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?