then subsequently forgotten. As Faust discusses in the interview, people would come to visit a battlefield ten days after a battle ended and the bodies would still be there, waiting, decaying, silently begging for a proper funeral.
On my list of things to do before I die (where once a visit to New Orleans was listed, and now I admittedly took it off my list because the thought of going there frightens me--it is another form of death and rebirth altogether) is a tour of America that consists of visiting places like Monticello, Mount Vernon, and famous Civil War battlefields, because they are, essentially, as sacred as Arlington Cemetery. A lot of people died on those fields, and many of them died horrible, excruciating deaths. They are places of honor and respect.
Which leads me to my second point: some of these battlefields, such as Chancellorsville in Virginia, are endangered. They are in danger of being overrun by development: some condos here, a Starbucks there. It is possible that one day, maybe in ten years, if you go to Chancellorsville you might be ordering a Latte where a soldier once died. Perhaps he was a soldier whose name was lost, and thus was buried in an anonymous grave. If that happens, it will be very sad. But that's all it'll be: I doubt the spirits of the dead will rise up and terrorize the baristas like the ghosts from Poltergeist. No, it'll just be sad.