Bloody Shirt Politics

This past weekend, I presented a paper about the lives of Union veterans at Drew University.  My friend Justin Causey, a fellow Gettysburg College graduate who is working on his Ph.D. with historian C. Wyatt Evans, planned the event, which was organized around the theme of “The Future of Civil War History.” Joining me on a panel about reimagining the boundaries of the Civil War metanarrative were friends and colleagues Evan Rothera of the Richards Center at Penn State and Matthew Norman, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.  

After our panel, the audience posed great questions.  One audience member asked a question that has been troubling me for quite some time.  If Union veterans were routinely marginalized and dismissed by postwar society, what, then, explains the effectiveness of the “bloody shirt” politics of the late 1860s and 1870s?  I do not yet have a convincing answer for this question.  Perhaps northern civilians were simply all too capable of separating a lingering disdain for what they perceived as a treasonous rebellion from any sustained effort to grapple with the horrific consequences of the war.  Or perhaps “waving the bloody shirt” was simply crass political opportunism, intended to sway the votes of veterans themselves, the most significant voting bloc in postwar America.  There is, of course, no shortage of scholars ready to point out the superficiality of bloody shirt rhetoric after the Civil War.  Indeed, one distinction I hope to draw in my dissertation is the difference between “waving the bloody shirt” and living with a bloody shirt.  For the many who fell into the latter category, the charged political rhetoric of the postwar period was no doubt just that – rhetoric.

Again, I am not really satisfied with any of these answers.  What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “Bloody Shirt Politics

  1. Vince says:

    Hi Brian,

    I’m very interested in the argument you’re trying to make. Is it published anywhere where I can see it laid out? Connecting your first couple posts with my informal community study of Lancaster, PA, I see Civil War veterans (as a group) highly influential in postwar politics and society in general. I don’t see them as marginalized by any metric I can think of, and they are even over-represented by some metrics such as local political offices held through 1900 or so.

    For the Bloody Shirt era, which I find to be the most interesting chapter of Civil War memory, I see it as the natural continuation of a politically energized army. Many soldiers (at least those from Pennsylvania with Gov. Curtin up for reelection) cared deeply about the election of 1863 and actively tried to influence the election at home, and this of course continued with the presidential election in 1864. I think Mark Neely described this as the “Republicanization” of the Union Army. When the war ended and the soldiers went home, the energy was unleashed on elections in the years after the war through various means and movements, such as the widespread “Soldiers and Sailors” political conventions and clubs.

    • Thanks for the reply. I would be happy to send you a copy of the paper I presented this weekend at Drew, which makes the case for marginalization. And of course I will be posting more of my evidence here on the blog. One only needs to read postwar veterans’ newspapers to sense their feelings of isolation and detachment; read their diaries and letters at the end of the war as they were terrified about the return home; read civilians newspaper editorials frightened at the prospect of returning soldiers; read veterans’ reunion minutes during the drawn-out struggle to secure pensions; and document the destitution, suffering, alcoholism, in the various wards of the NHDVS.

      I certainly agree with you that in many areas, Civil War veterans were influential in postwar politics (and indeed, as you point out, “over-represented” by some metrics in local political offices). But this may say more about the partisan maneuvering of the Republican Party and less about society’s attitude and understanding of veterans. And, of course, the election of veterans to local office doesn’t tell us much about how veterans internalized the experiences of the war and felt isolated from civilian society. Think about Vietnam veterans. There are plenty who have been elected to high office, but they were certainly marginalized from society and cast aside as strangers at home (even if some of the tales of immediate postwar hostility are hyperbolic).

      Marginalization was more widespread than we have ever imagined before, but certainly not the only experience of veterans. Perhaps the real triumph of the bloody shirt wavers came at the expense of less fortunate veterans who have never occupied a place in our public memory of the Civil War.

      • Vince says:

        Just sent an email to your Yale address so you can send me the paper. Thanks!

        Thinking back to the sources I’ve surveyed, I don’t think I’ve hit the right ones to say anything about destitution and suffering among veterans. A friend and accomplished genealogist did an incredibly in-depth census (currently on a 15-year holding pattern for publication) of all members of two PA Reserves companies. I’ll have to have a conversation with him about any trends he detected in their post-war years.

        Politically, though, I’ve inferred a somewhat different relationship among veterans in the Bloody Shirt Era. Rather than the subject of maneuvering by party elites, I see them more fully integrated into the Republican Party power structure. It may just be selection bias in the sources I’ve read, but thinking about Lancaster I don’t really see “partisan maneuvering” but more straightforward participation by vets in which they inherited political power. Here’s one of my favorite examples:

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