part two of three
In April, ECW’s Brian Matthew Jordan received the news that his book, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, was selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. Last week, I posted the first part of an interview I did with Brian about the unexpected honor. I pick up the interview today by talking with him about the vast number of primary sources he had to sort through in writing the book. “I probably did not use maybe 80 percent of what I got,” he told me in part one.
CM: As you’ve spent time with these Civil War veterans through their letters, their diaries, their accounts, what was the most surprising thing to you?
BMJ: The most surprising thing, actually—well, two things. . . .
For the veterans themselves, it’s this sense, this urgency, in their immediate postwar writing that this thing wasn’t over. Yes, they were on the right side and, yes, they had won a military triumph on the battlefield, but even that military triumph on the battlefield hadn’t settled all the issues, and they were keenly aware of the unfinished social and political work of this war. And they were willing to remain a part of that conversation in the years and decades going forward. They did not come back and slip into hibernation and cede all authority over issues related to the war. They remained active, they remained engaged, and they understood that, if anything, Appomattox was halftime.
I think maybe I had understood that, but I didn’t understand to what degree that, in maybe a kind of self-effacing way, this was how they thought about the war: “Yes, we won, but it’s not over.”
The other surprising thing I found: I thought I was going to write a book that was going to directly challenge Blight’s Reconciliationist premise, that there was no real kind of “clasping hands across the stone wall,” that the north remained embittered, that sectional reconciliation never went unchallenged. The surprising thing I found was the veteran-civilian divide, where veterans, of course, had little interest in reconciliation, at least immediately in the aftermath of war. But northern civilians, even before the thing was over, were like, “Let bygones be bygones. We don’t want to hear about the war.” So, in kind of a silly way, I ended up reaffirming that civilian element of Blight’s thesis while also complicating it with those stories of the veterans. So, I didn’t expect to find that larger public drive for reconciliation to the extent that I did.
And really one of the main things I want people to take away from that is how we frame national conversations about war, the way a civilian public grabs ahold of a narrative of a war and sanitizes it and segregates it. That was just as problematic for the veterans as the haunting memory of the Mule Shoe or the leg they lost at Gettysburg.
CM: You mention an attempt to try to refute some of the things David Blight wrote. What was it like walking into the guy’s office and basically saying, “I want to write a book that disagrees with what you just said”?
BMJ: (Laughs) David Blight is a wonderful historian. He is a great friend, and he’s a scholar’s scholar.
He openly embraced that challenge right from the beginning. I wrote kind of a cheeky letter, when I was applying to graduate school, that said, “I’m going to write the book that refutes yours.” And he was on the admissions committee that year, and he told me from the very beginning, “Bring it on.”
And he became the biggest champion, saying, “You know, look, I didn’t get this part of the story right.” He was incredibly gracious that way. He never made me feel as though I was kind of backed into an intellectual corner or anything. He just embraced it, and I think he made it a better book for that. He shared a lot of his original research with me from Race and Reunion, which was amazing to see his process.
In retrospect, it was a cheeky thing for a fresh college graduate to do, and other scholars wouldn’t have put up with that, but he welcomed that from the very beginning.
CM: Well it looks like it turned out okay! (laughs)
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[In the final installment of the series, Brian and I talk more about his writing process and how his role as a historian relates to his role as a storyteller.]