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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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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Haunted By Gettysburg

Today, Grand Army Blog followers have the privilege of reading a guest post written by my wife, Allison, a public historian who specializes in the Civil War era.  Allison is currently a park ranger at the Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton, Connecticut, the only unit in the National Park Service system devoted to American painting.  Weir Farm was the home and studio of Julian Alden Weir, a noted nineteenth century American impressionist.  Over the past year, Allison has spent a good deal of time researching the Weir family’s connections to the Civil War.  She has uncovered some rich findings underlining just how deeply our fratricidal conflict touched “every heart and hearthstone” across the land.  Allison presents here the heartrending postwar tale of Julian Weir’s half-brother, an ex-artillerist hopelessly haunted by Gettysburg.  For those of you in Connecticut or the greater New York City area, Allison will be presenting a lecture, “A Brush With War: The Weir Family in the Civil War,” at Weir Farm NHS on Sunday, April 15, 2012, at 2:00pm.  All are invited to attend what promises to be a fascinating program.  

Shortly after dinner on July 18, 1886, Captain Gulian Verplanck Weir hurried upstairs to his bedroom in the officers’ quarters at Fort Hamilton, New York. The 48 year-old husband and father of six young children had just returned from a week’s duty at Creedmoor, and by all accounts had been in “bright and cheerful” spirits that day. Weir undressed, sat down in a nearby chair, and positioned the barrel of a .45 Springfield rifle directly over his heart. “Five minutes later,” the U.S. Army & Navy Journal reported, “the family below [was] startled” by the piercing sound of a single gunshot. “They rushed up[stairs] and found the captain groaning and gasping,” the report continued, “blood streaming from a wound in his breast.” Within a matter of minutes, he succumbed to the self-inflicted wound. He had used his right toe to pull the trigger.

In the days that followed, Fort Hamilton and the surrounding community contemplated the impetus for Weir’s decision to take his own life. The coroner’s jury determined Weir had suffered “a fit of mental aberration,” while the New York Times deemed Weir “temporarily deranged.” Some pointed to a severe case of bronchitis that had plagued Weir throughout much of 1885, and still others hypothesized that the “only cause that could be assigned for the rash deed was pecuniary,” citing his captain’s pay as insufficient to support a large family of eight. But Weir’s comrade Colonel John Hamilton believed simply that “there could be no other cause for his terrible deed than temporary insanity.” Gulian Verplanck Weir, Courtesy Hagley Library Digital Archives

Captain Gulian Verplanck Weir had been born and raised at West Point, the son of     the U.S. Military Academy’s Professor of Drawing and renowned artist, Robert Walter Weir. A graduate of West Point, Gulian enlisted in the 7th New York State Militia (a 30 days unit) only days after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. The unit was sent south to assist in the construction of some of the defenses of Washington, and, upon his muster out in June, Weir re-enlisted in the 5th U.S. Artillery as a 2nd lieutenant.  He earned brevets for conspicuous gallantry during the Peninsula Campaign and again at the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg.

By July 1863, Lieutenant Weir had assumed command of Battery C of the 5th U.S. Artillery.  On the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, he unlimbered his guns near the Emmittsburg Road, not far from the Codori Farm. After expending all the ammunition in his caissons against the onslaught of Richard H. Anderson’s rebel division, Weir’s battery “immediately limbered up,” hoping that the federal infantry regiments to his rear would be able to drive the Confederates back. But “the enemy was too close.” Battery C was trampled. Three of Weir’s six guns fell into Confederate hands. In his after action report, Gulian Weir emphasized the confusion of the moment, noting that his horse had been shot out from under him.  Upon rising from the ground, he was struck “with a spent ball, and everything seemed to be very much confused.” Amidst the chaos, Weir, acting on his own volition and without orders, dispatched the remainder of his battery to withdraw to the rear.

While he would serve with the 5th U.S. Artillery for the remainder of the war, eventually transferring to Battery L to fight throughout the Shenandoah Valley, the loss of his three guns at Gettysburg continued to vex and taunt Gulian V. Weir. Faced with repeated accusations of cowardice on the battlefield over the abandonment of the guns, Weir maintained a heated correspondence with his superiors, including II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock, after the war.  (Three of these angst- ridden letters are included in the Batchelder Papers). Though the artillery pieces were later recovered, Weir never forgave himself for the loss and could never overcome the charge of fear. Tortured for nearly two decades, it was an 1885 visit to the Gettysburg battlefield that sealed Weir’s fate. After touring the fields and once again walking in the footsteps of Battery C, Weir wrote that he had returned home a “broken man,” and that the memories of July 2 had come flooding back vividly.  Indeed, in the months prior to his death, his fellow officers found him “noticeably depressed,” as well as “moody” and “discouraged.” While Weir’s terse suicide note left no explicit indication of his reasoning for suicide, perhaps we do not need one. The horrific memories of Gettysburg had so remorselessly stalked Weir that one July evening, he was convinced that the only way to escape them was with a bullet.

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What Can We Learn from GAR Records?

Surprisingly, Civil War historians have made relatively little use of the records of the largest northern veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.  Until last year, when Barbara Gannon’s elegantly written and well argued book The Won Cause appeared, the only modern work of scholarship that made any sustained attempt to analyze the records generated by the organization was Stuart McConnell’s two decade-old Glorious Contentment.  Most students of the Civil War know nothing about Philadelphia’s Grand Army of the Republic Museum, housed in an unassuming two-hundred year old building in a residential neighborhood on the city’s northern fringe.  In the attic are piled seemingly endless rows of Hollinger boxes containing Grand Army records, minute books, black lists, and registers.  These sources are also scattered across the country – in local history rooms at public libraries, at state historical societies, and in public archives.  And they are, for the most part, neglected.  

But there are tantalizing pieces of information to be gleaned from these sources. Take, for instance, the black book of Webster, Massachusetts’s Nathaniel Lyon Post No. 61, now housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.  A quick scan of the book reveals the names of “hard case” veterans dismissed from the Grand Army for “disreputable character” or “alcoholism.” Grand Army post court martial records also reveal “misbehavior” and rules violations that help us get a sense of the troubled lives and experiences of Union veterans.

Financial records of individual posts are similarly telling.  Each post operated a “relief fund,” which functioned as social welfare for Union veterans and their families well into the twentieth century.  By using the extant account books, receipts, and ledgers of these relief funds, one can assemble an amazingly cogent picture of the depth and breadth of destitution and homelessness experienced by blue-coated veterans.  Relief fund ledgers report expenditures for medical procedures, artificial limbs, coal (for winter heating), clothing, and prescriptions.  In 1870 alone, a GAR post in the anthracite coal region of southwestern Pennsylvania expended $30,000 caring for indigent comrades; in Chicago that same year, several urban posts shelled out $27,000 to help veterans heat their homes.  When a fire ravaged Oskosh, Wisconsin, rendering scores of ex-soldiers homeless, the GAR stepped in to care for him who had borne the battle.

These are only a few examples of what we can learn from the enormous paper trail left by the post commanders of the Grand Army.  At first glance tedious minutiae and trivial procedure, the records of the Grand Army contain clues with infinite possibilities for re-writing the history of Union veteranhood.

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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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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.

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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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