BookChat with Brian Matthew Jordan, editor of The War Went On
Our Emerging Civil War colleague Brian Matthew Jordan has a new book hitting the shelves: The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans. The book is a collection of essays Brian co-edited with Evan Rothera (both of whom also contributed essays to the book), available from LSU Press.
Brian and I work together as co-editors of the Engaging the Civil War Series, published by Southern Illinois University Press. In 2017, he offered the keynote address at the ECW Symposium. He’s the author of a great book on the battle of South Mountain, Unholy Sabbath (Savas Beatie, 2012), and his Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (Liverlight, 2015) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History (read an interview I did with him about it). You can read Brian’s full ECW bio here.
1) You’ve spent a lot of your writing career thus far looking at the lives of Civil War veterans and their roles in and impact on American society. What got you interested in the topic in the first place?
I grew up in Akron, Ohio, and as a young member of several local Civil War Round Tables became acquainted with J. Gary Dillon. Mr. Dillon was a life-long Civil War enthusiast, and he spent much of his youth crisscrossing the Midwest in search of some of the last survivors of the Union armies. He spent time with Alvin Smith, Ohio’s last surviving African-American veteran (who could still recall with precision the price his mother had fetched on the Richmond auction block); with “Uncle Dan” Clingaman, who attended the 1938 Blue-Gray reunion in Gettysburg (and even presented Gary with the program he’d received at the event); and, most impressively, Albert Woolson, the very last survivor of the Grand Army of the Republic, who passed away in August 1956 in Duluth, Minnesota, at the age of 109.
Gary would tell me stories about these wrinkled old soldiers puffing on their fat cigars. He was a living connection to the Civil War past, and he made this seemingly distant subject real and immediate for me. Gary lovingly maintained several oversized scrapbooks teeming with yellowed newspaper clippings of the “old boys”; he shared those volumes with me on many occasions.
When I went off to graduate school, I casted about for a dissertation topic and discovered that very little had been written about the everyday lived experiences of veterans. Very often, what had been written made veterans out to be somehow complicit in the triumph of an empty sectional reconciliation; it was strongly suggested in the previous literature that veterans squandered their victory. So I supposed you could say that an historiographical question blended naturally into my own biography. It seemed the men Gary Dillon revered but did not fully understand had no place in the literature. I set out to change that.
My scholarship has started to branch out into new directions, but at root, my central question remains unchanged: how did ordinary people wrestle with and make sense of their participation in a war that developed in scale, intensity, and consequences beyond what any one could have imagined?
2) Your work has gone much deeper than the familiar image of “veterans return to the battlefield for grand reunions and shake hands over the stone wall that once separated them” kind of thing. How do you think that deeper dive has helped us better understand the postwar impact of veterans?
?I hope by demonstrating how the war continued to annex these men’s lives in not insignificant ways—and that the personal was political. Their battle injuries and emotional scars proved metaphors for the nation’s wrenching road from civil war.
Decades ago, Gerald Linderman held that veterans slipped into “hibernation” for at least fifteen years after Appomattox—a period during which they allegedly “put away” the conflict. Historians too eagerly embraced that thesis, and have too often worked from the assumption that Union veterans were disengaged from or disinterested in the politics of Reconstruction. I argue that the tumult and tremors of Reconstruction not only complicated veterans’ transitions back to civilian life, but challenged them as much—if not more—than their experiences on the battlefield. If a keen sense of what was at stake in the conflict sustained men at war, that same knowledge or intuition rattled them during the peace. Union veterans looked on as their former enemies returned (often violently) to positions of power all across the South. They had to wonder if their sacrifices were worth it, or if they had actually won the war after all. Realizing that Union victory entailed much uncertainty helps us to recover a whole world that the “hibernation” thesis foreclosed.
3) According to LSU, “fundamental questions about the essential character of Civil War veteranhood remain unanswered.” How does this new collection of essays help answer some of those questions?
