Review of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, by Brian Matthew Jordan
The devastation of the American Civil War is well known; casualties in that fraternal bloodbath exceeded 750,000 and the South was wrecked. Less known and understood is the toll the war exacted on the survivors. Often considered the “lucky” ones, thousands of veterans found their way home only to settle into obscurity and tedium. Of course, there were many who did not come home whole physically. They arrived on crutches and would bear the scar of war for the rest of their lives. And then there were the vets who seemed whole on first glance, but were far from well – suffering the lingering effects of disease, malnutrition, and/or mental illness. This is the story that is not often told; the tale of the Union soldier who would continue to battle for health, for livelihood, and for respect.
In an important and long overdue treatment of the problem, Brian Matthew Jordan relates the many struggles of Union veterans after the war in Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. Jordan’s unrelentingly sad and somewhat cynical book is a wonderful antidote for the fog of romanticism that clouds the public’s memory of the Civil War. In his preface, Jordan contends that veterans came home “afflicted with guilt, sorrow, and purposelessness…[it was] a task as onerous and demanding as any military campaign (3).”
Surveying the Grand Review in Washington, DC in May 1865, Jordan describes an atmosphere of celebration and jubilation – the crowds, the banners, the flowers, and the many dignitaries on hand for the joyous occasion. But underlying the veneer of cheerfulness, Jordan demonstrates that Union veterans were not all of the same mind. One Wisconsin veteran explained that “the magnificent display which so impressed the thousands who had not been in the war, was merely the last ordered duty in a long, arduous and deadly struggle in which they had triumphed and from which they were only too glad to get away (16).” Some were distressed at the imminent parting with long time mess mates. Others could not shake the depression caused by the loss of Lincoln at the hands of an assassin. Many longed for the romanticized version of home that they carried with them though the war. And, of course, the men contemplated what they would do now, feeling anxious about earning a living as a civilian. The notion that their work was not done also concerned the men. This aspect of demobilization, pervasive in the camps around Washington, is significant. Unlike the popular notion that the troops were anxious to get home and leave the war behind, Jordan shows that many men were not ready. One Ohio private wrote, “I am not in good humor with Rebles (sic) yet…they have caused too many [losses of] valuable life to be easily forgotten…I have something more to do yet (23).”
Finding issue with the notion that “the mood of the country reinforced the veteran inclination to pay as little heed as possible to the memories of the war (68),” as argued by historian Gerald Linderman, Jordan argues that “the determination of northern civilians to leave the war behind ensured that Union veterans could not (69).” Indeed they sought fraternity with their fellows with the creation of veterans’ organizations like the Grand Army of the Republic or the Old Soldiers Society in Iowa and the New Hampshire Grand Veteran League. After living for years in military camps with all the attendant sights and smells, and experiencing the sensory overload of “seeing the elephant,” former soldiers ached for a return to those heady days amidst the sensory dullness of civilian life. One such case was Oliver Perry Newberry of Missouri who recorded his failure to adjust to a life of peace. “Cool reason runs dethroned and anarchy and confusion reigns supreme where common sense should be the chief ruler (70),” Newberry wrote.
Far from putting the war behind them, veterans invented new holidays to remind them of distant glory. Some would mark the date of a particular battle, as the vets of the 23rd Ohio Infantry did for the Battle of South Mountain. Others found that public newspapers did not pay sufficient attention to the needs of former soldiers. To remedy this over forty veterans’ newspapers were founded, including the Soldier’s Friend and the Great Republic. The columns were soon filled with accounts of battle and the horrors of war. In part these columns were meant to demonstrate to those that never served that veterans were not just a bunch of whiners. An important theme running through Jordan’s book is that the northern public easily fell prey to the spirit of reconciliation and Lost Cause mythology. Union vets, as Jordan demonstrates, fought against this tide vehemently. This is reflected in the many veterans’ newspapers and magazines of the late 19th century. In answer to those who could celebrate the valor of both the Blue and the Gray, one veteran lamented “the enemies who now confront them are those of their own household, the ingrates who owe whatever prosperity they now enjoy to the value of the men who saved the Republic (77).”
One of the chapters in Jordan’s work, “Debt of Honor,” hit very close to home. Here Jordan recounted the battle waged by many veterans for pensions. Of the six of my great grandfathers that served in the Civil War – all wearing Union blue, four survived. Each of the survivors bore deep scars – physically, emotionally, and mentally. And all four would do battle with the Federal Pensions Office. In reading over hundreds of pension records, Jordan found that “they reveal the fierce determination with which veterans confronted both a cynical citizenry and a labyrinthine bureaucracy (152).” Worse yet, Jordan revealed that the “problem of the pensioner convinced many observers and policy-makers that Union veterans posed a genuine “threat” to the republic they once battled to save (152).” Despite the overwhelming evidence that many veterans were destitute and living in poverty, Congress, the Pensions Office, and the northern public saw pensions as a problem and tended to focus on the few cases of fraud. This notion led to reams and reams of red tape that placed an undue burden on the applicant. There was a presumption of attempted fraud, much akin to the idea that people might be guilty until proven innocent. As Jordan shows, too many times “questioning the character of the pensioner, the critics made their case: the Civil War veteran was a nuisance who only saddled the nation with debt and doleful memories (168).”
Sadly, it was not until after World War II those attitudes toward Union veterans began to change. “No longer menacing reminders of the nation’s rift, they were heroic symbols of what turned out to be a monumental turning point in American history (201).” In the afterglow of the war Americans could once again revel in the valor and sacrifice of the Civil War veteran – North and South. Still the causes of the Civil War faded into the background and it was stressed that both sides fought bravely for their causes. Great men were celebrated, especially Robert E. Lee, who was pronounced America’s greatest soldier. So while Union veterans, mostly dead by the post-World War II era, regained a measure of dignity the Lost Cause also saw a resurgence.
Jordan’s book is an important contribution to the scholarship of the life of Union soldiers after the war. It is honest and cynical, poetic and disturbing. Here is a brutal reminder of the realities of war and life after war. As we cope today with the many former soldiers of modern wars and their struggles against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other maladies, it is good to be reminded – as Lincoln did in 1864 – that we have an obligation to “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Jordan, Brian Matthew. Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2014).