A Few Thoughts About Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home

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.

20 comments… add one
  • Don Shaffer Dec 29, 2014

    Hi Kevin. At the risk of seeming arrogant and presumptuous, maybe one of the reasons that people like Jordan leave out African Americans is due to the strength of the scholarship on black Civil War veterans from people like Barb and me. But your point is well taken on the apparent absence of black veterans from Jordan’s book. Barb and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything when it comes to the African-American vets, and I’d love to have good scholars like Jordan weigh in on those issues with fresh perspectives. I’ll be reading Keith Harris’ book soon for a review, so hopefully he’ll have some useful things to say in that regard. In any case, thanks for reminding me about Jordan’s book.

    Don

    • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2014

      Hi Don,

      Thanks for the comment, though I am not sure I follow. The scholarship on white and black Civil War veterans is extensive, but that hasn’t nor should it prevent Jordan from weighing in. It’s a curious admission since all of the challenges that white veterans face in Jordan’s narrative can be claimed by their black comrades as well. Of course, Jordan is well aware of this scholarship and I am sure he has a very good reason for excluding black veterans from his narrative. He may have said something in the endnotes, which as I stated in the post, I have not yet had a chance to peruse. Happy Holiday.

  • Wayne W. S. Hsieh Dec 29, 2014

    As it turns out, I don’t think it necessarily needs to affect the argument of Jordan’s book (which I haven’t seen yet–although I liked the conference paper he gave on a panel I was a part of), but I really hope that Civil War historians do NOT only (or even mainly) think of victims and suffering when they think of American veterans of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2014

      Hi Wayne. I am not suggesting that it should either. It is an excellent book. I asked out of curiosity given that the kinds of hardships faced by white veterans would have been faced by their black comrades as well. The men who marched home were white and black.

      Your final point is one that ought to be addressed by historians whose focus and analysis are informed by Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Wayne W. S. Hsieh Dec 29, 2014

    From what I’ve seen, Jordan possesses an uncommonly graceful pen, and he won the big dissertation prize at Yale, so I have high expectations for his book, regardless of whatever framing devices he uses.

    But as you point out, some Civil War historians such as Stephen Berry very openly reference recent American wars, to the point where this seems to be a real historiographical trend… and I just don’t see the value of that. The implication seems to be that the various frustrations of Iraq and Afghanistan allow historians to view the Civil War in a more realistic light, but as far as I can tell, those historians don’t actually seem to… know all that much about recent American military operations beyond over-simplified rhetorical tropes about PTSD, trauma, and veterans as victims–all cultural constructs to some degree specific to certain social and academic environments. It’s not that trauma from both wars past and present don’t exist–of course it does–but a friend of mine who’s done two tours in Afghanistan jokes that what he should do is get out of the Marine Corps, live as a homeless guy for a year, and then cash in with a big book deal–because that whole experience would so easily play into pre-conceived narratives as veterans as damaged victims. But hardly anyone would buy a book about making the Marine Corps a long term career, or leaving for the service for a productive career doing whatever, because it wouldn’t fit into certain cultural boxes that sell books and get attention.

    As someone who actually went through page proofs of a book on the Civil War (among other things) while serving as a lone State Dept political officer attached to a military unit in Iraq, but who never referenced the “Long War” beyond the preface, this new historiographical tendency can be disquieting. And it deserves to be questioned and, I dare say it, criticized. Although this admittedly is probably not the best place to do that at great length.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2014

      This would make for a great topic for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s “Professional Notes” section.

  • Bruce Vail Dec 30, 2014

    So is Wayne Hsieh objecting to the depiction of Civil War veteran as victim because he dislikes the similar depiction of the Vietnam/Afghanistan/Iraq veteran in popular culture?

    I haven’t read the book, but I’m intrigued.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2014

      I can’t speak for Wayne. I think it is hard to argue that our recent overseas military ventures have not impacted Civil War studies. It’s no doubt helped us to focus on aspects of the veterans’ experience that have been ignored. That said, I have wondered on this blog whether our own perceptions of veterans from these wars have, to some extent, distorted the history. Part of the challenge has to do with the available sources. How many veterans simply melted back into society with little difficulty or even thrived as a result of their war experience?

