My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog, Muster, was published earlier this week. I explore a few speeches from members of the Grand Army of the Republic in protest of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation and argue that not all white Union Civil War veterans were ready for reconciliation with former Confederates, even when they were in the seventies and eighties.
During my master’s thesis research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana I relied heavily on a Union Civil War veterans’ newspaper called The American Tribune. The paper was printed out of Indianapolis from roughly 1888 to 1906 and was edited by active members of the Indiana GAR during the postwar years. The paper is extremely hard to find on microfilm today and I was really lucky to have the Indiana State Library–one of the only places in the country where you can find it–within walking distance of my house to aid my research. Just for the fun of it I’ve been going back through some of my files and came across some interesting commentaries from the paper’s editorial page on the Confederate flag. Here are a few samples:
On May 29, 1890, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia, along what is now called “Monument Avenue.” When reports suggested that Confederate flags were waved during the ceremonies, the John A. Logan Post No. 199 of the Indiana GAR issued an angry resolution condemning these actions as “disloyal and treasonable.” The Tribune gleefully republished the Logan Post’s resolution in full on June 27:
WHEREAS: The rebel flag was unfurled and displayed on housetops and in line of march, and used for the purposes of decorating in remembrance of the same principles that it represented during the years of 1861 to 1865, and
WHEREAS, The principles taught the rising generation by such acts are as wrong as that principle taught by anarchists and communists in carrying the red flag, which this government forbids. Therefore be it
RESOLVED, That we heartily endorse the sentiment of Gen [Daniel] Sickles on last Memorial Day unmoved by any rancor or spirit of hatred, God forbid, but we say as Union soldiers and the love that we bear for the stars and stripes that there is but one flag for the Americans, the flag of Bunker Hill, of Saratoga, of Yorktown, of Lundy’s Lane, of New Orleans, the flag of Washington, Scott, Perry, Jackson, Lincoln, Hancock, Grant, Hooker, and the flag carried victorious by Billy Sherman to the sea. The only flag that represents the right, and in charity we will not forget the difference between right and wrong.
RESOLVED, That in this country there is but one flag which represents the fundamental principles of a free government known and acknowledged by all nations of the earth, and while we respect the pride that animates the hearts of ex-confederate soldiers in historic valor displayed on many battlefields of the war and the sentiment which endears them to each other, and keeps alive in their memories the many scenes of hardships which they shared together, we sincerely condemn any attempt to resurrect from the buried past the emblem which represents a bad and lost cause.
RESOLVED, That the stars and stripes represent loyalty and the stars and bars represent treason, the same to-day as they did from ’61 to ’65, and we deem it the duty of the authorities at Washington, irrespective of political parties, to forbid the display of the stars and bars on any occasion, and this we do in memory of those who so heroically gave their lives that the Nation might live.
From an editorial entitled “Our Flag is There” on January 7, 1892:
When Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant at Appomattox, the latter would not accept Gen. Lee’s sword, and he included within that surrender a provision that all the Rebel officers should retain their side-arms. That courtesy of Gen. Grant expressed exactly the feeling of the great generous heart of the North toward the defeated and conquered South. Southern poets have written ballads and Southern women have sung of the sword of Robert Lee. This is all as it should be. But when Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant there was no provision made that the flag of slavery and secession should ever be retained, either as a souvenir or standard. It represented something that cost this country a million of men and many millions of money, and at Appomattox its bloody folds should have been furled forever. War relic or no war relic, it should never float over American soil.
A month later the paper lamented how many Northerners (and Democrats in particular) embraced what the paper called a “forgive and forget” sentiment that accepted the continued flying of the Confederate flag (“Still Pandering to Rebels,” February 4, 1892):
The Northern Dough-faces and the “forgive and forget” sentimentalists are largely responsible for the manner in which the “relics of the lost cause” are nursing emblems of their treason and are still laboring to make the same respectable. In poor old Missouri they have societies called “Daughters of the Confederacy” whose invitations to their balls and receptions have a Confederate flag printed in colors on one corner; and the principal of the leading military school in that State [Alexander Frederick Fleet, Sr. of the Missouri Military Academy]…advertises the advantages of his school with the picture of a late major-general of the Rebel army in the uniform of a rebel, and this officer was a graduate of West Point, resigned from U.S. Army in 1861 and fought for the Confederacy.
