Gary W. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia and author of “The Union War.”
By Brian Matthew Jordan
Liveright. 374 pp. $28.95
More than 2.2 million men took up arms between 1861 and 1865 to suppress the Confederate rebellion. At least 360,000 perished in the conflict. The million still in uniform at war’s end, together with hundreds of thousands who had completed their enlistments and returned home, could claim a restored nation and emancipation as towering achievements. These Union soldiers have inspired a rich historical literature. Bell I. Wiley’s pioneering “The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union” (1952) established a genre that includes influential studies by, among others, James M. McPherson, Reid Mitchell and Chandra Manning.
“Marching Home” adds to this literature with a focus on Union veterans after the war. “For generations,” asserts Brian Matthew Jordan, a lecturer at Gettysburg College, “the presumption has been that the survivors of the Union armies beat a hasty retreat from the Civil War; that victory, unlike defeat, was essentially painless.” Using evidence from diaries, letters, pension records, regimental histories and other sources, he constructs a far darker narrative of veterans profoundly and permanently alienated from a civilian public that neither understood nor properly acknowledged their wartime sacrifice, damaged men who came to occupy a space “between the past and the present” and cast “a long and unwelcome shadow over a generation of Americans who were ideologically unprepared for the horrific consequences of the Civil War.”
Jordan makes a number of sound arguments. He reminds anyone who holds romantic notions about the Civil War that it left soldiers with physical and psychological scars. He highlights veterans’ reluctance to reconcile with former Rebels because this would undercut the conviction that soldiers in blue uniforms fought for an infinitely superior cause. “Marching Home” also brings into sharp relief the gulf — present in every war — that developed between soldiers and people on the home front who did not experience, and thus could not grasp, the reality of military service. Jordan surely is correct that “battle remained something imagined and — more often than not — idealized” among a Northern civilian population largely insulated from military campaigning.
Jordan’s handling of civilian behavior toward Union veterans amounts to an unsparing indictment. Widespread callousness consigned former soldiers to “a living ‘republic of suffering.’ . . . Suspended between the dead and the living, the rest of their days were disturbed by memories of the war.” He allocates considerable attention to amputees and former prisoners of war. “Legions of men missing arms and legs,” he contends, posed a special problem for civilians because “throbbing stumps weeping a foul brew of pus and blood were hardly an advertisement for the kind of glorious, sanitized war the public wanted to remember.” Ex-prisoners suffered “enduring psychological injuries” and sought help from comrades who had shared their wartime nightmare. But “while ex-prisoner-of-war associations sustained prison survivors, they had scarcely moved the hearts and minds of the northern public. If anything, ex-prisoner meetings contributed to even greater public suspicion and scorn.” A reluctant nation did create a pension system (though many Americans came to view it “as a problem — not a paradigm”), and national and state soldiers’ homes assisted some of the poorest and least functional veterans.
Former soldiers offered one another empathy and help. They created the Grand Army of the Republic , the largest veterans’ organization and an increasingly powerful lobbying group, which Jordan describes as “one of the most significant social-welfare organizations of the nineteenth century.” They also wrote memoirs and unit histories, gathered at reunions, and erected monuments on battlefields and elsewhere — all to keep alive the memory of their sacrifice.
Jordan’s otherwise compelling portrait of marginalized, alienated and broken veterans raises questions regarding context and proportion. 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. Moreover, veterans whose units had been relegated to occupation and other noncombat duty never really “saw the elephant” — and thus probably did not suffer lingering psychological trauma. Amputees numbered 25,000 to 30,000, or 1.4 to 1.7 percent of all veterans. Could such a small cohort, far from “legion” in number, have had much impact on the daily lives and attitudes of the American populace? As for pensions, they exceeded what most Western nations in the mid-19th century provided (the French were an exception), and efforts to game the system help explain why many Americans came to question elements of the program.
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.”
Readers will find in “Marching Home” a powerful exploration of how some Union veterans made the transition from military service to civilian life. Their experiences, however, should not be taken as typical. The story of the mass of their comrades awaits full treatment.