      As for Brian’s book, I highly recommend it.

    • Jerry McKenzie Dec 30, 2014

      I am not surprised as we tend to look at history thru our modern eyes. Current events and experiences shape what is seen in the present and in the past, hence history is never dead (to paraphrase Faulkner).

  • Mike Musick Dec 30, 2014

    With respect to Union veterans choosing to hold on to their weapons, the absence of African Americans in the book may be especially pertinent, in that those returning to homes in the South would be in a better position for self-defense if armed. This seems a reasonable decision under the circumstances.

  • Brian Matthew Jordan Dec 30, 2014

    Hi, Kevin,

    Thanks so much for your kind comments about Marching Home. Coming from you, it truly means a lot.
    My exclusion of African-American veterans was, as you suspected, a deliberate choice – although one I wrestled with at great length. While casting around for a dissertation topic, I was struck by Julian Scott’s striking (and, regrettably, relatively little known) painting, “Going Home.” It depicts a knot of Union veterans — some leaning into crutches, others bandaged, but all touched by the experience of the war –- marching home alongside a man who is presumably a newly freed slave. It’s a powerful painting – perhaps my favorite artistic depiction that emerged from the war. I have much more to say about it –- and probably will once I am done with old Beast Butler. Nonetheless, I realized very early in the research process that the complicated relationship between white and black veterans was not my story.
    Rather, my story is how the cultural project of sectional reconciliation had very real and sometimes tragic cost effects – not only for African-Americans, as my esteemed dissertation director and our friend David Blight made so evident – but for some ordinary white men, too. Reconciliation not only “excised” African-Americans from the Civil War narrative, but prevented Union veterans from receiving the care and feeding they so desperately needed from nineteenth century Americans. This was not the book I intended to write at all – indeed, I went off to Yale thinking I would challenge the very premise of the reconciliation paradigm. Instead, I found a powerful current of reconciliation among northern civilians, resisted at every step by Union veterans who needed their wounds bandaged, their bills paid, and their stories heard. In a forthcoming article in the JCWE, I will weigh in on Union veterans’ political attitudes toward the war in the immediate postwar period. In the book, however, I argue that all politics aside (and let me be clear that I think Keith and Carrie have Union veterans pretty close to perfect), the lived experience of veteranhood precluded the forgetfulness that society demanded.
    So why leave out African Americans who marched home? I might have considered them in a chapter – identifying African Americans as a cohort of veterans with very specific issues, like ex-POWs and amputees – but that seemed gratuitous. If threaded into the narrative, there were other problems. For one, the source material simply would not have allowed me to recover black voices in the immediate postwar period – or at least in proportion to my recovery of white veterans’ voices. That was a big problem. Second, I felt that black veterans would have unnecessarily complicated the argument about reconciliation. The book seeks to expose a society ideologically ill equipped to cope with the aftermath of an unprecedented war. Few would be surprised to learn that white northern civilians discarded black veterans after the war — the revelation is in their treatment of white veterans. (On that note, where does racism stop and reconciliation begin?) I suppose I might have juxtaposed black veterans (mostly revered by black civilians) with white veterans (mostly rejected by the white civilians) as a telling study in contrast. Still, that ground has been covered (and covered well) by Don Shaffer’s book. I admire Don’s book (and Barb Gannon’s book) very much. Finally, African American veterans had some very different reasons for remembering the war – in their case, the political more often than not trumped the personal.
    I hope that sheds some light on my decisions – it’s a subtly argued book, and one that aspires to reach and communicate with a wide public audience. Your comments and critiques are very welcome – hope we can continue the conversation in person the next time you are down here!

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2014

      Hi Brian,

      So nice to hear from you and Happy Holidays. I don’t mind saying again just how much I enjoyed your book. Started it on Sunday night and finished it late yesterday afternoon.