?By blazing some new paths and moving beyond some of the stale debates about the “dark turn” and the extent to which veterans were or were not damaged by their experiences. The volume includes the first essays on some important topics. Matt Hulbert’s piece is the first to think really seriously about guerrillas as veterans. Kelly Mezurek’s research into African Americans in state and local soldiers’ homes adds significantly to Don Shaffer’s superb study After the Glory (2004). Jonathan Neu offers us the first real study of GAR Memorial Halls, and Tyler Sperrazza contributes the first serious piece on veteran-authored plays as a genre. My own piece attempts to catalog where we have been and where we need to go.
4) The collection looks at the lives of “Union and Confederate veterans, African American veterans, former prisoners of war, amputees, and ex-guerrilla fighters.” That’s a huge range of experiences. Why do you think, then, that they’ve all sort of just been lumped into a single category of “Civil War veterans”?
?In part because the field is relatively new, and sweeping national studies often precede more specialized monographs. We also have a tendency to shoehorn soldiers and veterans into categories that service our larger arguments about combat motivation, political ideology, or Civil War memory. Jason Phillips has a wonderful essay about this proclivity called ‘Battling Stereotypes.’ Further, subtitles always make sweeping claims that can’t really be supported. My last book, for instance, describes experiences of veterans who did not fit easily back into postwar society; it represents an important reality of Civil War veteranhood, but in no way speaks for all Union veterans. The public demands simplicity, but history never fits on a bumper sticker.
5) You’ve assembled quite a team of contributors. How did you go about recruiting and selecting the essays?
Evan Rothera (my co-editor) and I wanted to approach this volume in a somewhat unconventional way. Rather than recruit scholars who work primarily in the space of veterans’ studies, we selected historians from other subfields to think about how their work intersects with (or can enrich) the history of Civil War veteranhood. We invited, to provide only a few examples, an art historian, an historian of disability, a theater historian, a Lincoln scholar, a historian of political culture, and a student of the guerrilla war. It was a bold experiment, but I think it worked in the end. We did not hold the contributors to any precepts; instead, the themes of the book emerged organically. That’s about as good as it gets!
6) One section is called “rejecting hibernation.” You demonstrate that veterans didn’t just go home and quietly live their lives but, instead, often put themselves out there. What collective impact did that have? (And have we forgotten that there was a collective impact in our tendency to simplify memory?)
Historians too often think about memory in schematic ways. Whenever we use the word “memory,” we think about reunions, Memorial Day speeches, monument dedications, ?works of art, and unit histories. Obviously these are each important sites of memory, but the whole notion of remembrance is much more capacious. Civil War memory was also a lived experience. Every time a veteran felt a throb, twinge, or sting; every time he negotiated with the Pension Bureau, or was subjected to an invasive medical examination; every time he depended upon another for aid or assistance—he was experiencing Civil War memory. One thing I hope my work has achieved is to show the ordinary ways in which the war continued to annex everyday life for its participants. Every veteran faced the problem of memory and unique challenges of readjustment. The war was not something easily escaped or willed away. ?Hibernation was not really possible for these men. In their own lifetime, Union veterans lost the battle for Civil War memory. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The war’s memory was contested at every turn.
7) Buffs are familiar with the many writing projects veterans undertook, from soldier memoirs to unit histories to literary societies to presentations before fraternal societies. The section “Narrating the Past” looks at how complicated and nuanced that all was. Can you comment on that?
?I think what emerges most plainly is that Civil War veterans became keen students of the past and diligent historians in their own right—attentive to problems of method and questions of craft. As soldiers, they understood implicitly that they were participating in history. As veterans, they sought context and meaning in part by producing history—sorting through what standing on this ridge or that ripple of ground actually meant in the larger scheme of the war.
