Monthly Archives: March 2012

Forgiving and Forgetting

“Forgiveness, which is voluntary,” writes the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit in his 2004 book The Ethics of Memory, “should not be tied to forgetting, which is involuntary.” Forgiveness, Margalit insists, should be understood as a process, not a statement of policy. “The decision to forgive is a decision to act in disregard of the injury. But as long as the offended one retains any scars from the injury, the forgiveness is not complete.” (Margalit, 203-205)

Could forgiveness be complete after four years of a bloody, fratricidal war that left thousands maimed and wounded?  Or did Union veterans share in an “ethics of memory” until the final roll call?  “That sickly sentiment which would have us believe that the soldiers on either side can ever forget the privations they have endured, the painful marches, the dreadful battle fields, their suffering in field, camp and prison, is more than foolish,” Union veteran C.D. Clark contended in an 1868 piece for The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Half Dime Tales, a literary magazine peddled by disabled ex-soldiers.  Writing in the Grand Army Journal, another blue-coated vet maintained that “the momentous events of the war . . . are too fresh in memory to be forgotten at the command of any party.”

Historians have long been captivated by the images of Union veterans extending their hands across the stonewall at the High Water Mark. This remarkable gesture of forgiveness, scholars assume, was a moment of profound historical forgetfulness.  What C.D. Clark and so many of his comrades quite eloquently suggest, however, is that forgiveness after the Civil War was not necessarily a statement of policy.  Again, forgiveness was voluntary; forgetting was not.

Of course, wars generate an array of memories, and some Union veterans by the war’s jubilee had embraced, in David Blight’s now famous formulation, “healing at the expense of justice.”  But one essential ingredient that made possible this “healing” was the reality that so many the war’s most unsettling reminders had, with the heavy hand of time, disappeared – making what veteran Frank H. Evans called “march to the Celestial land.” At the beginning of the new century, there were fewer and fewer veterans leaning on crutches, begging for spare change, and staring vacantly into space.   Forgiveness could be more complete indeed.

We need to interrogate the historical relationship between forgiving, forgetting, and sectional reconciliation.  What can we learn about Civil War memory by re-thinking forgiving and forgetting as discrete forces shaped by their specific, historical moment?

Tagged , ,

Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office

Check out this amazing sneak preview of Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office in Washington, D.C.  The National Museum of Civil War Medicine will announce on April 12 an arrangement with the General Services Administration to manage and interpret the site on Seventh Street where the “Angel of the Battlefield” responded to thousands of letters from wearied parents, siblings, and spouses yearning for information about the fate of their loved ones on the battlefield.

Neo-Revisionism is Alive and Well

This morning I picked up a copy of Andrew Delbanco’s provocative little book The Abolitionist Imagination, just out from Harvard University Press.  Delbanco opens the book with a probing essay that rethinks the abolitionists as an “adamant minority” of idealists who essentially rent the nation in the process of demanding slavery’s abolition.  There is much to digest (and much to disagree with) in Delbanco’s literary analytical essay, but near the conclusion, he writes:

Despite its vindicated righteousness, abolitionism still compels us to ask what is, alas, a perennial question: how much blood for how much good?  In retrospect, it is an easy question.  Most Americans today will not hesitate to say that the price of the Civil War, more than 600,000 dead and countless more maimed and mutilated, was well worth paying for the incipient freedom of four million.  But, a century and a half after the bloodbath, this kind of easy assent is also an easy form of self-commendation.  History is lived by people ignorant of the future, and surely it is a hubris of our own to dismiss all who, living in the darkness of the 1850s, made a different calculation.

