The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The future in Afghanistan may be key to the well-being of America’s soldiers

The peace is just as important as the war when it comes to the well-being of the soldiers who fought.

U.S. Marines watch a change-of-command ceremony in Shorab military camp in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 18, 2018. (Massoud Hossaini/AP)
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President Biden recently announced that the United States would withdraw its remaining soldiers from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, ending the United States’ longest-running war. As the New York Times detailed, this decision has provoked relief, anguish, frustration and regret among veterans of the war. And what happens next will in some ways shape how they remember their service. Will the peace agreement protect democracy and ensure the freedom of Afghans (especially women)? Or will it facilitate the Taliban’s return to power? The answers to these questions matter most to the people of Afghanistan. But the U.S. Civil War reminds us that they probably will also influence the health and happiness of American troops for years to come.

On April 9, 1865, near Appomattox Courthouse, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the rebel Army of Northern Virginia to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. While sporadic fighting continued for another month, Lee’s surrender effectively ended the Civil War. “I am so ‘happy’ I don’t know what to say,” First Michigan Infantryman William Smith wrote to his friends back home. “I can’t realize the turn of affairs,” he later wrote. “It all seems like a dream.”

But a week later, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, infuriating Northern veterans. After reading about Lincoln’s assassination, Charles Musser, a soldier in the 29th Iowa Infantry stationed in Alabama, wrote his father that “the whole south” would “curse the day that the diabolical murder was committed.” Musser noted that “the whole Army is enraged” and said the “bitter feelings toward the Rebbels are greater than ever.” Presciently, Musser observed that “we have but little confidence in President Johnson” — voicing a realization that while the fighting was over, the shape of the peace might have changed.

And Musser’s fears proved justified. Andrew Johnson was ill-suited for the moment, setting off a Reconstruction process that would rankle many Northern veterans who wondered what they had fought for. With Congress in recess, Johnson issued preliminary plans for Reconstruction. He offered blanket amnesty for regular soldiers and low-level Confederate officials. Even those not offered amnesty could apply for a presidential pardon. Fifteen thousand Southerners did just that. By 1866, Johnson had granted 7,000 pardons, while only one Confederate official was hanged: Henry Wirz, the hated commandant of the notorious Andersonville prison camp.

Union veterans were dismayed. In place of forgiveness, they demanded justice and punishment. Ezra D. Hiltz, a New York artilleryman who had lost an arm in the war, decried Johnson’s leniency. If Hiltz had had his way, he said, he “would not pardon rebels, especially the leaders” until they first supplicated themselves “in the dust of humiliation” and sincerely repented for the rebellion. Musser agreed, writing to his father that it was “wrong to retaliate upon the rebbels in the ranks” but that the “the leaders Should [sic] hang.” Most Black soldiers wanted punishment for the rebels, as well, but especially for enslavers. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an officer in the 33rd USCT, recalled: “I never heard one speak of the masters except as natural enemies.”

Ultimately, Johnson ignored these pleas. The leaders of the Confederacy went unpunished, and in 1868, Johnson even pardoned Lee and Jefferson Davis, the military and political leaders of the rebellion.

Union veterans fumed at the apparent forgiveness of the Confederates’ treason. A full 20 years after the war ended, in an 1887 memoir, three veterans from Illinois, Lucien Crocker, Henry Nourse and John G. Brown, still gushed with anger over it. They remembered marching toward the U.S. Capitol for the victory parade in May 1865 and mingling with former Confederates along the way who merely hoped the North would allow them to keep their homes and the right to carry out business. These Southerners, they said, had zero expectation of having “a voice in the management of the republic which they had fought so hard to destroy.” Yet, by 1887, those same former Confederates were back in power in statehouses throughout the South, as well as in Congress. As the three Union soldiers put it, “Our paroled prisoners have now equal voice with the patriotic victors in the control of the government against which they waged an unholy and bloody war, and for which their leaders have little love today.”

Even worse for many Union veterans, Johnson’s leniency, coupled with his refusal to take any meaningful action to protect formerly enslaved people, emboldened many White Southerners to deny the prospect of Black freedom. After Appomattox, many Union soldiers of both races believed their sweat and blood had purchased equality for formerly enslaved people. When the 62nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, disbanded in January 1866, Col. T.H. Barrett told the unit’s Black soldiers that “it is not the color which is hereafter to make the difference between men.” Instead, Black men had “an equal chance with the white man.” Barrett also urged Black soldiers to be leaders in their communities. “You who have been in the army must be instructors to those who have had no opportunity to emerge from the ignorance which the ‘barbarism of slavery’ has put upon your race,” Barrett said.

But emboldened Southern Whites defied these predictions. Many Southern legislatures passed Black codes, which resembled slavery in all but name. “I think the colered people are in a great many ways being outraged beyound humanity, houses have been tourn down from over the heades of women and Children,” wrote Calvin Holly, a Black soldier.

Radical Republicans in Congress tried to smother this defiance. They ended legal slavery, adopted birthright citizenship and prohibited using race as grounds to disqualify a man from voting through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Yet legal changes proved useless in the face of White Southern violence and terrorism. In the spring and summer of 1866, violent race riots erupted first in Memphis and then in New Orleans. Enraged mobs of White Southerners rampaged through Black neighborhoods and massacred African American civilians. Southern Whites also employed terrorism with shocking frequency. Black and White Republican voters suffered from intimidation and violence at the hands of vigilante groups such as the notorious Ku Klux Klan.

A decade and a half after Appomattox, biracial democracy collapsed in the South. Pockets of Black power existed in places like Wilmington, but for the most part, Black freedom had been crushed by white supremacy. The federal government and the White, Northern public had lost the appetite to maintain a biracial democracy and resist terrorism in the South.

All of this left many Union veterans embittered about what they had actually achieved in the war. “For months, I have read in your columns accounts of outrages upon white and colored Republicans,” one Union amputee wrote in a letter to the editor of the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean after the Colfax Massacre of 1873. He wished “that my good arm may not have been taken in vain.” While he was “willing to cease regrets for my losses during the rebellion,” he worried the country was being imperiled again. By pardoning the “traitors” whom the Union Army had “whipped,” he said, the former rebels were freed to resume use of the same tactics they had employed in 1861.

These fears proved all too true. Writing 30 years after the war, Union veteran John R. Kelso lamented the position African Americans had been left in. “But did we not, by means of this war, give freedom to the enslaved people of the south; and was not this one good result of the war?” Kelso asked. “No, we did not free the enslaved people of the South. We simply changed the form of their slavery from a bad to a worse.”

The lenient peace process that allowed most Confederates to go unpunished and enabled white supremacy to descend anew on the South left many Northern veterans bitter, anguished and frustrated. They had hoped to secure freedom for enslaved people and punishment for traitorous rebels; instead, they achieved neither. Combined with the continuing physical and psychological ailments incurred during the war, as well as the unstable postwar economy, that realization left Union veterans sometimes terribly upset over what the war had wrought.

The lessons for Afghanistan couldn’t be clearer. For the U.S. service members who shed blood, lost limbs and experienced trauma and horrors in Afghanistan, what becomes of the country will, in some sense, shape whether their sacrifices were worth making.