Category Archives: Memory

Counting Costs

Yesterday the New York Times’ Science page featured an article about J. David Hacker’s recent study that has revised upward the long-accepted casualty count of 620,000.  This is well-deserved publicity for Hacker and for Civil War History, the leading scholarly journal in our field.  Hacker’s study reminds us that numbers are politics.  The quest to determine precisely the social impact of the Civil War is nothing new, however — something Hacker readily admits.  Such estimates consumed blue-coated ex-soldiers in the late nineteenth century, and as such Hacker joins distinguished company, including Union veterans Thomas Leonard Livermore, Thomas Brown, and William Fox.

Gustavus Gessner

Ex-prisoners of war were particularly determined to right the record books.  Perhaps nobody was more committed to the project than Ohio Union Ex-Prisoner of War Association President Gustavus Gessner, who maintained meticulous records of the dead by corresponding with other rebel prison pen survivors. Gessner became particularly incensed when Frederick Phisterer published his Statistical Record in 1883, a supplement to Scribner’s “Campaigns of the Civil War” series.  Phisterer neglected to include death tolls for several rebel prison hells – including Cahaba, Alabama; Florence, South Carolina; and Millen, Georgia.  “As I have held before, it should be the chief duty of the Prisoner of War Association to insist that these figures shall be corrected, or that there shall be an official admission at least of their gross inaccuracy,” he wrote to Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln. The National Association of Union Ex-Prisoners of War echoed with a resolution condemning Phisterer the following year.

By disputing mortality rates, survivors responded to those who sought to reconcile Civil War prisons.  “The most convincing proof of the truth of the story of . . . sufferings endured by the Union prisoners of war is the appalling death rate which prevailed in the various prisons of the South,” Gessner explained.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in the wake of a new generation of exciting scholarship that has reached beneath the sanitized narrative of Civil War to reveal new dimensions of human anguish, misery, and torment, we once again turn to numbers.  Somewhere,  Gustavus Gessner and his comrades are nodding approvingly.

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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?

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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.

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