Category Archives: Miscellaneous

“A Veteran’s Death, The Nation’s Shame”

My friend Ian Isherwood, a specialist of World War I who is currently teaching history at Gettysburg College, sent me a link to this article from the New York Times Sunday Review.  The article points out that on average, an American soldier dies every day and a half in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Veterans, however, take their lives at a staggering rate of one every eighty minutes.  Nearly 6,500 veteran suicides are reported each year.

 We are only now beginning to appreciate the realities of suicide after the American Civil War.  In tiny communities throughout the North in the immediate aftermath of Appomattox, veterans decided to escape the postwar once and for all.  Col. W.A. Cameron, an ex-artillerist who was “at times deranged in consequence of a wound received while in the army,” succeeded in taking his own life in Cincinnati. A bad leg wound similarly depressed Horace Acker, the veteran of a New York regiment who took to wandering after the war and somehow made his way to Hillsdale, Michigan. One Sunday afternoon, Acker found a tree near the barn of one George Merritt and hanged himself with a rope. “His wound troubled him so much that he could not work, and being without means to live on, with no friends able to provide for him, he became low-spirited and despondent.” The inquest determined that this “no doubt caused him to take this rash step.” Chillingly, one Hoosier veteran who wrote an editorial about the incident suggested that there were few among a generally scornful and “suspicious” citizenry who would have done anything to save Acker’s life — hyperbole that nonetheless revealed his intense distrust of civilians and feelings of isolation.

In November 1865, Philadelphia police discovered the body of Herman Powell, writhing in mortal agony beside a recently discharged carbine, in the dank Walnut Street basement where the ex-cavalryman boarded. A neighbor reported that Powell was insolvent and “had no money to buy food.” The fifteen cents found in his pocket and a suicide note confirmed the neighbor’s report. Described as “insane,” one Massachusetts veteran placed his army discharge papers on his person as a surrogate suicide letter before ingesting a lethal dose of rat poison, while in New York City, a disturbed ex-soldier donned his blue uniform one last time and waited on the tracks of the Hudson River Railroad for an oncoming Poughkeepsie Express locomotive to crush his body.

The pain of readjustment that confronts the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has a long, tortured, and painful history.  Wars do not simply end; they haunt, they vex, and they linger.

Marcus L. Ward, “The Soldier’s Friend”

Well, I survived my qualifying exams and am a newly minted Ph.D. candidate.  So I will not only be back to my regular posting here at Grand Army Blog, but will now be working on “When Billy Came Marching Home” full time.  Indeed, tomorrow morning I am off to Newark, New Jersey, to examine the Marcus Lawrence Ward Papers at the New Jersey Historical Society.  Ward, who served as New Jersey’s twenty first governor from 1866 to 1869, was known after the war as “The Soldier’s Friend.”  He devoted much of his public life to laboring on behalf of Union veterans and their families, operating “Marcus L. Ward’s Office for Soldiers” in Room No. 2 of Newark’s Post Office Building.  Veterans throughout New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic region wrote heartrending letters to Ward seeking pecuniary support, aid with pension claims, or assistance with housing.  The governor also played a key role in establishing the New Jersey State Soldier’s Home, which housed hundreds of physically and mentally scarred ex-soldiers.

Thank you for your patience this past week.  It is good to be back.


Oral Exams Loom

Greetings, Grand Army Blog followers.

There will be a brief hiatus in posting this week as I make some final preparations for my Ph.D. qualifying exams.  Next Tuesday, April 17, I will take the two-hour oral exam with advisors David Blight, Joanne Freeman, and Bruno Cabanes, covering about 250 titles and three centuries of U.S. history and historiography.  This is a ritual that is at once arcane and eminently useful.  Learning how to synthesize huge chunks of material into two or three minute sound bytes is, unfortunately, so much of what we do in this profession.  Semester long surveys of U.S. history, for example, might allow the instructor to discuss Reconstruction in one or two lectures.  The qualifying exam is as much a test of one’s ability to craft a convincing meta-narrative as it is an exercise in mastering dates, arguments, and interpretive impasses.

Once the exam is behind me, I will be back to regular posts and will be able to think about Union veterans and Civil War memory full time.  Thank you for your understanding.

The Power of the Blogosphere

Hosting the Grand Army Blog has been incredibly exciting for me thus far.  For quite some time, I  contemplated the launch of a blog, but only after some recent prodding from Kevin Levin did I decide to give it a try.   What ultimately convinced me was Kevin waxing eloquently about the role that blogging played in shaping his questions and testing the conclusions that he was reaching in his own scholarship.  Indeed, Kevin’s forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory, which I eagerly await, may be the first academic monograph “written” on a blog.

After scarcely two weeks on the blog rolls, I now understand the power of this medium to inform scholarly work and historical research.  And I sincerely hope that other academic historians, who routinely lament the increasingly limited appeal of their work, will consider joining me in this enterprise. Ten posts have already generated nearly three-dozen comments from fellow students of Civil War history, including several source leads.  I have started a dialogue about the tension between veterans and civilians with a Ph.D. student in Pittsburgh that I likely would not have had otherwise.  And my work has reached readers as far away as Australia and the Philippines.

But the most meaningful exchange that I have had thus far is with Greg Taylor, a gentleman from California whose great-great grandfather saw action at the Crater, spent time in a rebel prison, wandered west after the war, became an alcoholic, and died in the San Francisco City Jail.

Greg has very generously shared with me several letters that his great-great grandfather wrote from San Francisco.  I not only plan on using these incredible sources in my dissertation, but I will be providing them here on the blog in the coming days.  I hope to contextualize the heartrending story of Greg’s ancestor and to share it with the wide audience that it deserves.  If I achieve nothing else here, I will have succeeded.

Thanks for following.

Restoring an African-American GAR Hall

Check out this Blog Talk Radio interview about the ongoing efforts to restore the Charles Sumner Post No. 25 GAR Hall in Kent County, Maryland.  The Sumner Post was an all-black post and African-American veterans constructed the building, which was completed in 1908.  Only one other GAR Hall erected by black veterans remains standing.

Last year, Barbara Gannon gave us a fine treatment of African-Americans in the Grand Army of the Republic, the nation’s first truly interracial fraternal organization.  Gannon insists that interracial bonds of comradeship, forged at places like Ft. Wagner and Olustee, survived the war intact.  I highly recommend her book, The Won Cause, which not only received a richly deserved Honorable Mention for the 2012 Lincoln Prize, but was a finalist for the Museum of the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis Award.   Barb’s book is one more in a growing list of titles challenging the “road to reunion” thesis.

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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.

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