This sort of thing is becoming too common and the President should call a halt and order the officer now on duty there to his regiment, and require the arms to be turned over to the ordnance officer at Jefferson Barracks. It is high time there was a law forbidding the Government of the United States from furnishing teachers’ ordnance, or in any way aiding any institution of learning which seeks to perpetuate the principles of or honor the so-called Confederate Government.
All these comments make you wonder what these guys would think about our debate over the Confederate flag 120 years later.
New York Times Columnist Charles M. Blow published a piece today on Memorial Day that I found simultaneously interesting yet slightly mistaken. He does correctly argue that a large majority of U.S. Congress members and Presidential candidates come from non-military backgrounds. Whereas 80 percent of lawmakers in 1977 had prior military service, only 18 percent have that same experience today. This discrepancy in turn raises questions about who does and who does not serve in today’s military: some families have generations of family members who serve their career in the military while the rich elites (including our elected leaders) avoid military service. “The public in general and the elected officials who have sanctioned and sustained our wars,” argues Blow, “have a diminishing personal stake on the battlefields.”
I think these points are valid, but I believe the problems in Blow’s op-ed are twofold. Both emerge with his assertion that “we [today] are drifting away from this tradition of honoring sacrifice [on Memorial Day].”
One issue with this claim is that Blow doesn’t tell us how Americans are drifting away from this supposed tradition of honoring our war dead on Memorial Day. If that claim is made simply because a small percentage of the population has served in the military, then I find that argument unconvincing. Surely one does not need to serve in the military to understand death and loss through military service. Just ask a non-military friend or family member of someone who’s died in the line of service over the past fifty years for perspective.
Secondly, arguing that there was a time in U.S. history–indeed, a tradition–in which Memorial Day was observed in a pure form without politics and wholly in the interest of honoring the war dead is naive and ahistorical. Memorial Day has always been a politically charged holiday subject to abuse by veterans and non-veterans alike who use the dead to promote their own agendas. Countless speakers have historically used Memorial Day and the war dead to advocate for anything from increased military spending to public education funding to Indy Car racing to baseball games to the ubiquitous “Memorial Day Weekend” sale of everything in between. Hell, even the political parties who are most responsible for our involvement in so many deadly conflicts exploit the war dead to sell cheap apparel to the party faithful at a discounted price during Memorial Day weekend.
The Gospel of Consumerism provides the fuel for the capitalist engine that gives life to Memorial Day weekend, and it has always been that way. Blow’s concerns today are not new: not long after General John Logan and the Grand Army of the Republic called for the decoration of Union solider graves throughout the U.S., Civil War veterans begin complaining about businesses looking to exploit the day for sport, vice, and capital. Indiana Civil War veteran and GAR member Ivan Walker complained in 1891 that the rest of society was already forgetting about its Civil War dead. “When Memorial Day was instituted by the Grand Army of the Republic it was not intended that it should be made a day of feasting, festivals, and fairs, nor that it should be given over to base ball and other sports, but it was set apart as a day sacred to the memory of our heroic dead.” Another Hoosier veteran, George W. Grubbs, asserted in 1904 that “The increasing perversion of Memorial Day in many places to mere pleasure, amusement, and frivolity, is a national shame. The apathy which countenances it is a sign of the decline of national gratitude and conscience. The time and hour is now to resolve that Memorial Day shall be held sacred to the high purpose of its institutions.”
These veterans would be sorely disappointed when the Indianapolis 500 began taking place on an annual basis on Memorial Day starting in 1911. Meanwhile, newspapers like the Indianapolis Star praised the 500 as a patriotic expression of gratitude to the Civil War dead while celebrating their own technologically advanced society and the blessings of “progress.” Memorial Day in Indianapolis and the rest of the country by the turn of the 20th century no longer focused on the past so much as it looked forward to the potential benefits of a Memorial Day marked by robust commercial activity.
It seems to me, then, that while the low number of Americans who actually serve in our U.S. military certainly contributes to a general apathy about the meaning of Memorial Day, I’d suggest that much of that apathy lies in our desire to turn history into a commodity for profit and progress – a happy story that opens up our wallets. As Robert Penn Warren argued in 1961 about the meaning of the Civil War in popular memory, “We are right to see power, prestige, and confidence as conditioned by the Civil War. But it is a very easy step to regard the War, therefore, as a jolly piece of luck only slightly disguised, part of our divinely instituted success story, and to think, in some shadowy corner of the mind, of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car with decent pick-up and roading capability” (49). Warren’s concerns are applicable to our views towards Memorial Day today.