Edmund Wilson, Daniel Aaron, and other literary scholars have famously lamented that the Civil War was the “unwritten war”; they have puzzled over why the conflict did not produce great works of literature. What too many scholars have missed is that the war produced great history, and that much of it flowed forth from the pens of veterans themselves. They rummaged the Official Records, collected material from regimental comrades, corresponded with veterans of neighboring regiments, and “fought the war over” in the columns of the National Tribune. One project that Evan and I would like to take up in the future is the question of how the Civil War promoted new ideas about history and the historian’s craft. Veterans were central to these developments.
8) I love the phrase “multivocality,” which the essays address in the final section. How did you employ that idea?
?I think this is really one of the most important take-aways from the book. Too often, without even thinking, we write of “the veteran experience,” when of course there were millions of veterans’ experiences. From wartime itineraries and experiences to prewar lives, political stripes, and postwar biographies, each veteran experienced the transition to peace in his own way. This collection points to some of those unique experiences—African American veteranhood, ex-prisoners of war, ex-guerrillas, and Unionists are highlighted.
9) Is there anything I haven’t asked you that I should have?
I think that covers it. It was a pleasure to publish this book with LSU Press, and to work with such a stellar cast of contributors. Each one produced an exceptional essay, and Evan and I are proud to bring their work to a wider audience.
Here’s a look at the book’s table of contents:
The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans (LSU Press, 2020)
Introduction—Evan C. Rothera and Brian Matthew Jordan
“Let Us Charge the Enemy Home”: Army of the Potomac Veterans and Public Partisanship, 1864–1880—Zachery A. Fry
“The Men Are Understood to Have Been Generally Americans, in the Employ of the Liberal Government”: Civil War Veterans and Mexico, 1865–1867—Evan C. Rothera
Civil War Veteran Colonies in the Western Frontier—Kurt Hackemer
The Trials of Frank James: Guerrilla Veteranhood and the Double Edge of Wartime Notoriety—Matthew Christopher Hulbert
Speaking for Themselves: Disabled Veterans and Civil War Medical Photography—Sarah Handley-Cousins
Narrating the Past
Remembering “That Dark Episode”: Union and Confederate Ex-Prisoners of War and Their Captivity Narratives—Angela M. Riotto
“Exposing False History”: The Voice of the Union Veteran in the Pages of the National Tribune—Steven E. Sodergren
“It Is Natural That Each Comrade Should Think His Corps the Best”: Sheridan’s Veterans Refight the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign—Jonathan A. Noyalas
A Building Very Useful: The Grand Army Memorial Hall in US Civic Life, 1880–1920—Jonathan D. Neu
Veterans at the Footlights: Unionism and White Supremacy in the Theater of the Grand Army of the Republic—Tyler Sperrazza
The Multivocality of Civil War Veteranhood
“Our Beloved Father Abraham”: African American Civil War Veterans and Abraham Lincoln in War and Memory—Matthew D. Norman
“The Colored Veteran Soldiers Should Receive the Same Tender Care”: Soldiers’ Homes, Race, and the Post–Civil War Midwest—Kelly D. Mezurek
Lost to the Lost Cause: Arkansas’s Union Veterans—Rebecca Howard
Loyal Deserters and the Veterans Who Weren’t: Pension Fraud in Lost Cause Memory—Adam H. Domby
Veterans in New Fields: Directions for Future Scholarship on Civil War Veterans—Brian Matthew Jordan
2 Responses to BookChat with Brian Matthew Jordan, editor of The War Went On
The unasked, but easily answered question, is why the Union veterans allegedly lost the “memory” war. And the uncomfortable but logical answer is that they ultimately cared less. The white southern veterans were daily surrounded by the physical and social ruin of their society. Anger and guilt are amazingly strong motivational forces, for good and ill. Up north, there was the Industrial Age in full bloom, and opportunities there and in the West, without the daily reminders in burned farms, levelled cites, twisted railroads, blown bridges of failure.
Very true John, there was no Marshall Plan to help them rebuild, only 12 years of so called reconstruction with a boot on their neck.