Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day: Remembering the Grand Army of the Republic

Marching Home: Union Veterans and
Their Unending Civil War ,
by Brian Matthew Jordan

Veterans may find this book of particular interest. Like Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War and Michael C.C. Adams’ recent Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War, Marching Home presents a sobering vision of the Civil War and its lingering costs that challenges the glorified version of the war persistent in American historical memory. Veterans may recognize affinities between their own experiences and those of Union veterans-- familiar emotions and anger and, what seems the invariable lot of soldiers everywhere, the struggle to find meaning in their service, recognition of the true nature and costs of their sacrifices, and help in reintegrating into civilian society after the conflict.

Wounded Union soldiers at the Armory Square Hospital
in Washington, D.C. during the war

A reviewer of Marching Home has called it "the most deeply researched and analytically rich study of Union veterans ever written." It would be hard to disagree. Fully a third of this book consists of notes referencing the staggering number of sources Jordan reviewed. He has appended to those notes what must be the most comprehensive bibliography about Union veterans ever published. This kind of formidable research is what gives historical scholarship the power to revise our received understanding of events. It is in every way commensurate with Jordan's ambition, for Jordan disputes the largely accepted story of Union soldiers that has been written by previous historians. He quotes one of those historians, Gerald Linderman, as arguing that “once at home,” veterans “became subject to an acceleration of selective memory, that strong psychological propensity to suppress the painful...The mood of the country reinforced the veteran inclination to pay as little heed as possible to the memories of the war.” Linderman posits a period of “hibernation” from which Union veterans finally emerged in the 1880s by deploying “positive memories of the war” in the drive for sectional reconciliation.

Jordan’s extensive research has led him to a different understanding of the experience of Union veterans. He begins his narrative by giving us an account of the Grand Review of Union troops that marched through Washington the month after the conclusion of the war. It was the largest national celebration the Capitol had ever witnessed. Civilians lined the streets and cheered in review more than 200,000 Union soldiers as they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue (he notes that no black units had been invited to participate). Jordan artfully contrasts the motives and expressions of the civilian crowd--how they experienced the event and what meaning they found in it--with the thoughts of the marching soldiers as were expressed in their private letters and diaries. Soldiers saw the Grand Review as yet one more onerous duty to perform, one more delay in getting home, and they suspected that they were being celebrated by a population who did not understand the true nature of the war the soldiers had experienced.

The major support and advocacy group for Union veterans was the Grand Army
of the Republic. Here members meet at the annual Memorial Day Parade
in New York City, May 1922

Soldiers left with much regret the bonds they had established with their comrades and went home to towns and cities where the civilian population not only did not understand what they had gone through but were often deeply suspicious of those who had served. Union soldiers had developed a reputation for rough behavior and alcoholism. Many soldiers who served were from the poorer classes, some of whom had been purchased as “substitutes” to take the place of wealthy conscripts, and many volunteers who filled the ranks---especially those from large cities--- were from denigrated immigrant communities.

The political support for the war, too, had never been universal, and there were pockets of opposition in Copperhead communities throughout the North. Perhaps more importantly, there was an unease felt about the sheer numbers who had been in uniform: more than 2 million men, which was something wholly unprecedented in America, a country that had never had to mobilize such a force for a foreign war and that by tradition was suspicious of large standing armies. In a republic, it was felt, a large army was but a gathering coup d’├ętat. Civilians in a war-weary North wanted to put the war behind them as soon as possible, and yet now among them were massive numbers of displaced and maimed soldiers, a constant reminder of that war. The nation was wholly unprepared to deal with their needs, needs never imagined or anticipated on such a scale. The small operations of support immediately after the war for returning soldiers were quickly disbanded, and it was left to veterans to build the support organizations and networks they needed on their own and to lobby for federal support, soldiers’ homes, and pensions. However briefly “celebrated” at a safe remove they might have been, in real substantive terms there was a widespread public indifference to the plight of Union veterans. Veterans struggled to have their traumatic experiences in Southern prisons (such as Andersonville) understood, and they fought a federal bureaucracy for disability claims.

Union and Confederate Veterans from Pennsylvania and Virginia meet at Gettysburg
on the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1915. Photos of this sort were popular images
in the press, meant to show "reconciliation" between North and South,
but the author tells us they did not represent the feelings of most Union veterans.

Albert Woolson, who died in 1956 at
109 years of age, was the last surviving
Union veteran of the Civil War. He
joined the army as a drummer boy after
his father died of wounds he had received
at the battle of Shiloh.
Veterans confronted the public desire to “forget” the war, but the greatest frustration they would face, which they had to deal with for the rest of their lives, was not the  public's desire to forget but rather the tendency to dis-remember, a product of the national, seemingly tectonic, move toward reconciliation between the North and the South. It was an impetus that involved a romanticizing of the conflict, and one that celebrated the deeds and glory of soldiers on both sides. Reconciliation involved minimizing the causes and enmity of the war and ignoring its brutality and horrors. This widened the gulf between veterans and the rest of the nation. They found themselves in a country that they felt did not share their understanding of the meaning of the war or their commitment to the ideals of freedom and equality that Union veterans believed gave meaning to their sacrifice and suffering.

Many veterans demobilized with the fear that the rebellion was not finally finished, that they would have to take up the battle again in a few years. They also looked on with horror as Reconstruction was defeated in the South and freed slaves became once again an oppressed people. Magazines, novels, and popular culture focused on the “colorful” incidents and romance of battle, and photographs posed images of grizzled Union and Confederate veterans dining together and shaking hands at battlefield reunions. Such images might have served to build the desired--- perhaps required--- mythology of the nation, but they did not represent the feelings of most Union veterans, according to Jordan. For those veterans, feelings about the treason and perfidy of their enemy remained, and those feelings were augmented by a suspicion that their country did not understand what they had fought for nor what they had suffered, and would not hallow their cause.

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