Lessons from a suffering republic

republic_sufferingI recently finished reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard. It’s a masterful work of history that explains from every angle the ways in which North and South tried to reckon with the unprecedented number of deaths in the war —disposing of the bodies, identifying them, counting them, mourning them, making sense of them.

There are dozens of good reasons to read this book — to me, it felt like it dredged something out of the American unconscious that I always suspected was there but could not quite name. Even if you’re not particularly interested in American history, it’s a book that will make you re-consider whether any war is worthwhile or just. I’m not going to attempt a full review of it here, but I thought it might make sense to call attention to one interesting aspect of the book, which is Faust’s account of how the federal government came to take responsibility for the identifying and burial (or re-burial) of the Union dead. (Confederate dead were handled almost entirely by philanthropic groups of Southern women, many of which still exist.)

Today we take it for granted that a nation’s military should keep records of every individual soldier, provide information on those soldiers’ fates to their families, and then take responsibility for their remains in case of death. But no such understanding existed before the Civil War. Wives and mothers were primarily informed of their loved ones’ deaths through informal means, such as comrades’ letters. Many of them visited battlefields themselves seeking out information or a body. Burials were also often handled informally, and at the war’s outset it was generally assumed that only the bodies of officers merited transport home.

In the years following the war, the federal government took responsibility for identifying as many of the Union dead as it could, then giving them a decent burial. Faust persuasively argues that this was an unprecedented investment by the federal government in the lives of individuals and families. Not only did it transform the understanding of the social contract between soldiers and the state, but it demonstrated that it was politically possible for the federal government to make such investments, laying the groundwork for the welfare state.

While reading the book, I was thinking about some of the attributes of the federal effort that might be worth noting for those who think about how to design social welfare programs today. (I’m afraid I did not take detailed notes on the book, so this list lacks scholarly specificity. Those who are interested in the details of the program should consult chapter 7 of Faust’s book.)

Anyway, here’s what I noticed:

• The design of the program emerged over time. After the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, the federal government had a new level of access to the South. Agents of the federal government discovered and described the conditions that led to so many deaths at prison camps like Andersonville. The Confederacy’s war records were seized. And most importantly, the government could send teams to survey Southern battlefields to locate gravesites.

But the end of the war did not necessarily mean that these battlefields had become peaceful resting places. Reports sent back to the military indicated that many of the informal burial sites were subject to neglect or vandalism. The administrators of the program gradually concluded that the only solution to the problem was to establish national cemetery sites throughout the country. This became military policy first; only eventually was it endorsed and funded by the legislature.

The takeaway: When government takes on a new responsibility, we shouldn’t assume that we fully understand the scope of the issue up front. Initial efforts to grapple with an issue will inevitably yield new problems but also new solutions.

• The program aggregated work already being done by philanthropic organizations and private citizens. At the beginning of the war, no one realized that hundreds of thousands of men would be killed in the course of the conflict. As the scale of the carnage became clear, philanthropic organizations were established to provide burials for as many soldiers as possible, particularly at Northern battlefields like Gettysburg. But in many cases they just didn’t have the resources to do everything. Most burials were performed by the friends and comrades of the deceased with whatever resources were available — containers for military rations often became makeshift headstones, for example.

Throughout the war, the military had asked officers to track casualties from their units in various ways. But when the location and reburial program began in earnest, its administrators often found those records to be inaccurate (and it’s not hard to see why — the officers were asked to perform an extra duty for which there was no formal rules). However, when they reached out to fallen soldiers’ rank-and-file comrades, they were happy to discover that they could remember exact details about where their friends were buried years after the events. In the South, they discovered that the African-American population was willing to offer information about Union cemeteries that whites often withheld.

The takeaway: We tend to believe that “crowd-sourcing” is an outcome of digital technology. But at its base is relationships. When the bureaucracy failed, these administrators could discover the information they needed by thinking about the relationships that were likely to preserve it.

• The program grew out of an unexpected change in the relationship between citizens and the state. As many historians have argued before, the Civil War precipitated a change in Americans’ ideas about their nation. They came to understand themselves as citizen of the (not “these”) United States in addition to their state or region.

What Faust makes more clear, however, is that the negotiations over the treatment of the dead after the war was a part of this new understanding. Family members may have understood that the lives of their husbands and sons were at risk as the war betan, but it was impossible to understand that by its end new weapons and methods of fighting would leave many soldiers’ bodies completely obliterated. The number of people mobilized in war and the means for mobilizing them — the draft — were also new. This new level of sacrifice led to a change in what citizens felt they could fairly expect from the nation.

To illuminate her point, Faust cites a letter written by Clara Barton (who went on to found the American Red Cross) to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

“…the wife released her husband and the mother sent forth her son, and they were nobly given to their country for its necessities: it might take and use them as the bonded officer uses the property given into his hands; it might if needs be use up or lose them and they would submit without complaint, but never … has wife or mother agreed that for the destruction of her treasures no account should be rendered her. i hold these men in the light of Government property unaccounted for.” (p. 230)

The legitimacy of the identification and re-burial program grew out of such widespread sentiments that something had gone wrong in the relationship between the individual and the nation, that the “fair deal” of citizenship had fallen apart.

In reading this, I was struck by how rarely such rhetoric is used to justify the actions of the state today. There are plenty of government functions — public education comes to mind — that we take on because we believe that executing them is necessary for citizens to govern themselves. But we are more likely to justify and discuss them in terms of their effect on economic productivity or the budgetary bottom line.

It also strikes me that many of the obstacles to a “fair deal” for many citizens today remain unaddressed by government. For example, despite the relative economic recovery, many people feel crippled by the debt assumed to attain two components of the American Dream: homeownership and a college degree. There may be no legal obligations to those crippled by such debts, just as there were no legal obligations to find and re-bury Civil War soldiers. But there remains a widespread sense that the people have been mistreated or tricked, and have therefore lost their ability to act as responsible stewards of the government or participants in the economy.

Specifically, It’s this idea of a mutual relationship that I would like to see more of. The object of actions by the state would not be the re-distribution of wealth or the fulfillment of a contract, but whatever is necessary to make the citizenry healthy and whole, capable of governing itself. It’s a standard that transcends economic or legal logic. Maybe it’s one we can only access in a perilous situation like a war — after all, one of the other most successful social welfare programs, the G. I. Bill, was also prompted by one. But I would like to think it’s an idea we can access to improve our society at any time.