Who do we honor and what do we prioritize on Memorial Day?
150 years ago today on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant and the United States military at Appomattox. Today does not mark the anniversary of the official end of the Civil War, as there were several other Confederate armies still in the field at that time, but the end of General Lee’s war signified the beginning of the Confederate States of America’s eventual demise.
Fifty years after the Appomattox Surrender an Indiana veteran put pen to paper and wrote a moving poem about the meaning of the Civil War and how the future of republican governance could have been imperiled had Grant surrendered to Lee. “Corporal” Bob Patterson was a veteran of the 19th and 20th Indiana Infantry Regiments and an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana after the war. He served as the Indiana GAR’s Senior Vice-Commander in 1895-1896 and dedicated this 1915 poem to his friend and fellow Indiana veteran Adelbert B. Crampton. I found this poem during my master’s thesis research on the Indiana GAR and publish it in full here.
On the great April day when the weak lines of gray
Were confronted by blue in battle array;
When the heart of the nation was throbbing with pain
For its dead and its dying, and the blood of its slain
Was flowing in crimson to the home and the hearth,
And vigils were kept by the nations of earth,
Could Sages then see what the future would be
When the great Grant and Lee met in the shade of the tree
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
So steadfast and true when these strong lines of blue
Stood in solid phalanx and resplendent review
Confronting the gray, and in matchless might
Was forcing the struggle for freedom and right,
When the hope of the nation in the balance lay
And hearts beat fast ‘neath the blue and gray;
Could prophets then see what the future would be
As these leaders strove the master to be
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
In that hour sublime could we know of the time
When slavery would blacken the brightest clime?
Could we tell of the flow of the nation’s blood
In the oncoming rush of secession’s red flood–
Of our own country unknown and unworthy to own
By subject or serf or monarch or throne?
Could philosophers see what the future would be
For the flag of the free on the land and the sea
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
O, the evils entailed had that moment failed
And the flag of the Union at Appomattox trailed!
If the shafts of chivalry had shattered the shield
Of the great Union chief on this hallowed field
And that proud Southern son had there made the terms
To emplant the Union with soul-eating germs,
God could only then see what the future would be
For the land of the free and the home of the brave
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
But the victory then sealed on that hallowed field
And the halo of glory that moment revealed
As the flag of the bold was seen to unfold
With the plaudits of nations in the gaze of the world;
Be it in shelter of house or shade of a tree;
The sages, prophets and philosophers could see
The guards of the Nation were there in avant
When angels in chorus all joined in the chant
While Robert E. Lee made surrender to Grant.
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).
I’m pleased to pass along to readers some good news on the writing/publishing front. Yesterday I received word from the folks at the Indiana Magazine of History that they have accepted an article manuscript I submitted to them last summer. It took years of research, writing, and seemingly endless edits and revisions to get to this point, but I feel great about the final product, which will be published in either late 2015 or early 2016.
The article analyzes the Grand Army of the Republic’s creation of Memorial Day after the Civil War and the ways the holiday’s meaning and purpose changed over time. More specifically I explore an untold story about the Indiana GAR and their vehement opposition to the annual Indianapolis 500 automobile race, which also took place on Memorial Day starting in 1911. I don’t want to give away much else at this point, but there are a lot of questions I raise about the relationship between Union veterans and the rest of civil society and whether or not younger generations have the right to mold and shape traditional commemorative holidays for their own purposes.
This article will be a fine conclusion of my studies on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana. I wrote a master’s thesis, presented several papers at conferences, and will now have two journal articles published about these guys. I’ve loved just about every minute of it, but it’s definitely time to start researching that next topic. I don’t have any concrete ideas for topics or a time table for getting the next project done, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled for new opportunities to contribute my perspective and scholarship.
Stay tuned for updates about this journal article later this year.
The folks at IUPUI ScholarWorks have finally digitized my master’s thesis on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic, which was completed back in May of this year. The IUPUI University Library runs ScholarWorks and strongly advocates open access policies that allow free public access to scholarship created by IUPUI graduate students. I heartily endorse these policies because I find the idea of dedicating two years of your life to a project that merely leads to a hardback copy of your thesis on the history department’s dusty bookshelf to be absurd.
If you’d like to view and/or download a PDF copy of the thesis, you may do so free of charge by clicking on the link here.