Friday, February 25, 2011

Convene Reads: This Republic of Suffering

In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust explores how the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Union and Confederate soldiers over the course of four years  changed the United States -- in ways profound and prosaic, obvious and unexpected. The book is deeply researched and quietly moving, and, this being a work of history, of course there are meetings and conventions aplenty:
Certainly, [free man of color Captain Andre Cailloux's] death became a symbol for the northern antislavery cause and particularly for black abolitionists. The flag Cailloux had carried at Port Hudson was prominently displayed at the National Negro Convention presided over by Frederick Douglass in October 1864. Cailloux's death -- configured as heroic sacrifice -- made a powerful case for blacks' rights to citizenship in the nation they had given so much to save.
Here's another one:
Spiritualists held their first national convention in Chicago in 1864, marking a growing prominence and self-consciousness that extended well beyond the realm of popular amusement. "Virtually everyone," historian R. Laurence Moore has observed, "conceded that spirit communication was at least a possibility." Amid a war that was erasing not only lives but identities, the promise, as one spiritualist spokesman wrote, of the "imperishability of the individual and the continuation of the identical Ego" after death was for many irresistible.
Interesting that in both cases, the holding of the convention in and of itself is a symbol of something -- the dawning awareness of exactly why the Civil War was being fought, and the desperate need to believe that the Union and Confederate dead were not beyond all reach.

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