Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Civil War Book Wins Prize from NY Historical Society

Accomplished historian and Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust has been awarded a $50,000 prize from the New York Historical Society for her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (published by Knopf in hardback and Vintage in paperback, both divisions of Random House). This is the fourth such prize awarded by the NYHS. Previous winners include Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The book describes the impact of the war through an examination of the unprecedented carnage. Between 1861 and 1865, two percent of the US population died in uniform -- and that doesn't include the thousands of civilians killed in war-related activities. The equivalent death toll today would be six mllion. When the war began, the union army had no systems for identifying or counting the dead or for notifying the next of kin, nor any provisions for decent burials. Relatives wandered battlefields in search of missing kin, and spiritualists made a good living conveying vague but consoling messages to The Other Side. Death on such a massive scale changed not only individual lives but also the life of the nation. Faust writes: "The war's staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national identity, one designed to ensure that lives had been sacrificed for appropriately lofty ends."

This Republic of Suffering was also a finalist for the National Book Award and was named a Top Ten Book of the Year for 2008 by The New York Times.

Faust was born in New York City in 1947 but grew up the only daughter of four children in the rural Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She received her bachelor's degree in history from Bryn Mawr in 1968 and while there marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. "I think I was born a pain in the neck," she says. She earned her master's and docterate from the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2007 she became Harvard University's 28th president and its first female president. "I'm not the woman president of Harvard. I'm the president of Harvard." Of her devotion to academia, Faust says, "At the heart of it, universities are about renewal every minute. You're always learning something new." She is the author of five previous books, including Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War and A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860.

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