Long before she became the first female president of Harvard University in July 2007, Drew Gilpin Faust showed herself to be an inventive, energetic, and restless historian. Her first book, in 1977, focused on a subject many people had doubted was a subject, "the intellectual in the Old South." Five years later, she produced what is still the fullest — and most disturbing — portrayal of a white Southern planter, a man who sought complete mastery over the white women in his charge as well as over the enslaved people he claimed as property.

Soon after that, in a series of brilliant lectures, Faust challenged historians to rethink another topic many had written off as an oxymoron: Confederate nationalism. The founders of the Confederacy, she argued, adopted the latest ideals and strategies of the modern nation-state. In 1996 she published the prize-winning Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, her most controversial book. There she put elite white Southern women in starring roles as skeptics and victims of the Confederate cause. Along the way, Faust published important essays in books edited by other scholars.

In her new book, Faust does something no one has done before: She puts us face to face with death in all its dimensions in the Civil War. Books about war can hardly fail to touch on death and dying, but they can fail to look at death steadily, without blinking or looking away, as Faust has done. It is hard to imagine the sheer determination required to research such a book over a decade, the grit required to read thousands of letters from dying young men, the depth of compassion necessary to join heartbroken mothers and fathers in confronting the loss of their children. In all honesty, reading the book requires some of the same fortitude. It is customary praise to say that one can't put a book down; it is even greater praise to say that one simply must set this book aside periodically.

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Copyright © 2008 The Chronicle of Higher Education. This article first appeared in The Chronicle for Higher Education 54:18 (2008), B7.

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