It is difficult to deny the influence that the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on recent scholarship about Civil War veterans and the broader genre of studies that now fall under the heading, “dark history.” In the preface to his new book, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Matthew Jordan makes this connection explicit:
But even today, as soldiers return home from new and more complex wars farther away and more difficult to imagine, we still have trouble seeing the pathos of American veteranhood. More than 26,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dwell in homeless shelters; thousands suffering from posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries have yielded to drugs and alcohol; divorce and suicide rates among recent veterans have reached record highs; and bureaucratic delays have kept some veterans waiting impatiently for promised benefits. These veterans, too, are fighting an unending war. And like their forebear in blue, they will ensure that debates over the meaning of war will be long, difficult, and complex.
Indeed, this short list of postwar maladies and challenges frames Jordan’s beautifully written and accessible book. [I started reading last night and finished late today.]
The narrative kicks off with the newly-minted Union veterans parading through Washington, D.C. in the Grand Review and ends with the death of the last veteran in 1956. From the beginning the men who fought to save the Union struggled to find a place in their own communities and in the hearts and memories of their countrymen. The demobilization of the army during the first few months following Appomattox revealed many of the problems that veterans would face during the postwar year. They drank, engaged in violence, and some chose to hold on to their weapons – all of which posed a threat to civilian authorities and threatened an overly idealized understanding of the citizen-soldier.
Once ensconced in their homes and communities, soldiers found it difficult not only to adjust to the demands of civilian life, including providing for their families, but in sharing their wartime experiences in a society that, once it carried out the requisite “welcome home parade,” quickly chose to move on and forget. Such a goal was impossible given the visual reminders of so many veterans with”empty sleeves” and a collective need to share the hardships of war that included grisly stories of captivity in places such as Andersonville.
The Civil War generation, in Jordan’s hands, was largely abandoned by their civilian counterparts. The proliferation of veterans’ organizations such as the G.A.R., the push for pensions, the surge of publications of wartime experiences and the establishment of soldiers’ homes by the turn of the twentieth century were all a function of the veterans’ need for recognition and support from a nation that was simply ill-prepared to handle the continued physical and psychological trauma on such a large scale.
There are a couple of things that took me by surprise in this book. While Jordan’s veterans express themselves eloquently on the place of slavery and union in their memories of why they fought the book does not offer a sustained analysis of their relative importance. Even more interesting, Jordan does not offer a detailed examination of soldier’s Civil War memory in the way that Caroline Janney and Keith Harris have done in recent studies. That said, the author makes it clear that Union veterans never sacrificed their ideals for the sake of sectional reconciliation. [Not having read through the endnotes, it is likely that Jordan offers additional thoughts on this scholarly debate.]
Perhaps Jordan will disagree with this characterization. Another way of saying this is that while Jordan does not ignore the political lives of veterans he is occupied primarily with the more immediate challenges associated with their physical and psychological survival and their place in a radically altered nation.
The biggest surprise and one that will likely be pointed out by other reviewers is the almost entire absence of African-American soldiers. This book is driven in large part by an extensive catalog of soldiers’ stories pulled from archives from across the country. I suspect that Jordan ran into the problem of how to integrate the few available written sources from black veterans into his narrative. Still, their absence is, at times, jarring, especially given recent work by Barbara Gannon, who has explored the extent of the interaction between white and black veterans in the G.A.R.
That’s it for now. No doubt, I will have more to say about this fine book once I’ve had the chance to think about it some more. Do yourself a favor and pre-order it today.