      Thanks for clarifying your decision to steer clear of black veterans. Having had to deal with similar issues in my own ms. I can certainly appreciate the challenges you reference. It would have been difficult to highlight individual stories of African Americans adjusting to postwar life without engaging in the complex ways in which white and black veterans interacted.

      This was not the book I intended to write at all – indeed, I went off to Yale thinking I would challenge the very premise of the reconciliation paradigm. Instead, I found a powerful current of reconciliation among northern civilians, resisted at every step by Union veterans who needed their wounds bandaged, their bills paid, and their stories heard.

      Thanks for pointing this out. I noticed it as well midway through reading and at first it through me for a loop given the conversations we’ve had over the years about the direction of memory studies. I find the distinction between veterans and civilians to be very helpful, especially in trying to understand why the “reconciliationist” narrative remains so potent.

      Few would be surprised to learn that white northern civilians discarded black veterans after the war — the revelation is in their treatment of white veterans.

      I agree, though I wonder to what extent your readers (beyond academia) are aware of it. Again, these are difficult decisions.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write. All my best to you and Allison in the new year. See you in a few months.

  • Jason Baum Dec 30, 2014

    Kevin,

    Do you know of anyone that has ever looked into the opposite end of the spectrum from trauma and looked into those who came away from the war loving/admiring their experience? Most veterans who did transition back into civilian life were proud of this service, but I can’t say I have ever seen much written about those who remained lured by the glory of war.

    I am a graduate student focusing on Museum Studies, but the content I am most interested in presenting is War and Culture in America. I also served as an Intelligence Officer in the Army with a deployment to Afghanistan. From my individual experience, I have worked with more soldiers who are drawn to war than repelled by it (this in itself is probably a skewed perspective because soldiers who hate their experience likely leave the army), which triggers a broader question outside of the Civil War. What is the key piece that can cause soldiers to come away from combat with such different reactions? (either suffering long lasting trauma, experiencing no major effects, or enjoying the experience) Is this something that Jordan addresses or saw in his research?

  • John Heiser Dec 31, 2014

    A great recommendation! I’ve had the opportunity to read several chapters of Dr. Jordan’s book and it is a fascinating study of an aspect of the Civil War that has never been fully addressed and would go so far as to say it is one of the most important studies of the Civil War experience to come out in several years. Like you, Kevin, I was curious as to the absence of the experiences of USCT veterans but I think Brian explains that fairly well in his comments here. But I would argue that there is a definite relationship between what we know as PTSD experienced by Civil War veterans and those who have served in the numerous wars since; it was just never discussed in such detail and not fully recognized until Vietnam. Several cases I found in the narrative were troubled veterans who medicated themselves with alcohol and opiates resulting in broken marriages and homelessness- the exact case of a great-great grandfather of mine who served in the 173rd New York Infantry- definite similarities in cases for troubled vets of all of our wars, though we have made better efforts today to understand the effect that combat, and military service alone, can have on an individual. The only difference between the Civil War and today is the method of warfare and how the condition is treated by fellow veterans, support groups, and the VA. I also believe, after interviewing and talking with veterans of all of our “modern” wars (including World War I), that there is a distinctive pride in one’s perception that the war they fought in was THE experience like no other and no one, outside of their combat buddies, can ever competently evaluate, compare, or understand their experiences with a soldier who served in a subsequent war or combat operation, including Iraq and Afghanistan. It maybe this comparison Dr. Jordan makes that some readers will argue about but his narrative is quite convincing that there are parallels in the human experience in war that scarred veterans for life. It has just taken historians 100 years or so to recognize and delve into this issue with Union veterans.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 31, 2014

      Hi John. Nice to hear from you and Happy New Year.

      Let me be clear that I am in no way denying that Civil War soldiers suffered from what we now call PTSD. At this stage in the game that would be foolish, though I do believe that we ought to be careful when interpreting the sources. Brian certainly does a first-rate job on that score. My concern (and I suspect it is Wayne’s as well) is that we may be going too far in our characterizing of the Civil War generation as maladjusted and disturbed middle-aged men, who as a group failed to adjust to civilian life.

      At the same time I agree with you that recent studies, including Brian’s, have taught us a lot about the lives of veterans.