Delbanco seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary scholarship in this respect.  It seems to me that in the politically polarized wake of 9-11, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we are now fully in the throes of a neo-revisionist turn in Civil War historiography.  Practioners of this “new” scholarship no longer share the racist presumptions of “needless war” scholars like J.G. Randall and Avery Craven; nonetheless, many recent works share revisionism’s fascination with the deadly and destructive character of the war.  The past decade has been devoted to making the “brother’s war” into a fratricidal one again.  Think of Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering; Daniel Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict; Fanny Nudelman’s John Brown’s Body; Harry Stout’s moral history of the Civil War; Jeff McClurken’s Take Care of the Living; and Jim Marten’s Sing Not War.  And, of course, who can forget J. David Hacker’s recent Civil War History article, revising upward the long-accepted casualty count of 620,000?  Scholars of my generation no longer find convincing the centennial generation’s reverence for the Civil War.  Delbanco certainly makes this point when discussing the neo-abolitionist school of reform historiography in his essay.  Thomas Brown’s recent anthology, Remixing The Civil War, meditates on this very question of the Civil War’s meaning for a post-modern, post-Civil Rights era.

What does this neo-revisionist turn signal for the future of the Civil War metanarrative?  Is neo-revisionism here to stay? Tom Brown seems to think that the Civil War will become increasingly irrelevant in the twenty-first century, a thesis I am not yet willing to embrace.  These are questions that I will be reflecting on in future posts.  In the meantime, go out and re-read “The Blundering Generation.”

Veterans, Civilians, and Civil War Memory

In the last decade, the memory “boom” has captivated Civil War scholars.  This work, however, too often intimates that sparring over the meaning of the war occurred in a dominion of competing images, cultural representations, and metaphors.  But for the war’s blue-coated survivors, memory was lived experience – an experience they could never forget, and one that northern civilians were helpless to understand.

One of the principal goals of When Billy Came Marching Home is to reorient the history of Civil War remembrance along a veteran-civilian axis.  The categories fashioned by the historian David Blight to sort competing memories of our fratricidal war – what he called the “emancipationist,” “reconciliationist,” and “white supremacist” visions – were useful in explaining how the national narrative of the Civil War was segregated, but stopped well short of explaining how that same story was, from almost the very beginning, sanitized. The sanitization of the Civil War narrative, much like its segregation, has a troubling history.

It begins with the indifference and incredulity displayed by so many northern civilians in the immediate aftermath of the war.  In 1867, for example, several one-armed soldiers who scraped out a living begging for spare change in New London, Connecticut, were ordered to vacate the city by Mayor Frederick Allen.  Similarly, civilians in New York City groused about “veteran impoliteness” when confronted by panhandling ex-soldiers.  In an impassioned speech on Boston Common, noted temperance advocate J.B. Merwin lamented that veterans were compelled to seek companionship and sympathy in saloons and grogshops.

We know too little about these confrontations and how they persisted into the late nineteenth century.   Understanding these intra-sectional clashes may help clarify that Union veterans rarely ambled willingly down the road to reunion – and that the real force behind reconciliation was a civilian one with important consequences for blue-coated ex-soldiers and their legacies.

Tagged , ,


Welcome to Grand Army Blog, an online forum devoted to exploring the lives of Union veterans, as well as their efforts to grapple with the meaning of the Civil War and the enormous costs it exacted.  This blog will feature highlights from my ongoing research project on blue-coated ex-soldiers, tentatively titled When Billy Came Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War.   This project has taken me on an extraordinary research journey to over forty archives in twenty-five states.  In future posts, I will discuss the scope and arguments of the project, which I am completing as a Ph.D. dissertation under the direction of historian David Blight at Yale University.

Inspired by friend and Civil War blogger-extraordinaire Kevin Levin, this site is intended to serve as a digital extension of When Billy Came Marching Home.  First, I want to create an online resource for exploring the neglected and troubled lives of Union veterans.  Second, I want to invite fellow students of the Civil War to share their own knowledge of the subject.  What I envision is a place to gather and analyze exciting new information about the legions of men who, for decades after Appomattox, stared vacantly into space, bandaged gunshot wounds yet weeping pus, continued to hear Minie balls tearing through limbs, and failed to exorcise from the deep recesses of their minds what they saw at Shiloh.

Especially during these sesquicentennial years, as a nation once again faced with returning warriors disabled in body and mind, I invite Civil War students of all stripes to contribute to our growing body of knowledge about veteran Billy Yank.   We need to understand more fully this dark corner of our Civil War past, and I hope this blog will facilitate fruitful discussions — not only about the consequences of our fratricidal conflict, but about what it means to return from war.

Tagged ,
%d bloggers like this: