Not too long ago I finished reading Brian Matthew Jordan’s recent publication about Union Civil War veterans, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. The book was a real treat for me, thoroughly researched and written in a stylish prose that expert and layperson alike could understand. There have been many fine Civil War veterans’ studies over the past five years and this one definitely competes with the best of them. I highly recommend it to those interested in Civil War veterans or just veteran culture in general.
Scholars like David Blight, John Neff, Stuart McConnell, Nina Silber, and others have largely focused their studies on lingering debates about Civil War memory between Union veterans and between Union and Confederate veterans. These studies are crucial to our understanding of the ways Civil War veterans dealt with, understood, and communicated their interpretation of the Civil War’s meaning to each other and the rest of society. Yet these studies–partly out of necessity–look to the words and deeds of veterans who established themselves as political and cultural elites in the years after the war. Contemporary discussion about Civil War veterans, therefore, revolves around things like monuments, memorials, commemorative holidays, and school textbook wars that are largely shaped by the perspectives of veterans who had the finances, prestige, platform, and inclination to take the lead in shaping the public memories of the war.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach. I myself have contributed to this discussion and have an article coming out later this year on the Grand Army of the Republic and Civil War memory in Indiana. Jordan, however, throws new light on our understanding of Civil War veterans by focusing less on the memory battles of the postwar years and more on the daily, lived experience of being a veteran in a rapidly changing society that sought healing, reconciliation, and closing from the Civil War. More so than any other book I’ve read on these topics, Jordan shows us how the mental and physical scars of battle wreaked havoc on many veterans stuck in a mental time void between the horrors of the past and the pains of the present. Equally important, Jordan demonstrates that not all Union veterans were necessarily interested in the pomp and circumstance of Grand Army of the Republic parades, writing memoirs about their experiences in the war, or contributing money to erect a monument at a Civil War battlefield.
Gary Gallagher wrote a largely positive review of Marching Home for the Washington Post, but he suggests that the book “raises questions regarding context and proportion.” To wit:
How many of the 1.8 million veterans floundered and felt estranged from the nation they saved? How many carried psychological and physical scars that markedly affected their ability to function productively? Were civilians so widely insensitive? Soldiers who fought in battles undoubtedly retained hard memories, but most got on with their lives and fit well into postwar society . . .
Perhaps most important, evidence of respect for Union veterans abounds. Far from being quick to forget what soldiers had done, ordinary Americans found ways to acknowledge it. Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), which began in 1868, featured speeches, parades and other events honoring the dead and veterans. Military service during the war translated into political success, at every level, for decades after Appomattox (five of the six men elected president between 1868 and 1900 had fought in the Union army). States, counties and municipalities raised monuments to Union soldiers — many with inscriptions similar to the one in Pasadena, Calif., dedicated in 1906: “Erected By The Citizens Of Pasadena To Perpetuate The Memory Of The Defenders Of The Union ’61 to ’65.”
I think Gallagher is being a bit unfair here. Of course there’s no doubt that veterans had political success or that many had a positive transition back into postwar society. But expressing acknowledgement of veterans through monuments or commemorative holidays comes with its own political baggage. Some veterans suffering from debilitating pain and living on a meager pension may have viewed the use of public and private funds for monuments as an extravagance better spent on providing care to living veterans. As my future article will show, younger generations had no qualms about re-purposing Decoration Day from its original intent (decorating soldier graves and quietly reflecting on the meaning of the Civil War) in favor of leisurely pursuits like attending sporting events, gambling, drinking, and partying that had nothing to do with acknowledging the efforts of Union war veterans. Moreover, there were plenty of civilians who simultaneously admired veterans who gained political and social prominence in the postwar years and looked down with contempt at veterans who struggled to find gainful employment, grappled with alcoholism, or begged for a pension to supplant their lingering disability. As Jordan argues in Marching Home, these particular veterans were often viewed as something less then men and were instead labeled as government dependents unwilling and unable to get over the war or take care of themselves and their families.
Gallagher might be right that the stories Jordan explores don’t necessarily account for the mass of Union veterans’ transitions to postwar society, but his study asserts that neither can we accept the arguments of historians like Stuart McConnell who have argued that Civil War veterans had a “relatively easy transition” to postwar society (21).