  • Buck Buchanan Dec 31, 2014

    Kevin, et al,

    First Happy Holidays and thanks for another great year of blogging, Kevin.

    As to the questions of the impacts of the current wars on Civil War wrtings….could it be that so few of the historians of today, much like most of the general population, are not veterans?

    That is not meant as a shot at them, btw.

    I have the honor(?) of having been an Infantry officer up through company command and served at staffs up to Army level. I know my views when I read ACW works is viewed throguh that lens. While I never was in combat I know what it means to soldier, how soldiers react and behave and how doctrine and tactics translate into action on the ground.

    Consider much of the historiography of the Second World War was written by veterans…the Army’s Green Book series comes to mind. But with the exceptions of recent ghost written books any new history is by nonparticipants.

    Perhaps historians today without that background of military service are reaching into the current events of today to gain a better understanding of the ACW battlefield?

    Again, not knocking anyone, but just thinking aloud on your blog.

  • Keith Harris Dec 31, 2014

    I am really looking forward to this book, and have been for some time now. I am particularly interested in how Brian gets at this – the notion of PTSD that is – and how that intersects with the movement for reconciliation. And thanks for the honorable mention.

  • John Chamless Jul 24, 2015

    I’m not so concerned about what a book leaves out unless it directly contradicts the main thesis. You always have to leave a lot out. And several books have delved into Union soldiers’ attitude toward slavery, how they became a driving force for emancipation because they realized the war would be endlessly repeated otherwise. I’ll admit to not being far into this book yet, but I’m already recommending it to friends from Vietnam.

  • Bryce Hartranft Aug 4, 2015

    I just finished Jordan’s book and I liked it a lot. I found the disdain of the veterans towards the Grand Review interesting considering how it is usually portrayed as a triumphant moment. I also enjoyed the stories of soldiers scuffling with ignorant civilians, especially the near riot that was broken up by Joe Hooker (what are the odds?).

    It was revealing to see that some of the same Union soldiers that had trudged through Georgia and all the nasty southern resentment that went along with that, ran into similar negative sentiments at home. The quote “there is no disguising it boys, the people are afraid of us. They heard many strange and bad stories about some of us while we were in the army, which have done us no good” puts a new face on the image of Sherman’s bummers. It seems that certain portions of the northern population were afraid they would have to re-title Henry Work’s famous song to “Marching Through the North.”

    I did wonder about the flip side of some of Jordan’s arguments. For example, his discussion of the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion being not as peaceful as many try to portray seemed to ignore possible positive stories. While there were concerns over confederate flags and disagreements about the UCV commander’s Lost Cause propaganda, it is doubtful that ruined the experience for everyone. For example, James Rada Jr.’s blog post for the PA 150 site mentioned a Confederate, who having slept in the same tent as Union soldiers, called them “right good people.” There was also the heartfelt reunion of Confederate A. C. Smith and the Union Soldier, R. N. Hamilton, that had saved his life. Two men that had been enemies 50 years to the day were now professed “brother[s].”

    I imagine that any positive interactions the GAR men had with Confederates would have had to have been on a personal level. Perhaps an analysis of union veterans’ personal interactions with Confederates compared with their political or policy positions on reconciliation could be an interesting topic to investigate. Along those lines, were there any GAR members that publicly broke from the anti-reconciliation position and openly supported positive relations with the South? If so, did they gain any headway at all?

    A thought I had throughout the book was how unfortunate it is that they did not have gallop polls back then so that we could get a broader understanding of the whole society’s attitudes. Not that polls are always accurate, but how interesting would it be to get a definite percentage of union soldiers that battled alcoholism? Or to know the unemployment rate amongst veterans? Or to track changing northern opinion on pensions throughout the decades?

    In any case, good book – I would recommend it. I usually stick to texts on individual battles where brigades or divisions are often the base unit of discussion, so it is nice to deviate down to an individual level with a book like this.

    James Rada Jr. Article: http://pacivilwar150.com/ThroughPeople/Soldiers/GettysburgVeterans

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