Paul H. Buck’s Road to Reunion

In 1937, the historian Paul Herman Buck wrote The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900, one of the first books to analyze and interpret the actions of Union and Confederate veterans in the years after the Civil War. Buck–a Harvard University Professor who later became dean of Faculty from 1942-1953 and Director of the prestigious Widener Library from 1955-1964–would later win a Pulitzer Prize for this work, and it would influence future works on the Grand Army of the Republic by historians such as Mary Dearing and Wallace Davies in the 1950s.

The central question Buck attempts to ask is how Northerners and Southerners were able to reconcile their past disagreements to create a new, unified “national life.” This research question is particularly interesting when put into the context of what was happening in 1937, when a terrible recession prolonged the Great Depression, eventually lengthening it well into World War II. Perhaps Buck aimed to use his book to argue that past crises had proved that Americans persevered through tough times, and that the Great Depression could be eventually conquered.

To start off the book, Buck argues that antebellum Northerners and Southerners established what he describes as “divergent nationalisms.” With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 these competing societies engaged in a “race for supremacy” as to which side would have the power to determine what it meant to be an “American,” since both sides essentially argued that their respective causes embodied the true values and principles of American patriotism. In assessing the Confederacy’s eventual loss, Buck blames the “not inhumane institution of slavery,” which “both made and destroyed the hope of Southern nationalism” (ix). In using a double negative (a no-no in history writing) to assess slavery’s role in the conflict, Buck tips us off on what he thinks about slavery and what (or, more appropriately, who) will be the root cause of many problems during Reconstruction.

Buck asserts that in the war’s aftermath, “the North was arrogant in victory and inclined to be assertive in the realization of newly found power.” Meanwhile, “the South lay spent and exhausted yet ready to offer stolid resistance to the unfriendly gestures of its assailant” (vii). How was the North arrogant in victory? According to Buck, much of the blame lied with the Republican party and their efforts to enfranchise newly-freed male slaves after the war. One of the major questions of Reconstruction, argues Buck, was whether African Americans would “be the ward of the South or the Nation,” suggesting that blacks were passive actors with no agency for determining their own course of action during Reconstruction. Republican efforts to build the party in the South through Black votes was too much for the South, who “had in fact suffered so much” (69) thanks to the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which established citizenship rights for all person born in America and voting rights for all men, regardless of color.

Today, many historians would argue that Reconstruction was a failure (even “an unfinished revolution“) because the promise of freedom for people of all colors was compromised through the eventual passage of Jim Crow laws, the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South, lynchings and other horrible acts of violence against blacks, and the eventual legalization of segregation. Buck, however, interpreted the end of Reconstruction in 1877 as a victory for American nationalism, as did many other historians at the time. The end of Reconstruction signaled that African Americans would become “the ward of the South,” to be taken care of by Southern Whites: “No longer would the black man figure as ‘a ward of the nation’ to be singled out for special guardianship or peculiar treatment” [i.e. Civil Rights legislation or Constitutional Amendments] (283-284).

Thus, the “road to reunion” between North and South could be paved now that blacks were out of the body politic and no longer a “national” issue, according to Buck. By the 1880s and 1890s, the GAR and UCV gained in popularity, and reconciliationist sentiments among all Americans would be fostered by Civil War Veterans, the ones “who first forgave” at the end of the Civil War in 1865 (236).

Buck points out that GAR members asserted that they were right and that Confederates were wrong, a position they never retreated from. However, it is clear that Buck believes that GAR and UCV veterans were largely on good terms with each other. The GAR had “readily admitted the bravery and sincerity of [their] opponent in the field,” and there was no room for “irreconcilables” in the organization (240). Buck continues:

The spirit of good will [at the turn of the twentieth century] received a more striking exemplification in the fraternizing of men in Blue and Gray. Reunions of the veterans of a particular locality or section, or of an army unit, had not been uncommon in the seventies. With increasing age and retirement from active life, it was only natural that the war generation should live more than ever in the memories of past experiences. Reunions became a common occurrence, and of these there developed a type hitherto unknown in history. The veterans of both armies met in mutual celebration, giving a convincing object lesson of the truth of those who fought most honorably in war are the first to forgive in peace (256-257).

In sum, Buck argues that “the spirit of good will” between GAR veterans UCV veterans inspired non-veterans in the North and South to reconcile their differences in the interest of American nationalism. Additionally–without explicitly saying so–Buck suggests that the eradication of black rights in the 1890s could also be attributed to Civil War veterans, who eschewed any talk of slavery, emancipation, or the defense of black rights. Instead, they focused on promoting Union and patriotism.

Have future historians agreed with Buck’s arguments? Did GAR and UCV veterans really get along that well? We’ll attempt to address these questions with my next post.